The Camp's Roots: The Ogontz School for Girls
According to the history published by the Penn State Abington archives, the roots of the Ogontz White Mountain Camp stretch as far back as 1850 when the Chestnut Street Female Seminary opened its doors in Philadelphia. With enrollment steadily increasing soon after the school's founding, the school was forced to find a new home that could accomodate the larger student population. Jay Cooke, of Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, had a forty acre estate that was just what the school required. Cooke, a banker who had helped finance the Union during the Civil War, had been suffering financially. So, in order to rebuild his capital, he leased his large mansion to the Chestnut Street School. Cooke's mansion was named Ogontz after a Sandusky Indian called Chief Ogontz. Chief Ogontz, according to the PSU history, taught Cooke wilderness skills as a boy and Cooke admired him greatly. Thus, upon the move, the Chestnut Street Female Seminary became the Ogontz School for Girls.
Abby Sutherland became principal of the Ogontz School in 1912 and moved the school to Rydal, PA (part of the Abington Township). Sutherland's purposes in moving the school from Elkin's Park to Rydal were expansion and modernization. At the same time Sutherland probably had no choice but to move, as the Cooke descendents were selling the original Ogontz estate to the Wideners. Soon later, Sutherland, with some assistance from her future husband William "Billy" Brown (a cowboy), began a summer camp in northern New Hampshire. This camp would go on to function as a sort of "summer extension" of the program being taught in Pennsylvania.
The two projects eventually got lives of their own, the Ogontz School would eventually add a junior college to its offerings (in addition to its high school and elementary school), and the Ogontz Camp would begin to function as an elite summer camp of its own in 1923. The two would share a close, but not exclusive relationship through the 1950s and into the early 1960s. The Ogontz School would eventually go on to be absorbed into the Penn State University system. While it is today known as Penn State Abington, the students there still continue to recognize a "Chief Ogontz" annually with a faculty/staff award.
(Thank you to Theresa Smith, historian and archivist for the Ogontz School at Penn State Abington, for correcting the above information).
The Early Years: From School Camp to National Camp
Stretched out across 300 plus acres of land surrounding its small lake, the newly built Ogontz White Mountain Camp for Girls opened in 1923. At the time of its opening, it featured just about 20 open sided cabins, several log cabins and good sized lodges, clay tennis courts, a dining facility with large kitchen, swim house, boat house, and recreation hall. The camp was run very strictly and properly by Miss Sutherland and her family for several decades. A day for a typical Ogontz girl would be filled with arts, music, and prayer as well as an assortment of recreational activities. Social events were scheduled for the evenings and ranged from poetry readings to talent shows to an occasional dance in the Dining Hall with one of the neighboring boys camps.
With the seemingly high success of the camp and the high enrollments from the eastern United States' collection of "priviledged" girls, the camp expanded almost every year. Within the next twenty-five years, the number of open sided cabins would more than doubled, more recreational and meeting facilities were built and "state of the art" latrines and plumbing fixtures were installed. By the time of her death in 1961, Miss Sutherland bequeathed a very successful Camp Ogontz to her nephew, Dr. Donald Sutherland, a faculty member at the University of Colorado. At the close of the 1965 season, Donald Sutherland decided to sell the family camp to Ogontz's long-time staff member and camp director, Bette Huber (Miss Bette). All evidence pointed to the continued and long term success of Ogontz. Click the above image or here for an aerial view of camp in 1965.
Mid Life Crisis: The Decline of the Girls Camp
For the first decade or so of Miss Bette's ownership of Ogontz, things seemed to remain much of the same. Indeed, the camp population at first remained steady, revenues continued to flow in and Ogontz was still a popular summer destination. (Ogontz even at one point had its own rail car at the beginning of each summer that would start in Washington, move through Pennsylvania and New York, come through New England and then onto the White Mountains to drop the campers off at the nearby Sugar Hill Station). But, dramatic changes were on the horizon.
The decline in the popularity in summer camps may have had something to do with it, but the population at Ogontz began to shrink during the middle and late 1960's. In the 1970’s Miss Bette changed the emphasis of the camp to equestrian. She built the winter barn with an indoor rink, and hoped to have courses for equestrian teachers during the whole year. Meanwhile, in 1967, George Kent, organist and choir master of Christ Episcopal Church in Westerly, RI needed a new camp in which to hold the church's annual week long Choir Camp. Christ Church Choir Member Anne Utter found Ogontz and was immediately impressed by its beauty. George's wife Lynn then investigated and arranged with Miss Bette for Christ Church Choir Camp to be held during the last week of the summer after the regular camp was finished. In exchange for the week, the choir would then help her close up the camp for the winter. Miss Bette was always interested in music and she was glad to have this music camp.
Rebirth of a Camp: "Cantum Laudemus"
By the mid-1980s, there was little or no evidence that the regular summer-long girls camps had even existed only a few years before. The era of Ogontz being a summer camp for girls had ended. The camp, with no full summer camp in session and void of a regular staff, began to fall apart. Ogontz's buildings were badly in need of repair, and nature had begun taking its toll on the 60-year old camp. The lack of maintenance finally hit home in the winter of 1986. With little or no funds left to take care of her camp, Miss Bette's largest camp facility, the Senior Recreational Hall (also known as the Senior Playhouse or the Pavillion), desperately needed roof and interior repair. It sat mostly untouched for over a year because it was a hazard even to walk into this once mighty building. Instead of repair, Miss Bette decided to level the building by burning it to the ground during the winter months. This was as low as Ogontz would sink.
Ever since the formal end of the regular summer camps, the Christ Church Choir and its leaders had begun taking a much more active role in the camp beyond just a week of the year. Volunteer work weekends had been created with members from both the choir and their sister organization, the Chorus of Westerly attending. Choir Camp continued and then in 1990, the Chorus of Westerly, under the direction of the Kents, arranged a second camp week at Ogontz, a choral symposium with reknowned British choral director and musical editor, Sir David Willcocks. This Choral Symposium attracted people from all over the North American continent. Additionally, a third musical organization began calling Ogontz its home on Labor Day Weekend. The NEC Suzuki String Workshop, under the direction of Susan Kent Reed, began holding their annual musicial camp at Ogontz. These programs were set up so that the proceeds from them could be allocated to the repair and refurbishing of the camp.
By 1993, it was clear that Miss Bette was no longer able to care for the camp. It was rumored for many years that the pristine location of Ogontz was to be sold to land developers, but, after careful negotiation, George and Lynn Kent purchased all of Ogontz. Today, both George and Lynn Kent continue to run Ogontz, along with their small, but dedicated staff and with the help of countless volunteers. Ogontz is now filled with guests almost everyday from Memorial Day through Labor Day. The camp hosts over ten different organizations and groups in various camp's and retreats (ranging from choral singing to horn camps to dance camps) throughout the summer months.