Last spring, we were contacted by Phil Cottell, who was a Deerhorn camper from 1957-1961. Here, he shares about his fondest childhood memory, his time at Deerhorn. Thanks so much to Phil for sharing these memories with us!
When I consider this question, my mind immediately goes to the summers I spent at Camp Deerhorn. In 1957, my grandmother offered to send me to Camp Deerhorn for the summer. My mother agreed and I was sent on a wondrous adventure of my youth. It is a bit hard to believe today, but in those days a session of camp lasted eight weeks. One could go only a half (4-week) session, but I went to full sessions for five years.
Nearly every camper at Camp Deerhorn was transported via a chartered train. This train departed from Chicago, Illinois. The train was a sleeper, that is, sleeping berths were pulled down to covert the seats into beds in the evening.
Now I am sure that those reading this are imagining boys behaving in a gentlemanly and proper manner during this trip. Actually, this was not the case. As soon as the berths were pulled down and our supervisors had retired, an arena opened for the largest water fight I have ever seen. The goal was to ensure everyone was totally soaked and unable to sleep.
Of course, the first-year camper was totally unaware of this ritual and therefore arrived at the train unarmed with either offensive or defensive weapons for a water fight. The seasoned camper came armed to the teeth. Now, the common water pistol would be the weapon of choice of a complete weenie. I chose instead a plastic bottle designed to dispense ketchup. For defense, a poncho proved useful in repelling water assaults.
Once we arrived at Starks, Wisconsin, we got off the train with our possessions. All that a camper would have for the eight weeks was contained in a steamer trunk, which was transported on the same train as the campers. I am not sure how these trunks made it to the camp, but we were transported via a vehicle we called the cattle car. This was an open truck that we climbed onto using the rails that surrounded the bed. There were fold down benches on either side, but they did not have the capacity to hold all the campers. So, the remainder of the riders made the trip standing. I can remember holding on for dear life as the truck sped down the highway. These cattle cars were the standard mode of transportation whenever campers were taken to and from camp for various reasons. Seat belts were unheard of in those days. Yet, in the five years I was at Camp Deerhorn, no one sustained an injury from riding in the cattle cars.
When we arrived at Camp Deerhorn we were assigned to our koogees. These structures were rustic log cabins, bereft of any utilities. Lighting was provided by flashlights owned by the campers. The bathroom was in a central structure nestled among all the koogees where we showered, brushed our teeth, and relieved ourselves. The koogee had screened windows which could be closed by lifting a panel that had been made by hammering boards together. There was no glass. The camper’s possessions were kept in his steamer trunk at the foot of his bed and on shelves built by the camper out of scrap lumber and hammered into the walls of the koogee. Of course, a camper who had a cot in a corner had much more wall space on which to fasten these shelves, a fact also unknown to the first year camper. This caused a mad dash by returning campers when the koogee was assigned since cots were allotted on a first come/first served basis.
There were fifteen koogees at the camp. Most housed seven to eight campers plus a counselor. The campers were assigned based on their age. The counselors were college students, but to us they seemed like gods. One of the great aspirations I had at Camp Deerhorn was to become a camp counselor. I never achieved that goal.
The owner of the camp was a man we called Dr. Don. He was a dentist from Grosse Pointe, Michigan. He directed the camp during my first year. In the second, and subsequent years, much of the hands on work was turned over to his son, Don Broadbridge Jr. The head counselor was a man named Milt. Even after Dr. Don’s son came on board, Dr. Don still wielded considerable sway at the camp and among the campers. This was exhibited in the official Camp Deerhorn song.
(Sung to the tune of Jesus Loves Me)
Doctor loves us, this we know
Uncle Milty tells us so
He is right and we are wrong
That’s the way to sing this song
Yes the doctor loves us
Yes the doctor loves us
Yes the doctor loves us
Uncle Milty tells us so
I still remember the numbers of my koogees and the names of four of my counselors. During my first summer, I was in koogee 12. I do not remember the name of the counselor or much about him. That year I made friends that returned to camp year after year along with me.
In 1958, I was assigned to koogee 7. The counselor’s name was Dave and we all adored him. He was the horseback riding instructor and our koogee smelled of horse all the time. I still love that smell. Dave would talk to us for hours and let us talk to him. In the middle of the summer, I got into a scary stampede during a riding lesson. Dave made me get back on a horse a couple of days later. It was the therapy I needed. I enjoyed horseback riding for the remainder of my Camp Deerhorn years. 1958 was my second-best summer at Camp Deerhorn.
I was quite disappointed when Dave did not return for my third year. I was assigned to what was the smallest koogee at the camp, number 5. There were only four campers in that koogee. I did not care for the counselor much. He was a bit aloof. On the positive side, the best friend I had at Camp Deerhorn, Rusty Barton, was in koogee 5 with me.
The best summer I spent at Camp Deerhorn was 1960. I was in koogee 2, which was filled with good friends and we had a fabulous counselor named Pat. Like Dave, Pat was a good mentor and teacher. He was a bit more fun in a mischievous way than Dave had been. Pat was on the Power Walking Team at the University of Michigan. He told us he could walk faster than we could run. We laughed at him and he challenged us to a race. All eight of us lined up to race him and he left us choking in his dust.
One day, Pat announced to us that he was going to sneak us out of the camp to obtain contraband. As a backdrop, it was strictly forbidden to have snacks, candy, or drinks in the koogees. Pat told us he was going to take us to an A&W Root Beer stand where we could get root beer to take back to camp. He solemnly warned us not to tell Dr. Don, about this serious breach of the rules. Once the sun was set, we snuck into the camp car and drove to the A&W Root Beer stand. I bought a gallon jug of root beer. Back at camp, I still couldn’t keep root beer in the koogee. So I buried it in the woods. I went back a couple of times to get a drink, but soon it was too nasty even for me. That jug is probably still buried in the spot where I left it. In retrospect, I realize Dr. Don was completely aware of this adventure.
As I look back, I recognize that Camp Deerhorn was the most structured and supervised environment in which I ever lived, including Kentucky Military Institute. Nonetheless, I loved the place. It provided boundaries in which I could really enjoy myself. It was a bit like college in that we had a class schedule at which attendance was required. The classes were swimming, sailing, canoeing, fencing, arts & crafts, riflery, archery, horseback riding, and tennis. Swimming class was six days a week and the rest of the classes were given on alternating days three days a week.
Here is what a typical non-Sunday day looked like at Camp Deerhorn. We were awakened by the ringing of a huge bell that hung outside the camp lodge. There was no sleeping in—we got right up and made our beds and swept the koogee. When you consider who occupied them, it is amazing how immaculate those koogees were kept. After the koogees were clean, we went to the central bath house where we brushed our teeth. About the time we finished these activities the bell rang again announcing it was time for breakfast at the lodge.
I remember the food at Deerhorn being good but I only remember three specific food items. For breakfast they would sometimes bring out huge platters stacked with pancakes. These were the best pancakes I ever ate. (Well perhaps not as good as Skipper’s Pancakes). Another breakfast I loved was corn fritters. We would smother these with butter and maple syrup. Mmm, mmm, good—I would like to make these, but I cannot afford the calories. The third food item was ice cream for dessert at lunch and dinner. We were told this ice cream was so good because Wisconsin is the dairy state and I believed it.
After breakfast, the bell, which governed all changes of activity at the camp, was rung again. This signaled the beginning of classes and the subsequent changes of classes. We had three classes in the morning, followed by lunch, followed by two classes in the afternoon. We had “free time” in the late afternoon in which we could choose a free swim, walking in the woods, tennis, or team sports. Some campers availed themselves of the water skiing that was offered, but I never had the nerve. One option not included was going back to the koogee. After free time, the bell announced dinner. Then we had various planned evening activities. When these concluded, we were given a snack of one (no more) graham cracker and a cup of milk served in one of those cups shaped like a cone that existed back then.
After lunch, we were afforded the opportunity to purchase candy bars out of the allowances our parents had established for us. We thought it so clever and funny to order male Hershey bars (with nuts) and female Hershey bars (without nuts). We could also purchase pencils, stationery, and post cards. One letter home per week was required of every camper.
Bed time was as the sun was setting on most days. Remember, we had no lights in the koogees. Nights in northern Wisconsin could be quite cold and raising the panel to cover the screened window provided scant relief. There were many nights at Camp Deerhorn when I slept under four wool blankets.
The Sunday schedule was different. Sunday afternoon was more “free time” for most. However, some campers were designated to go to nearby Rhineland to get haircuts. Everyone loved to go get a haircut because while there we were allow to shop. The most desired commodity was hunting knives. Campers would purchase knives with blades from 3 to 6 inches long. No one had a problem with this. Can you imagine kids that age running around carrying knives like that today?
During one Sunday free time, a friend and I were walking in the woods and discovered a fort someone in a prior year had built by digging a hole and covering it with logs. We claimed it as our own and delighted in having our own secret place to go to. If the truth be known, it was actually quite uncomfortable sitting in an underground dirt hole. We quickly abandoned the practice.
The only relief we had from Camp Deerhorn’s structured schedule was rainy days. On those days, classes could not be held and we were allowed to return to the koogees. There we read comic books, played cards, talked and laughed. I distinctly remember the sound of the rain hitting the tin roof of the koogee.
My favorite classes at Camp Deerhorn were fencing, riflery, horseback riding, and sailing. I think I liked fencing so much because I had been fascinated with swords as a little kid and here I was actually taught to use one. There are three kinds of swords used in fencing, the epee, the saber, and the foil. We learned about all three but only used the foil in our fencing class. One day, the counselor, a varsity fencer at a big ten school, announced that he could beat the entire class simultaneously in a fencing match. When we took him up on it, he ran up a set of steps in the lodge that led to a balcony. There he could engage us one at a time and thus gain victory over all of us.
In horseback riding, we were taught the rudiments of riding using English saddle. Then, for most of the rest of the summer, we would go trail riding, which I loved. I mentioned earlier that one day the horses got spooked on the trail and stampeded back to the barn. It was a scary experience.
In the background of the classes were the camper teams. Each camper was assigned to a team. In my first year, there were two teams, the Wolverines and the Spartans (Dr. Don was from Michigan). When his son, Don, took over operations, one of his major reforms was to have four teams—the Apaches, the Chippewas, the Iroquois, and the Navajos. These teams competed for best in camp based on a point system tied to the classes and other activities.
Each of the classes had levels of achievement, kind of like tests in college. A camper who attained each level would be assigned a star—silver star for the lowest level, red star for the next and blue star for the highest. In turn, the camper’s team received increasing numbers of points for the stars. These stars were pasted on poster board charts that hung in the lodge.
In retrospect, this was a brilliant system. Campers received peer pressure to attain these skill levels in the classes. Parents would be pleased when their son returned home proficient in skills like swimming or tennis and were more likely to send the son back knowing he was doing something productive and not just sitting around reading comic books (comparable to playing video games today).
Teams earned points for other things as well. There were baseball games, basketball games, tennis matches, swim meets, and the like. The whole system kept a culture of healthy competition ongoing at the camp.
Some of my fondest memories arise from the special activities we had above and beyond classes. On some evenings, the camp would have a campfire. This occurred on a cliff near the lake. This afforded beautiful views as the sun set. We would toast marshmallows. But, the most memorable aspect of the campfires was the ghost stories. These were told mostly by a counselor named Duke Kerns. Duke was very dramatic and could unfold a story like no one else. He made some of these tales quite frightening. One in particular that I remember was “The Monkey’s Paw.”
A couple of nights each summer we would have a huge Capture the Flag game. Two of the above mentioned teams would play against the other two teams. The one hundred acres of Camp Deerhorn would be divided in half for the game. Both sides would design elaborate strategies for attacking the other team while defending their own flag. There is one funny facet of these matches. The Northwoods has huge mosquitoes that come out at night. In Capture the Flag, the defense involves a lot of sitting around. So to entertain ourselves we would permit these mosquitoes to land on our arms and insert their beaks. Then we would clinch our fists which prohibited the insect from withdrawing the beak. Once they were gorged with blood we would mash them to see how much blood we could splatter. This caused uproarious laughter. However, we suffered from the ghoulish game the following day.
Another fun evening activity that I enjoyed occurred about four times a summer. Dr. Don’s sister owned a girl’s camp in the area that was named Bryn Afon. My grandmother’s adopted daughter, Rosita, attended this camp. We would load up the cattle cars and drive to Bryn Afon. There we would indulge in light snacks and watch a movie that was projected onto a bedsheet that was hung in the Bryn Afon lounge. On at least one of those trips each summer, Bryn Afon would hold a dance.
One summer Camp Deerhorn arranged a baseball game against another boy’s camp in the area. I do not remember the name of this camp. What I do remember is their cabins had electric lights. We were quite disdainful of this fact and opined that they must be a bunch of wimps to have lights in their cabins. They trounced us in the baseball game.
The final feature of camp life that I would like to discuss is the various off-site expeditions that we were offered. Four in particular that I recollect were the Lake Superior trip, the houseboat trip, the horseback riding trip, and the canoe trips. Campers went on these excursions in small groups chosen by the counselors. For the horseback riding trip and the canoe trips the criteria was skill level. I am not sure what the criteria was for the other two trips.
The Lake Superior trip consisted of a ride in the cattle car to a remote beach on Lake Superior. In those days Lake Superior was so pristine that one could drink the water directly from the lake. I remember sleeping on the beach under the stars and delighting in the beauty of the night sky.
The houseboat was owned by Camp Bryn Afon and Dr. Don’s sister made it available for our use. The boat was a diesel-powered craft with a fake paddle wheel in the aft. It had a cabin furnished with beds. The boat would depart in the morning and sail until evening when it anchored and we spent the night.
The horseback riding trip was the most coveted of all the excursions. Proficiency in riding was the criteria counselors used to pick participants. I only went on one horseback riding trip in my five years at camp. The campers would ride on trails through the woods and across fields until they reached a camp site. There they would spend the night and ride back the following day. I can still recall how sore my muscles were from riding a horse for that extended amount of time.
The canoe trips were by far my favorite outlets. Several of these trips occurred each summer. They had varying degrees of difficulty with respect to rapids and portage. Camp Deerhorn’s canoes were made of either wood or aluminum and were quite heavy by today’s standards. Particularly on the most advanced trip, the rapids were quite thrilling. Nevertheless, for me the most memorable part was the timeless beauty of canoeing along those beautiful northern waterways. On one occasion we were on a body of water of one or two acres that was literally covered by water lilies that were blooming yellow and white. We were strictly cautioned not to pick those flowers. I always remember the feel of the bow of that canoe parting the leaves of those exquisite water lilies.
As I look back, I realize that I never experienced a stable family life like my kids and grandkids did. Camp Deerhorn was an escape and a refuge from the toxic environment in which I grew up during those preteen and early teenage years. Camp Deerhorn also prepared me for the next step of life. Unlike most of my peers entering Kentucky Military Institute, I already possessed the relationship skills necessary to navigate an environment that consisted of living among boys rather than my family. I will forever be grateful for my summers at Camp Deerhorn.