Established in 1901, YMCA Camp Abnaki has a proud history of service to youth, and is the nation’s oldest YMCA all boy’s camp.
YMCA Camp Abnaki has a humble beginning: in July of 1901, Byron Clark and a small group of boys went camping on the shores of Lake Champlain on Cedar Beach in Charlotte, Vermont. Mr. Clark was active in the local YMCA, and was looking for opportunities for local boys to have meaningful spiritual experiences in nature. These summer days, filled with cooking, swimming, fishing, and other activities, were the first days of what has become Vermont’s YMCA boy’s camp. For the next 15 summers, Camp Abnaki would move several times (including stops in New Hampshire and New York) and have several different names (including Camp Stay-A-While, Camp Robinson, Camp Iroquois, and Camp Manuel). Camp Abnaki was officially adopted as the camp moniker in 1909, in honor of Vermont’s tercentenary. Mr. Clark, the camp director, came to be known as “Dad” to his campers. To this day, he is known as Dad Clark to campers and staff. It was Dad Clark who selected “Help the Other Fellow” as camp’s motto.
In 1915, the current location of camp was purchased from Thomas Watson (famously Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant), thanks to the efforts of Dad Clark and William Van Patten. Camp Abnaki’s first summer on the new property was 1916. There were very few buildings on camp that first summer. As in previous years, campers slept in tents. The Long House, which had been purchased from the Rutland Railroad Company and relocated to the new property, served as camp’s dining hall.
Over the next decade, improvements were made to the facility, including the construction of the Great Stone Seat, which serves as a monument to the young men from Camp Abnaki who had served in World War I.
In 1926, a major construction project added cabins for campers and staff, an infirmary, and the Administration Building. Dad Clark oversaw all of these projects, and worked to see Camp Abnaki continue to grow–even as his health began to fail him.
In 1929, Dad Clark died from a goiter. He was laid to rest in the camp chapel, where his epitaph reads “Here he lies where he longed to be.” As the camp founder and director, Dad worked for 29 years–the longest tenure of any Camp Abnaki Director.
Camp was guided by several men in the years following Dad Clark’s passing. Most notable amongst these was Clyde “Chief” Hess, who served as director for 16 years. In 1951, all of camp’s cabins were painted gold in honor of camp’s 50th anniversary.
In 1960, Norm Van Gulden took over as the camp director. Along with his wife Nancy, “Van” oversaw the next major building projects: the addition of two new villages (Madewehsoos and Chippewadchu) and the construction of a new dining hall (built in 1971). Van was known for his kind an generous spirit.
Van served as the camp director until 1987. Before he retired, he worked to prepare camp for the next phase of it’s growth: the Vermont State YMCA, which had owned and operated camp, sold the facility and program to the Greater Burlington YMCA. The Greater Burlington Y had more resources available with which to support camp operations.
In 1990 Dave DeLuca was hired to be camp’s director. While it was his first camp director job, Dave had been involved in Y camping since his youth. During Dave’s tenure, the program was overhauled, and small facility upgrades begun.
After 5 years, Dave was afforded the opportunity to direct Camp Becket YMCA in the Berkshires–the camp he’d worked for previously. Dave is now Estes Park Director at the YMCA of the Rockies. He was replaced by Nelson Bagnardi, who, during his three years as director, invested heavily in facility upgrades–including renovations of the Long House, cabins, and installation of new basketball and tennis courts. Nelson currently works as the Executive Director at YMCA Trout Lodge & YMCA Camp Lakewood in Missouri.
These improvements were continued by Frank Gerdeman and Adam Brooks as camp approached it’s 100th anniversary. Adam oversaw the planning for camp’s centennial celebration, and alumni weekend hosted during summer 2001. The centennial anniversary also saw July 10th, 2001, declared “Camp Abnaki Day” in Vermont by the state legislature. Each camp director brought his own style and priorities to the experience, and each director worked to push Camp Abnaki to improve the experiences of the boys who attended.
In 2003, Jon Kuypers became Camp Abnaki’s 14th director. Now in his 16th year, Jon is camp’s 4th longest serving director, only behind Dad Clark (29 years), Norm Van Gulden (27 years), and Clyde Hess (16 years). Jon’s tenure has been marked by steady increases in camper enrollment and investment in camp’s waterfront, including a rebuilt skipper shack, new retaining wall, and new equipment. Jon also started camp’s day camp program in summer 2009.
YMCA Camp Abnaki is now entering it’s 118th summer as a boy’s camp. From that humble start on Cedar Beach with a handful of campers and adults, to today with over 800 campers and 72 staff, Camp Abnaki has provided a positive, character-building experience for tens of thousands of boys.
Directors of YMCA Camp Abnaki
- 1901-1929: Byron “Dad” Clark
- 1929-1931 : Walter McGovern
- 1932-1935 : George Merriam
- 1936-1943: Al Morrill
- 1944-1959: Clyde “Chief” Hess
- 1960-1986: Norm Van Gulden
- 1987-1988: John Kiewet
- 1989: Mike Soules
- 1990-1994: Dave DeLuca
- 1995-1997: Nelson Bagnardi
- 1998-1999: Frank Gerdeman
- 2000-2002: Adam Brooks
- 2002: C.J. Aldrich, III
- 2003-Today: Jon Kuypers