Hurrah for Minne Wonka

I have a number of friends who dream of owning a bed-and-breakfast someday. I dream of owning a summer camp. My fantasy turned to longing when Martha Stewart featured Camp Wandawega in her June 2012 issue. David Hernandez and Tereasa Surratt bought a former summer camp property in Elkhorn, Wisconsin and relaunched it as a “camp-style” getaway for adults and families. That’s the life I want to live.

via Martha Stewart

The first camp I attended was Minne Wonka Lodge, a camp for girls in Three Lakes, Wisconsin. I attended for the last two years of the camp’s existence; the first year I was a Seneca assigned to the cabin Red Pine, in which my mother had been a camper some 30-plus years before. I found her name written on a windowsill overlooking the lake.

via Minne Wonka Lodge

I cherish and long for so many of the little details of MWL: brushing my teeth outside and spitting down the hill into the brush. Yelling “feet!” when entering the outhouse to determine which of the latch-free stalls was occupied. The opening-weekend initiation ceremony. Learning the meaning of the term “initiative”, and why it matters. The canvas sheets that served as shades and enclosure for the screen windows, which hung down below and were drawn up into place by ropes that fed through holes into the inside of the cabins. Being told I really needed to wear something besides my grimy preferred lavender sweatsuit and dressing myself in a striped seersucker shirt with red wool plaid pants to go practice building fires. The GoGos.

The official MWL uniform, worn on Sundays and for events, was a white polo and shorts with a red cardigan, emblazoned with a camel-colored “MWL” logo on the left side. One of the best things about MWL was the emphasis on small, triumphant achievements. Every activity – whether archery, canoeing, horseback riding, or camping skills – was broken out into incremental steps toward mastery with each step marked by a tiny felt shape that a camper would sew onto the back of their cardigan. An accomplished canoeist, for example, would end up with a canoe, a paddle, the MWL logo, and assorted other accessories. Archery achievements earned yarn tassles in the colors of the bullseye, with the innermost colors the highest achievements. Each year at camp earned a girl another “rank” to sew onto the sleeve; even good posture could earn a camper arrows and pine trees from the secret weekly “Posture Bird”. A camper could wait and accumulate her awards and let Mom sew them on, but I don’t know anyone who didn’t figure out how to sew themselves so they could fill up their sweater weekly with their newest accomplishments. Veteran campers’ sweaters were festooned with awards, often dangling like paillettes from one small point of stitching. A camper could earn awards by mastering the simplest of skills, and there was no end to what a camper could accomplish – isn’t that the essence of living well? I truly hope my mother has my MWL sweater somewhere.

When I joined Facebook a few years ago, one of the first things I did was set up an MWL ‘group’ to see which other nostalgic campers were out there. The group now has 155 members, many of them my mother’s age who attended camp in the 1940s and 50s, and all who loved MWL. I’ve friended my first camp counselor and connected with a number of former campers I knew, and some I didn’t but now can call friends. Last week I heard through the group that the old camp boathouse had burned down after an explosion. As sad as I am about the loss of such an exquisite structure, I am so grateful to know that the current owner of the main camp property, as well as others who bought parcels when the camp was sold, treasure the place and the history almost as much as we MWL girls do.

When MWL closed I was sent to another Wisconsin girls’ camp that shall remain nameless. Everything was freshly painted white, the cabins had actual glass windows and real doors, the campers wore Esprit logo shirts and Guess? jeans. After one night at that prissy, snobby, pretentious joke of a camp I began counting the days until I could go home. If it weren’t for the amusement of watching two female counselors vie for the attention of the one (heavily overweight and charmless) male swim counselor I would have died of boredom and lack of dirt.

I find it nothing short of tragic that fewer and fewer parents are sending their kids to summer camp anymore, especially if they have the means to do so. I learned some of the most important lessons in friendship, independence, confidence, and courage in my years at camp, as part of a community of peers drawn together by mutually-held camp values and shared adventures. It’s a different kind of family, and who doesn’t need all the family they can get? My oldest son is nearing the age where he’ll be ready to go to summer camp, and I am hoping to send him to another amazing camp I attended, Cheley, which is equally extraordinary in its own unique ways. But I will always be an MWL girl.

MWL Salisbury Steak Meatballs

Recently I was scrambling to put together dinner on my way home from work, and settled on something intended as Swedish meatballs that ended up bearing an uncanny resemblance to the salisbury steak that was served weekly at MWL alongside broccoli with cheese sauce (I can still hear my counselor Becky singing “broccoli with cheese sauce!”) in my head. I had never had salisbury steak or broccoli with cheese sauce until I went to MWL, but have never quite forgotten them since.

1 pkg frozen turkey meatballs
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 pkg onion soup mix
1 c. water

Put soup, water, and soup mix into a skillet and mix well. Add meatballs and cook, covered, on low for 20 minutes or until meatballs are cooked through. Serve over egg noodles, with a side of broccoli with cheese sauce!

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8 Responses to Hurrah for Minne Wonka

  1. Kendra McConnell Hurd says:

    Wonderful narrative encompassing the beautiful MWL experience! So eloquently written. Thank you!

  2. Lisa Rosen says:

    After a lovely weekend with my out of town sisters visiting and reminiscing about the Posture Bird, singing “Rise up O Flame” and other MWL treasures, it feels serendipitous to read your wonderful piece which makes the wonderful days in Three Lakes almost palpable. Thank you!

  3. Heather Fox says:

    How do you rmember so much? I shaved my legs for the first time at MWL!

  4. Polly Hudak Magrini says:

    You just took me back to my favorite place on earth. More cinnamon toast, please!!

  5. Liz Thebeau Landon says:

    I was a devoted MWL girl for 8 wonderful summers. My daughter now goes to Clearwater Camp for Girls which is close, very close to the MWL magic. The trick to remembering so much is to remember! I have this odd habit of trying to recreate every detail of a camp day whenever I’m stuck on a tarmac or in the audience of a bad performance, etc. Nothing passes the time more happily for me – from the morning bell to taps. See how much you can piece together.

  6. BJ Mason (now Betty Wells) says:

    Just found MWL Breeze site and have contacted 8 campers from the mid 50’s. What was your mother’s name? I was there from ’55-’62…the best summers and memories. Your writing the smallest details are amazing…wouldn’t have thought of glass windows! Soap scrub swim..”feet”..forgot about that! You are awesome! I have heard from 2 of the 8 I sent e-mails. Only have 2 yearbooks..lost sweater (FILLED with awards and I sewed them on…) and scrapbooks in my parent’s basement flood. I am more devastated today than ever! Thank you for your memories! BJ Mason

  7. Sarah Atherton says:

    Hi — could I ask you a huge favor to get in touch with me and explain, if you know, what “The Deerskin” was? I am scanning a photo album of my father’s from his two years as a guide at Minne Wonka during 1930-31. Several pages have no labeling except the cryptic “All aboard for the Deerskin 1931!” and I would love to be able to at least give an explanation of what it is…work at Minne Wonka helped put him through college during the Great Depression and he really loved it there. Was life-long friends with the Lyons after his sojourn at the camp.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Hi Sarah – I asked some members of a Facebook MWL group and was told there was traditionally a canoe trip down the Deerskin River in Eagle River. “The Deerskin trip was one of the high points of my life! Great group, great trip and the pool just past the culvert was heavenly to swim and have lunch. Thanks for bringing it up.”

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