Camp Vega at 80: A reflection on a letter by Vega’s founder

By guest blogger and long time staff member, Shannon Thurston

Alll-camp picture from Vega's first summer in 1936. Vega's Founder, Ruth Cohen, is seated in the center.

The all-camp picture from Vega’s first summer in 1936. Vega’s Founder, Ruth Cohen, is seated in the center.

It didn’t seem like a letter I’d opened in a PDF file. The moment I began reading the bouncing words of Ruth Cohen, founder of Camp Vega, I was no longer at my desk, but in a screened in porch, alongside a lake in the middle of Maine with a cup of tea and an old friend. The blocky, typewriter print fed me a spoonful of nostalgia for a time I had never experienced. Her humor, strung together with the most elegant choice of words made it impossible for me not to imagine this woman as a maternal force to be reckoned with. Her letter entitled, “So You Want to Run A Camp, or, How I Got Into and Out of Trouble in No Easy Steps” is an inspiring read filled with the ups and downs of camp life. Not just any camp life, however, but the infant and toddler years of camp life. Though eighty years have passed, and the world has changed tremendously, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities bridging the Camp Vega of today with Camp Vega of yesteryear.

In 1934, Ruth Cohen, a social worker at the time, set out on a remarkable and extremely ambitious journey to begin a new career in private camping. Summer camps, though in existence at the time, were still new, still growing and still finding ways to aid in the efforts of specific religions, races and other social groups. Her drive to find a successful career in camping was the “o​nly idea that wasn’t utterly wild and wooly” ​after the search to become family financier was imminent due to a serious turn of health regarding her husband. After a year co­directing a private camp in New Hampshire, having no previous experience, Ruth was confident in the fact that she had to be crazy.

“There were enough left in me of the trauma of my childhood and adolescence, when I had been the despairing youngest member of a highly literate, super­charged family, to cause that list of beginning gambles to seem unending…In continuing trepidation I set out. I had nothing to lose but what self­confidence I had accumulated in and since college, plus all of our small capital and the equally small sum we had borrowed.”

Guts. It is a refreshing thing to know that a woman on a flotation device of humility, bobbing about in a sea of self­doubt still managed to set forward. We must also be reminded that this was a time when America was deep into the Great Depression. Financial investments were carried out with extreme caution; not to mentioned carried out with extreme caution by a woman. It comes as no surprise that the traits of Vega’s founding mother are mirrored in her campers and counselors today. Strong, intelligent, forward thinking women begin as girls and finish their journey as leaders Vega is proud to send into the world. Though her doubts were many, if she were to start a camp she would need land and a name.

“There must first be an entity existing on the good earth, and a name for it. The locale was to be Maine, with its heaven­sent combination of lakes, rivers, sea coasts, forest, hills, and mountains.”

There are camps built and stationed all over rural and urban America. Camping has become a true American tradition. There are other camps spattered here and there throughout the world but none like in the states, and none like in the state of Maine. Every year campers and staff
alike return to Vega because of the beauty of Maine. Naming the camp was equally as important as finding the right location. Weeks were spent pouring over Maine’s native tribes, folklore, mythology and most of the thesaurus. Ruth finally decided on Vega, “c​hosen for its brevity, and the undoubted fact that it is the brightest star in the summer sky.” ​She was also well aware that starting a camp in Maine meant addressing its economic state in the midst of the Great Depression.

“W​e must all be conscious of the poverty of Maine’s people, our neighbors, and give a portion of these two months, however small, toward helping.”

Ruth was fully aware the impact the Great Depression was having on rural Americans. Mainers were strong in farming and agriculture but the need for jobs had sent young men away from their fathers farms, causing lack of workers and severe hardship. Vega’s helping hands made quite an outreach in the early days of the camp. Senior campers would help the local communities by painting churches or school houses while the junior campers built pens and housed orphaned deer who had been picked up by state game keepers. Not only did the campers enjoy the benefits of preparing the food and bottle feeding the deer, they were privileged with watching them grow and, when time, released back into the wild. Ruth knew her campers, coming from “w​ell­to­do families,” would benefit from understanding the world through all perspectives, and helping a community that welcomed them every summer seemed the right educational tool. Ruth also hired local farmers to help with maintenance, some who would stay with the camp for years after.

Every camp has its list of trials, tribulations, and lessons learned through trial and error. Ruth Cohen was no exception. Her stories span two pages of her typed letter and each more amusing than the next. Her ability to lighten the heart of any hardship is impeccable. The list begins with her decision to take ten boys as campers in their first summer open. ​“I had a couple of surprises coming: the ten [boys] could make far more noise and preempt far more attention than could the 40 girls!” C​amp Vega remains an all girls camp to this day. Her lists are endless. From legal matters regarding camper health, to homesickness to the max, to driving around the lake multiple times to sway a disgruntled cook from quitting mid summer, Ruth was certainly a pioneer in making Camp Vega what it is today.

When it came time to sell the camp, when Ruth knew retirement and a new marriage were in her future, she did so with a great heaviness as she said it felt, “l​ike placing my third child for adoption.” It was a financial matter, but it was also a very emotional matter as well, knowing there would come a time when she would visit and her face would no longer be recognized. After careful deliberation, and eighteen years as captain, she signed the camp over to a kind couple she had known from her social work years. Matt and Mary Penn would continue to mold Vega until 1975 when Dick and Linda Courtiss would take the reigns. Eighty years later and a second generation of Courtiss’ stands at the helm. Kyle and Emily Courtiss continue Ruth’s vision on a daily basis as they work through the year to engage and meet new campers around the world. Did Ruth know that eighty years from the start that her legacy would live on and be
hailed as one of the top girls camps in the country? One would hope that, through all of her doubts, she knew she was creating something great.

“Indeed, on a bright Maine day, with the infirmary empty of serious concerns, the sense of my huge family, busy and content in the cool sun and shade of the grounds, or on the blue, pine­fringed lake, could produce in me a euphoria that was in large part sheer thankfulness.”