Camp Traditions

Country Night

Country Night is a long-standing custom of Camp Winnataska dating back to the 1940s when it was held on Saturday night mimicking the weekend celebrations of rural Southerners. Now held on Thursday nights, it is a festive night full of fun and silliness.

The general outline of the evening involves everyone: directors, Comanches, Blackfeet, leaders, and campers. Everyone dresses up in “country” fashion and the Comanches and Blackfeet create a “Hee Haw goes to Camp Winnataska.” There is dancing by all and skits performed by the Comanches and Blackfeet. The comic “Pieman” sketch, added in 2010, was created by Program Specialists Seth Olson, Jared Robertson, and Blake Huynh, along with the Blackfeet that year and is now a camp favorite.

Indian Night

Indian Night dates back to 1916 at the Boys Club camp. Burr Blackburn, a Boys Club executive was knowledgeable in Indian lore and had participated in an Omaha Indian ceremonial in Iowa. He modeled Camp Winnataska’s first Indian Night after his Iowa experience. To this day, the activities of Indian Night honor the Native Americans for which the camp was named.

Indian starts first thing in the morning. Instead of the usual morning bell being rung to wake up campers, staff members ride horses through the camp to wake up campers.

The actual Indian Night is held in a great clearing around the old “ball field” on the path to Wayside. Around a central fire, four small fires are laid in the directions of North, South, East, and West. A throne is built to accommodate the Great Chief and the Indian Attendants.

Since 1927, the telling of the “Legend of Winnataska” has concluded Indian Night. The Legend was written by Tommy Waldrop and is based on the meter of “The Song of Hiawatha,” an 1855 epic poem in trochaic tetrameter by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In 2003, a Blackfoot began reciting the story while Comanches and Blackfeet acted out the legend.

Holy Grail

The Holy Grail pageant was first held in 1922, written at camp by counselor Lois Smyer. For decades it was presented on the last night of girls camps. With the advent of coed camps in the 1980s, the cast now consists of both females and males and is presented at the end of each camp. It evokes one of the lasting memories of Winnataska.

The cast is chosen from leasers, staff, and occasionally a special adult and all exemplify “bravery and truth, unselfishness, and kindness.” The highest honor is to be chosen Sir Galahad and that person is never in the pageant again. The pageant challenges campers to go away from Winnataska in search of their Holy Grail, and to “so live that we may be worthy of attaining the realization of our dream.”

At the close of the Grail pageant, campers follow the Vision as they move, singing, “Follow the Gleam,” with lighted candles in hand to Hillside. There, they watch spellbound as Sir Galahad, carrying a torch, runs across the “burning” bridge and is lifted into heaven.

Campers then return to the steps of their huts and form the shape of a cross. They sing “Taps” and extinguish their candles. Only the large cross hung in front of Branscomb Chapel remains burning. Camp’s tradition is that one talks or turns on hut lights after the Holy Grail service.

“Follow the Gleam” Hymn

According to Kihm Winship, in 1920 Sallie Hume Douglas, a 53-year old teacher from Honolulu, and Helen Hill, a student from Bryn Mawr college (class of ’21) met at a YWCA conference at the Silver Bay Association on Lake George in New York. One of the activities was a song competition. Sallie Douglas was something of a hobbyist in song writing, and had already published a few songs. When she learned of the song context, she looked for a lyricist with whom she could collaborate. She met Helen Hill, a student from Bryn Mawr College (Class of ’21). Both women were interested in Arthurian legends and were familiar with the Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 1899 poem, “Merlin and the Gleam,” a song about the quest for the Holy Grail. The poem ends with:

“O Young Mariner
Down to the haven,
Call your companions,
Launch your vessel,
And crowd your canvas,
And, ere it vanishes,
After it, follow it,
Follow the Gleam.”

Together on the shores of Lake George, Sallie and Helen wrote the hymn, “Follow the Gleam.” Their song was the contest winner and became the anthem that closed every YWCA gathering, sung at the end of vespers, and also sung at girls’ camps all over the country, including Winnataska. Today, Camp Winnataska is one of the few camps that continue to sing the hymn. The publishing company nows lists the composers as “Sallie Hume Douglas” and “Bryn Mawr College, Silver Bay Prize song.”