By Karen Kollins, Associate Director
Over my 21 summers at Camp I have thought a lot about what it means to stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Not a day goes by that I am not reminded about someone who has been part of this community and changed it for the better in some way. At the start of each session we acknowledge this, going as far back to the Indigenous Peoples who cared for this land long before any of us were here. We have always known that the Camp George story started long before our first summer in 1999 but today I learned a part of our story that had never been shared…
Last week I received a call from a woman in Ottawa – Heather Sword. Heather explained that our site was once owned by her Grandfather Percy Sword. As a child she spent her summers here, travelling with her family from a logging community a few hours North. Heather was passing through the area and wanted to know if she might be able to stop in. She had not been here in close to 55 years. Amazing! As a history buff and someone who has already learned a great deal about the history of our site, I was ecstatic. Today I had the honour of meeting Heather Sword and her sister Dawn and had the privilege of seeing Camp George through their eyes. Let me tell you, it was remarkable!
I knew that Camp George was first opened as the site of Camp Winnebago by the Danson family in 1960. Burt and Dot Danson visited us in the early years and walked me around Camp sharing with me much about the history of the property. I learned that Dot planted the trees that lead up to our main lodge herself, purchased at Eaton’s! We know that there are a few remaining buildings from that original site including our Chadar Ochel and the Ulam. Other than that, not much remains. After Winnebago the site was purchased by the Jewish Camp Council (Camp Northland B’nai Brith) and was used as both a summer camp and a conference centre until it was purchased by the URJ (formerly the UAHC) and became Camp George. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to have spent every one of our 21 summers here.
What I learned today was that the Danson’s purchased the site from the Sword family. Our stone house which sits on the road just south of camp and beside the Seguin Trail, belonged to Heather and Dawn’s Grandparents, Percy and Kate Sword. The Swords raised four boys including their father Douglas who was the oldest. Originally from Scotland, the Sword family emigrated to Canada and settled in the area. While I knew that the Trail system we know as the Seguin Trail (where our biking program runs) had once been a train track, I learned that the crossroad between the Trail and the Road (what we know as Tally-Ho Swords Road) was a train station called Maple Lake Station. Beside the station was the General Store, which still stands today, and the Maple Lake Hotel which was taken down decades ago.
Heather, Dawn, their parents and siblings would ‘summer’ on Maple Lake, residing in the property we now use as our Doctor’s cabin. They described the porch that it once had, the icebox they used for refrigeration and the outhouse they used because of course they had no plumbing. Much to their surprise I was able to show them that remnants of that outhouse still exist behind the cabin. They shared memories of their grandfathers’ cows that pastured in our sports field and waded in the water by Paddlesports. They recalled rowing their tow boat through the channel between main camp and the Island.
Heather and Dawn’s connection to the land was remarkable. They were delighted to see the Silver Maples that they remember surrounding their cabin. While at the Stone house they remarked at the Dutchman’s Pipe Vine that had grown over the porch that they remember on the property. They shared stories and memories with each other – and with each memory came excitement, wonder and awe. Even the scents of Camp brought them back. Watching them see Camp through their eyes and being able to witness them reclaim childhood memories once forgotten was emotional and meaningful. It gave me goosebumps.
Perhaps the most poignant part of our time together was their delight in knowing that the land which they hold so dear is being used for such important work. Heather and Dawn noted the joy they witnessed in our campers, the good work that happens each day at Camp, and the connection that we have to our environment. They felt that the work done here was a real testament to their family and their Grandparent’s memory. They told me that their Grandfather Percy would be delighted to know that the property that was so important to him and his family has changed so many lives.
Thank you, Heather and Dawn, for showing me Camp through a different lens. I know that we will continue to change lives and keep your family’s land a place of transformation, hope, and love. We hope to see you again soon on Maple Lake.