Last month I wrote about the many summer camps in Cleveland Metroparks. This month and next I will be highlighting two unique camps, the River Road YMCA Camp at North Chagrin Reservation, and Camp Cheerful at Mill Stream Run Reservation. While the Y camp closed up operations in the late 1970s, Camp Cheerful is still providing recreation and opportunities for children and adults with disabilities.
The River Road camp was originally planned as an American Legion camp in 1938. By that year, Cleveland Metropolitan Park District was over 20 years old. A whole generation of Cleveland area youth had grown up with the parks. The new camp in North Chagrin Reservation would offer a larger, more permanent type of camp for future generations.
Like many construction projects in the 1930s the camp was a combined effort of the park, the WPA, and an outside organization, in this case the American Legion. The park provided engineering and some materials for the $100,000 project, the American Legion donated $12,000 in materials and would operate the camp, while the WPA provided other materials and manpower. The site and the buildings would become park property. This arrangement was typical of most of the camps built in this era.
According to a Cleveland Plain Dealer article from October of 1938 the plans called for 34 buildings, including an infirmary, craft shop, museum (what we would call a nature center) and dining hall, among others. There were 15 sleeping cabins for campers and 4 for counselors, plus a staff cottage and a director’s office. All of the buildings were built to newly developed National Park standards and were of rough chestnut wood, designed to look rustic and complement the natural environment.
(Click on above image to read the whole article)
The American Legion only operated the camp for a few years. In 1942 the Cleveland YMCA took over the camp and it acquired the name, “River Road Camp.” Two new ball diamonds, an archery range and a tennis court were among the additions made by the YMCA.
The River Road Camp hosted hundreds of children over its life of over forty years, and from 1962 to 1978 a unique camping opportunity aimed at housewives. The 1960s and 70s saw the beginnings of the fitness movement for adults. Inspired by the upscale spas like The Golden Door, Dorothy Spenger of the Broadway YMCA put together a low cost fitness camp for women in 1962. Offering “the benefits of a California spa, minus the luxury,” this program included exercise, yoga classes, saunas and massages plus the opportunity to indulge in “gab fests in the sauna.” The program proved popular and lasted until the late 1970s when the camp ceased operations.
The kids, however, were the main focus of the original American Legion and the YMCA River Road Camp. In a growing industrial city there were concerns for the health of kids growing up in crowded, smoggy, neighborhoods. In addition to personal health there were concerns for societal health. The old annual reports continuously note alarm at rising juvenile delinquency and promote camping and nature study as an anecdote. Next month in my final blog on summer camps we will look at Paradise Valley, a camp specifically created to combat delinquency that morphed into Camp Cheerful, a place where children and adults with disabilities can participate in the fun and friendship of summer camp.