The Vintage Bookshelf

The Campfire Girls in the Maine Woods

Book cover image showing two girls at a campsite. They are carrying water and washing dishes. Two tents stand in the background and another woman tends a cookfire in front of the tents.

Subtitled or the Winnebagos Go Camping, this book is a young adult classic gem from 1916. The Campfire Girls in the Maine Woods, as the first of a ten-book series, tells about a small Camp Fire Girls group and their experiences camping together for the summer. The high school age girls share two tents, cook their own food, and design pageants. They gather round the Council Fire, hone new skills, and face adversity. Most of all, though, they form a strong community. They work together and come out stronger the other side.

Sahwah the swimmer, Hinpoha the curly-haired, and Migwan the writer gather with Chapa the chipmunk, Medmangi the medic, and Nakwisi the star maiden at a primitive camp in Maine. By the time we meet them they are seasoned Camp Fire girls and ready to meet the challenges of a summer away from home. They welcome Gladys, a city girl who feels much more comfortable in a dressmaker’s shop than she does in a tent. Through the summer several of them change as they progress through injuries, moments of bravery, and even thoughtlessness.

Their group leader, or Guardian, is also one of the teachers at the high school all of them attend, save Gladys, who attends private schools away from Cleveland during the year. The girls call her Nyoda. With a unique blend of care and wisdom Nyoda guides the girls through misunderstandings, skirmishes, and the occasional temper flare.

The Camp Fire Girls

The Camp Fire Girls movement started in 1910 as an attempt to get girls outdoors into nature, moving, and learning new skills. Boys participated in camping trips, and boys experienced the wonders of nature. Boys did things in 1910. The Camp Fire Girls organizers, Dr. Luther Halsey Gulick and Charlotte Vetter Gulick, believed that girls could do the same things. And so did many girls.

Girls watched their brothers go camping with the Boy Scouts while they stayed home. Cooking over an open fire sounded a lot more interesting than helping with the housework. And the Gulicks and some friends came to the rescue. They needed a framework that would hold the program together, and they decided that Native American culture and lore was just the thing. Of course, they could have also chosen Irish fairies, ancient Egypt, or varieties of owls. But Native American symbolism put an emphasis on nature as important and worth stewarding. Instead of badges, the girls worked for honors. An honor could be awarded for skill in home craft, health craft, camp craft, hand craft, nature lore, business, or patriotism.

Camp Fire Girls was the most inclusive organzation for girls available in its time. Any girl, from anywhere, could join and participate in the Camp Fire Girls.

I first read these in etext form and I loved them so much I found original hardbound copies of the entire series. It took me seven years, but I located them all.

Current culture, 1916 style

The Campfire Girls in the Maine Woods contains some current cultural references. For example, while a visiting professor watches one of the girls dive into the water, he comments ‘She’s a regular Annette Kellerman!’ This is a reference to the star of a 1914 Australian movie called Neptune’s Daughter. The movie is extant in tiny pieces, but not as a whole. This five-minute clip shows off Annette’s diving abilities.

Other phrases and concepts remind readers that the story is vintage. The girls dress in middys and bloomers, the athletic uniform of 1914-1930. Outdated terms appear occasionally.

Many “Campfire Girls” books were published between 1912 and 1936 by more than ten different publishers. Most of the ones I’ve attempted to read are, frankly, awful. The books by Hildegard Frey shine in comparison. These are the only Campfire Girls books that were endorsed by the Camp Fire Girls Association when they were published. And with good reason, because this book leads the reader into the culture of the club rather than attempting to tell a story about characters named Campfire Ann and Campfire Nan. (I made those names up, but you get the idea.)

Who was Hildegard G. Frey?

Hildegard G. Frey, also known as Hildegarde Gertrude Frey, lived in Cleveland, Ohio her entire life. It makes sense that she set her books there. Born in 1891, she started writing the Campfire Girls books in her twenties. She wrote ten Campfire Girls books which were published between 1916 and 1920, and then she stopped writing. The Campfire Girls books were the only ones she ever wrote. In 1930 she was working as a cartoonist for an advertising agency.

Writing the books between age 24 and 28 gives them a unique perspective for stories of the time. Hildegard never talked down to her younger readers, and she didn’t lecture them. She simply told her story of six campers, a new addition, and their leader.

Hildegard G. Frey died at the age of 65 on May 8, 1957, and is buried in Cleveland. In the 1940 census she is listed as living with her father in the family home.

Get Your Copy

How can you read this book for yourself? Download it from Project Gutenberg or Google Books.