A History of Bearnstow

by Ruth Grauert

According to Mount Vernon town records, it was in the spring 1864 that Ebenezer Bean measured off a 12-acre parcel of his land (on which the camp buildings now sit) for sale to Harriet Wentworth. In 1866 Wentworth sold the parcel to Daniel L. Folsom, who by 1880 had built the main portion of the Lodge. Back in 1945, Carrie Gordon, then in her 70s, told me that she used to play in “Uncle Daniel’s Brook” as a child. She told me that her uncle had built the Lodge as his honeymoon cottage.

In 1914 (after a number of other sales) the property was sold to Charles E. Stevens who built Cabins 5–8, and later 9 and 10, and established a fishing and hunting camp called “Stevens Camps.” Every house was equipped with a Franklin stove and a real ice box. Each winter, ice was cut from Parker and stored in an ice house, which sat near the shore at what is now the Kitchen Landing just north of the Main Hall. Capped drains for ice boxes still exist in some of the cabins. Stevens also added an addition to the Lodge.

In 1922, Stevens Camps was sold to Webster Chester, a biology professor at nearby Colby College. By then the camp had be­come known as Spruce Point Camps (the name under which it is listed in the National Register). Chester built the Main Hall for central dining using local labor in the manner of a neighborhood barn rais­ing; a barrel of beer was provided in lieu of pay. He also built the remainder of the cabins as they exist today, continuing to provide stoves and ice boxes in each cottage. He put in the bathrooms and showers, the water for which was hand pumped from a spring just south of the parking lot to a water tower beyond Cabin 10 (the camp had no electricity at the time). As a biology professor, he nourished and preserved the unique natural environment that we see today.

In 1938 the property was sold to Muriel R. Dunham. The Dunhams saw that the 1936 Rural Electrification Act under the WPA extended to camps and wired the camp with elec­tricity. By combining two smaller buildings, they built what is now Cabin 3, and the building we call the Lab was built for servants’ quarters, partitioned off into six cubi­cles with black wall­board. The camp was shut down in 1942 when the country’s war effort became a priority.

Come 1945, Frances Reid and I had decided we wanted to run a summer camp that was, in our minds, ethical. It was to be interracial, interreligious, and co-ed, and offer the arts and non-competitive sports. With Pauline Faretra, we saved our gasoline coupons (WWII was still waging and fuel was carefully rationed), and the three of us drove to Maine where we situ­ated ourselves in a tourist cabin on Cobbosseecontee Lake and called real estate agents. We were escorted through all kinds of properties—with neighbors too near, poor lakefronts, no vistas, or too swampy. I finally asked one agent to find me the property on Parker Pond that my principal (I had been teaching Junior High School) had told me was for sale. The agent found it and brought us to the top of the hill. “It was just recently sold to the Leighton Lumber Company, but they might consider selling.”

We had to walk in over downed timber, for it had been closed since 1942 and the road was blocked with logs. In the Main Hall were about fifty empty liquor bottles, left by ice fisher­men who had come in from the cold to warm up by the fireplace. In the Lodge was every mattress from every cabin in the camp, stored for all those war years, and every rodent for miles around had found it a cozy home.

But we went to The Ledges, looked over Parker Pond, and saw the sand beach and point beyond. “Is that property available, too?” “I don’t know. I’ll find out.” It was—and we had found our camp site.

We sat there and discussed naming our camp. How about “Crossed Quartz” for the veins in the granite? Nah, awkward. We saw men in a rowboat out on the water fishing for bass. How about “Camp Basshole”?  ♫“We are cheering Camp Bass——”♫?  Nah…  Esoteric as we were and rebels to the end, the name became Bearnstow, the early West Saxon word for child and place.

That was July 26, 1945. For the rest of that summer we worked on rehabbing the place—from the dismantled plumbing to the leaking roofs, from the decaying mattresses to the accumulated dirt. We got enough done, including the acquisi­tion of our peg-leg piano, that in summer 1946 we opened our camp. From the late 40s through the 60s, Janet Erickson, Bobbie Gottschalk, Suzanne Dalton Jones, and Bebe Miller were campers, and all have served on the Bearnstow Board of Directors. Read a news clipping to learn about the activities at Bearnstow in 1960.

In the 70s and 80s we offered swimming lessons to the town children; as many as 40 young people over a decade were taught to swim here. That program was no longer needed when the town acquired its own beach and swim program. How­ever, we did continue to offer dance classes for children and adults and opened our Day Camp program. Previous board members Nicolaus Bloom and Vernon Dunn were day campers, swimmers, and dancers in those programs. In the 90s we insti­tuted weeklong, residential workshops in the performing arts as well as a two-week Day Camp session for local children of school age that concentrate on nature and the arts.

In 1994 custodial conservation of Bearnstow was accepted by the Kennebec Land Trust in the form of a conservation easement that protects the property in perpetuity, ensuring that Bearnstow’s 65 acres of forest and 2,400 feet of rocky shoreline will remain forever wild. In keeping with our mission to promote education and research in the natural sciences, we have initiated a Natural History Week at Bearnstow, which presents naturalists who give public lectures and tours of the forest. Our facilities are available to scientists and science educators and their students for applicable research programs.