Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Comprehensive History of Camp Crowell/Hilaka

I finally had the chance today to sit down and sort through all of the information that I have been given throughout the past few weeks of Camp Hilaka's history. I typed up this little summary of what I found, and it is indeed fascinating. Camp Crowell is the oldest standing camp in the Legacy Lake Erie Region of the GSNEO, with its inception in 1937. It is so sad that they have let such a gorgeous property fall through the cracks, especially one with such a rich and colorful history. The Friends of Crowell Hilaka are here to restore our beloved camp to the way it should be!


History of Camp Crowell/Hilaka
Compiled by Jacqui Muth

In 1936, the Cleveland Girl Scout Council began looking for a centrally located campsite that could be owned by the council. The committee found the Kirby Estate near West Richfield, Ohio, which was being offered at $60,000.

To raise the money for the camp, Mr. Warner Seely chaired a committee composed of business and civic leaders, including Julia Crowell, James R. Garfield and Linnea Friede (do these names sound familiar?). The committee received publicity from public figures such as Lee Henry Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt, who both credited Girl Scouts and camping as invaluable experiences for young women.

The Church of the Covenant widely publicized the campaign and the Cleveland Council held a benefit at their Annual Banquet aptly named “Camp Around the Calendar.” The campaign raised $61,157 from 5050 persons and secured a bid for the Kirby Estate.

On April 7, 1937, the Cleveland Council purchased 243 acres of land in West Richfield from Mr. and Mrs. Kirby, the owners of the Kirby Vacuum Company. It was dedicated to Julia Crowell, the first commissioner to the Cleveland Council, at the opening ceremonies on June 20, 1937, dubbing it “Camp Julia Crowell.” The property included a home built by James Kirby himself of timber cut and sawed on site, dedicated as “Kirby House” on August 17, 1937.

Mr. Kirby wanted a lake on his property, so he dammed a stream flowing from his half of the Upper Lake and filled a sizeable lake below, known as “Lower Lake.” They stocked the lake with fish and brought in water lilies with pink and white flowers, which can still be seen to this day.

He also built the millhouse and the first ever ball-bearing mill wheel. This wheel was so sensitive that a trickle of water was enough to generate power for his buildings. The mill was placed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks in 1978 and stands today as a museum of historical Girl Scout artifacts.

The estate’s famous dance hall was later named “Garfield Hall” on August 9, 1937 in honor of Eleanor Garfield, President Garfield’s great granddaughter-in-law and the Cleveland Council’s second commissioner. It was built on railroad boxcar springs so that it would bounce for square dancing. This was the Kirby’s recreation hall and was used as a dining hall in the early days of Resident Camp at Camp Julia Crowell.

Loa Russell, a Girl Scout in the Cleveland Council remembers her first summer at Camp Crowell very clearly: “Our Innisfree unit [a unit for older girls at another Girl Scout camp] left the camp at Burton for an overnight at the new site in Richfield. I spent a summer as a CIT and later as a ‘gopher’ at the camp then the council hosted a National Leaders’ Encampment. There were a variety of program specialists as trainers. I especially remember a person who was the song leader. She inspired me with a lifelong love of folk songs.”

Girls travelled in droves to Camp Julia Crowell (or CJC as it was affectionately known by the scouts) throughout the 30s and 40’s. It was clear that a love of camping had spread throughout the Cleveland Council, and throughout the world of Girl Scouting as well. In 1942, a new policy was adopted to allow the summer camping program to be open to girls of all ages, regardless of race. In the summer of 1943, Camp Julia Crowell become one of the first overnight camps to allow African American girls to stay. The girls stayed at “Hickory Hill,” a platform tent site. Those who attended this historic summer at camp made lifelong connections from the experience.

By the late 40’s, troop camping was done at Camp Julia Crowell as well. Doris Becker was a senior Girl Scout the first time she went troop camping. “We went to Kirby House in the winter,” she remembers. “When we arrived on a Friday night, a pasta dinner was waiting for us. We went sledding down the hill at Garfield Hall and hiked the Upper Lake. When I arrived home, I told my mom if I ever had a daughter, would want her to become a Girl Scout and have as much fun as I did.”

Camp Julia Crowell became THE place to be for camping. Girls would register individually through the council and paid a camp fee of $18 for two weeks. The camp units the girls used were platform tents, with cots on the wooden floors. Outdoor programming varied according to the girls’ interests, and often included boating, swimming, hiking, cooking outdoors, and campfire activities. Meals were served in Garfield Hall. In 1949, “Hilltop Cabin” was built, and was the first winterized cabin at the camp.

During the war, Dean Rightnour spent three summers at Camp Julia Crowell. She can still see “the last night at camp, singing at watching all the wish boats flickering on the lake.” Dean says that a highlight of her summers was tending to the camp’s victory garden. “Each unit was assigned a day to hoe, cultivate, and pick weeds. I picked weeds. I had never had a garden, so I wasn’t really too sure what I was doing. All I remember was that I was very proud of the weeds I had picked – until I was told that those nice light yellow roots were carrot plants!”

Membership in Girl Scouts continued to grow throughout the 50’s and in 1955, the council began to offer family camping at Camp Julia Crowell. Families camped together in tent units and planned their own meals and activities. Family camping was popular throughout the rest of the decade.

The resident camp program continued to grow as well; in 1950, CJC welcomed 548 girls and by the end of the decade in 1959, 727 girls attended Camp Julia Crowell for summer programming. The camps were operated by approximately 80 staff members each summer, and the woods rang with voices of happy campers. A CIT program began in 1952, and by 1958 the CIT program was so popular that it became a two-year program available to girls at least 16 years old.

Unfortunately, on August 4, 1959, a tragic event struck at Camp Julia Crowell. Lightning struck a tree at 4:45 a.m., hitting two tents at a primitive camp site killing two 13-year-old girls. The families requested that contributions be made in the girls’ names, and the following summer the “High Lea Shelter” at Camp Julia Crowell was constructed in honor of Sallie Louise Parker, one of the girls who lost their lives in this tragic accident. Another memorial shelter, “Mable Smith Shelter” was dedicated on May 18, 1958, in honor of Mable Smith, a beloved 10-year staff member.

The 50’s also gave way to an historic event that changed Camp Julia Crowell forever. In 1957, the council purchased 93 acres of land adjoining Camp Julia Crowell and the other half of Lake Linnea and brought the total of the West Richfield property to 336 acres. This parcel of land was originally the Freeman Farm, one of the largest apple orchards in the State of Ohio. The Clarence J. Neal family of the Neal Storage Company had owned the property before the council’s acquisition.

There were four buildings on the Hilaka property at the time of purchase. Mr. Neal built “North House” in 1928 as his family home. The antique brick effect in the construction is authentic since the bricks were salvaged for some of the original buildings around Public Square in Cleveland. “Amity House,” or South House, as it was then known, was built by Mr. Neal’s son as a gift to his wife. On the premises as well were the “Coach House,” and a garage. The lake is called “Lake Linnea” in honor of Mrs. Linnea Friede, a volunteer who started her scouting career in 1921.

This new acreage adjoining Camp Julia Crowell was named “Camp Hilaka” and was dedicated on June 12, 1960 by Mrs. Margaret Bates, the third Vice President of the Girl Scouts of the USA. Two tent units, each with six platform tents, were opened for troop camping, as well as the buildings already on site. Several day camp sessions were held on the site as well.

The next few years were spent in drafting the development plans for the future expansion of Camp Hilaka. A camp development campaign to raise $65,000 was held from 1963 to 1966. On May 21, 1967, Hilaka’s major facilities were completed and dedicated. These major additions included “George Gund Hall”, “Louis D. Beaumont Pool” and shower house, “Chagrin Cabin,” eight other units and a water system and sanitation plant. In June of 1967, the first campers and staff arrived to officially open the first full season of resident camping at Camp Hilaka. In 1968, the camp saw the addition of the camp office and trading post and in 1969, a brand new boathouse and pier greeted campers, thus completing the Camp Hilaka development.

Resident camp and troop camping continued throughout the 70’s, but by the end of the decade, Resident Camp was suspended due to a decline in participation. A decision was made to further develop Camp Crowell/Hilaka and use it as the main focus for programming in the newly formed Lake Erie Girl Scout Council. Camping made a comeback in the 80’s and Crowell/Hilaka was THE place to be again.

The 1990’s were Camp Crowell/Hilaka’s golden age. The camp was filled every weekend with troop campers and the summers were full of happy campers from grades 3-12. Throughout these years, council-sponsored summer camping programs at Crowell/Hilaka included resident camp, core camp, Safari/Pathfinder Day Camp and Discovery Days. The council increased its emphasis on outdoor educational and recreational opportunities such as high adventure trips for older girls, including backpacking, canoeing, rock climbing and whitewater rafting.

Camp Crowell/Hilaka saw many improvements throughout the 90’s as well: the construction of a new tack building and riding rings for the horse program, winterization and restroom additions to Gund Hall and a new storage building and addition to the camp office. Major dam reconstruction was accomplished through the volunteer efforts of the local union of the Ohio Operating Engineers. A high ropes course, challenge course, and climbing wall were built. Spiff’s Garden, adjacent to Amity House lawn, was dedicated in 1991 as a memorial to Lisa Pruett, a senior Girl Scout member. In 1999, Hi Lea Shelter was rebuilt and rededicated as a memorial to Sallie Parker.

GSLEC made the heartbreaking decision to close summer camp at Crowell/Hilaka in 2000, and later sold off all of the horses in 2005. The camp has steadily declined since due to a lack of interest from the Council, and here we are in 2009, with Crowell/Hilaka in need of close to a million dollars in repairs. Many scouts from all over the country are desperately trying to save this historic landmark and our “home away from home.“ We can’t help but wonder how Council let such a gem of a place slip through the cracks, but now the focus is on trying to restore Camp Crowell/Hilaka back to its glory as the shining star that it should be.


The Girl Scouts of Lake Erie Council. A Promise Kept: Ninety Years of Helping Girls Succeed. Copyright 2002, Cleveland Ohio.

Various timelines provided by the former Girl Scouts of Lake Erie Council.

Excerpts from the Camp Hilaka staff brouchure, circa 1990's.


  1. Wow-we cannot let the story come to an end..we must fight for this camp! The girls need this camp.

  2. I can't believe the camp needs to be closed!! I have many fond memories of camping at Crowell/Hilaka as well as at Margaret Bates in the 6 years that I was a Girl Scout.

    I've thought a lot about the camps over this last weekend. I accompanied my Cub Scout on a weekend camping trip to Boy Scout camp. I can't believe that camp/cabin are still operating in the condition that it is in, and yet the Girl Scout organization wants to close this camp.

    Has there been any update on the future of Crowell/Hilaka??

  3. i am sure there are a lot of former scouts who are electricians, plumbers, drywallers, and painters who would happily donate their time, and materials to be able to camp at these camps again, while fixing them up.