Home Away from Home
Brantwood Camp: Century-old summer tradition tucked away in the woods of Peterborough, Greenfield
On the border of Greenfield and Peterborough, next to the North Pack trailhead, a summer camp has been running with few interruptions for the past 100 years, yet few residents of the area have heard of it. But those who live close enough can hear its bells during summertime.
“We don’t do much local advertising,” explains Amy Willey, Brantwood Camp’s executive director. “It’s not that we turn away local kids; we’re just not aggressively recruiting here because we’re really looking to bring urban kids in.”
Brantwood’s campers range in age from 11- to 15-years-old, and most come from urban areas in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Children are referred to Brantwood through church organizations, youth programs and schools.
“Our goal is to bring these kids together from diverse backgrounds — different cultures, different cities, different places — and provide them the opportunity to learn to overcome their obvious differences and work together towards common goals,” says Willey.
Throughout their time at Brantwood, the children are encouraged to work together, keeping the five Brantwood ideals — honesty, loyalty, cooperation, good sportsmanship and unselfishness — in mind. Campers stay for two-week sessions, and there are three sessions per summer. The boys’ and girls’ camps are entirely separate, though both are located off Brantwood Road. The children are divided into cabin groups at the beginning of their sessions, and each cabin works to win challenges, from cleanest cabin competitions to soccer games. The campers’ days are filled with outdoor events — swimming in the pools and exploring the camp’s 350 acres. In the mornings, campers attend chapel, which though it used to be an Episcopalian service is today more of an inspirational morning meeting.
A change in perspective
On the fourth day of Brantwood’s second session, the male campers line up in front of the indoor basketball court, where chapel is held. They are invited in cabin by cabin to sit on the benches that have been moved onto the gym’s floor. Once they’ve all assembled, many wearing swim trunks and towels as capes, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” blasts from the speakers, and the rows of counselors in the back dance and sing along. Some of the boys cheer and laugh, but few join in, perhaps because it is early in the session and they’re still shy.
The boys’ camp director, Adam Marcoux, delivers a speech about overcoming challenges. Half of the campers are going on a trip to Silver Lake in Nelson, where Brantwood owns 100 acres, while the others are about to embark on their traditional hike up North Pack. Marcoux, a former counselor at Brantwood, anticipates that both might be difficult for some campers.
“Today, like every day at Brantwood Camp, is full of challenges, but these challenges are a little different than our normal day,” he says. “You need to challenge yourself, push yourself to the next step. That’s what camp is about, putting your best foot forward.”
Marcoux tells the boys who are about to hike that they will see a different perspective of Monadnock from the top than the stunning view they see out the gym’s windows. And if they’re lucky, he says, they will be able to see the skyline of Boston, the city that many of them call home.
“Going up a few thousand feet or so will change your perspective,” he says.
According to Willey, altering perspectives is an important part of Brantwood Camp.
“Early in the session the first couple days, things are going to be like, ‘Oh my god, no street lights here. It’s so dark.’’” She says she’s amused by the fact that, though she is more comfortable in the woods than the campers are, she gets nervous in cities. “I go into Newark, N.J., and inner-city Boston and I’m like, wow, I feel a little uncomfortable. As dangerous as we perceive it to be, it’s where [the campers] live.”
The children seem grateful for the change of pace and scenery.
“It’s great having all this open terrain,” says Julia Sanborn, a 15-year-old camper from Dracut, Mass. She says she’s also glad the camp is technology-free — cell phones and other electronics aren’t permitted at Brantwood.
“You get away from all the drama,” she says.
Most of the campers agree that the escape from technology is welcome. When asked whether he missed his devices, 13-year-old Joshua Robles answered with a vehement stream of nos.
“I don’t want to play anymore video games,” he said. “I’ve decided to be an outdoor person.”
Brantwood Camp seems almost suspended in time. Cabins are devoid of electricity. The boys reside in stilted A-frame cabins, while the girls sleep in squat wooden shacks. Each camp has a large, silver bell, which the staff ring to signal transitions throughout the day. Other Brantwood traditions hark back to an earlier era: Campers line up before meals and chapel, they place their thumbs on the table during mealtime announcements, and they refer to their young counselors as “mister” and “miss.”
“It’s a special place, I want to say, even though it sounds really corny,” says Hannah Delaware of Haverhill, Mass., a 19-year-old former camper and current counselor. “We don’t change that much. It’s been the same for almost 100 years.”
Brantwood was founded in 1904 by The Rev. Donald Browne as a camp for low-income Episcopalian boys. Wealthy Peterborough resident Mary Cheney, who also helped found Peterborough’s All Saints’ Church, provided much of the financial support. Though the camp faced difficulties during both world wars, it emerged intact at its original site. The year 1982 marked the first girls’ camp session.
Brantwood has changed in some ways over the years, from a religious camp where boys learned new trades to a place meant to appeal to children of diverse backgrounds, though most of its campers are still either urban or low-income, or both. Many have family ties to Brantwood.
“We’re a family camp, but also we have a bunch of new kids a lot of the time,” Delaware says. Her brother is also a counselor, and her father was a camper before her.
“My dad asked me if we still cooked baked beans at Silver Lake,” she laughs. “I was like, no. Can you see me making baked beans, Dad?” These days, on their camping trips to Silver Lake, they cook hotdogs, hamburgers and s’mores.
Many families keep returning to Brantwood, even after they have outgrown it. The camp holds a well-attended alumni day every year, and a portion of the camp’s funding comes from alumni donations.
Brantwood is primarily endowment-funded, with the remaining funds coming from an annual appeal, registration fees and the rental profit from other organizations using the camp’s facilities in the off-season. It costs Brantwood around $1,600 per camper per two-week session, but families only pay $250 per child. And if a family can’t afford that registration fee, Brantwood will help them, enough that some campers attend for free.
The Brantwood tradition
It’s near the end of the second session, and the girls’ and boys’ camps are preparing for a dance competition — Brantwood’s Got Talent. The boys practice their dances, each cabin performing a routine to an ’80s song. Many of their dances involve push-ups and fake punches.
Down the road at the girls’ camp, team Sunapee is preparing a dance routine in front of their cabin. They are getting dressed in neon outfits, teasing each others’ hair into side ponytails. They rehearse their dance, set to Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know.”
Onasia Hairston, a 13-year-old Bostonian, dances in the center, smiling and confident, clearly leading the group. When her friends later credit her with choreographing the dance she says, “I didn’t make anything up, I just made it better.”
Onasia is a difficult interviewee. Every question she shoots back and then adopts the answer as her own.
Hannah Delaware, whom the campers call Miss Delaware, laughs about Onasia, affectionately calling her a nut. “Onasia,” she says, pausing for emphasis, “really likes camp.”
But not everyone loves Brantwood. Delaware says that when the time comes for campers to return home, some seem very happy to leave, but most are sad.
Willey says that most of the campers experience unexpected “camp sickness” following departure.
“I think some kids have their experience and they sort of need to go away to have time to think about it and process it and really figure out what it is they gained while they were here,” she says. “They can be pretty insightful, like, ‘Wow, I really learned a lot last year and that’s why I wanted to come back this year.’”
And like Willey, herself a former camper and Brantwood employee for 25 years, many campers and their families do return, summer after summer.