Camp Russell

SOURCE: "LEGACY - Annals of Herkimer County" (Vol 7, No. 2, 1992) is published quarterly by the Herkimer County Historical Society, 400 North Main Street, Herkimer, N.Y. 13350.

Individual copies of LEGACY may be purchased by contacting the Society at the above address, or by visiting their website: On the site you can review a list of which copies of LEGACY are still available and their content under "gift shop" then "books".

We are grateful to the Herkimer County Historical Society, which holds the copyrights, for granting us permission to reproduce the following article for our reader's enjoyment.

Camp Russell
White Lake, N.Y
by Jeff Steele

Jeffrey Steele - 1992 graduate of Suny Albany. Currently working on his Master's there. Worked for a year on the Society's Collection.

The summer of 1993 the Boy Scouts of the General Herkimer Council. headquartered in Herkimer, N.Y., are celebrating the Diamond Anniversary of Camp Russell. Located in Woodgate, N.Y., on scenic White Lake. Camp Russell has helped teach thousands of youngsters swimming skills, ropework, nature and conservation, and the traditions of the American Indian. More importantly, Camp Russell has given scouts the opportunity to learn the value of hard work, responsibility, and leadership. Camp Russell has also been a spot for fun and recreation from which scouts have carried home memories and friendships that have lasted long beyond their stay at camp.

Over the years Camp Russell has gone through many changes. These changes have included the number of scouts the camp serves, a growth in size, and changes in the daily program. Like the rest of the work, Camp Russell has had to adapt to the twentieth century. Yet, through all of the changes. Camp Russell has held on to many traditions.

Camp Russell was founded in 1918 due to the generosity of Samuel T. Russell of Ilion. N.Y. Samuel T. Russell was an industrialist businessman and one of Ilion's most prominent citizens in the early twentieth century. In 1896 he was one of the original members of the Herkimer County Historical Society, of which his father became the second president.

Samuel T. Russell also had an interest in the youth of America. He was especially interested in the Boy Scout movement, which was founded in the United States in 1910. In 1917 he invited a few scouts from Ilion to his property on White Lake, known as Camp Idlewhile. This camping expedition turned out so well that the next year, 1918, he decided to construct a permanent scout camp on the property. In May 1918, S. T. Russell offered 15 acres of his White Lake property to the scouts of Ilion, Utica, and Rome. This offer was gratefully accepted by the scout leaders of these three communities and the new camp was named Camp Russell in honor of its donor. Mr. Russell promised to construct a building for the camp on the property and on June 1, 1918, he personally led a group of 12 men from Ilion to construct it.

Over 250 boys enjoyed the first season of camping at Camp Russell. The cost to attend was $5.50 for the first week and $5.00 for each additional week. The daily schedule for these scouts was as follows: at 7 AM the scouts were awakened by the bugle call for reveille. At 7:15 the scouts took their "morning dip." This was a ritual where the scouts would proceed to the waterfront the first thing in the morning and take a quick plunge into the invigorating waters of White Lake to clean themselves. The morning dip lasted as a tradition at Camp Russell until the 1940's. At 7:55 there was a flag raising ceremony and at 8:00 breakfast was held. Morning activities consisted of military drills at 9:30, athletic sports and recreation at 10:30. and a morning swim at 11:30. The sports and games played by the scouts included baseball, volleyball, wrestling, and quoit pitching (horseshoes). At 12 noon there was an inspection to make sure the scouts were keeping their tents and areas clean and at 12:30 the scouts had dinner. At 1:15 the camp store opened where the scouts could buy candy. However, there was a strict rule that the scouts could not spend more than 15 cents a day on candy. The afternoon was spent learning scout skills, such as knot tieing, fire building, first aid and others, and at 5:00 there was an afternoon swim. After supper, at 6:00, there were more games and sports, starting at 7:00. This was followed at 7:55 by a flag lowering ceremony. At 8:30 the scouts held a council fire, where there were talks, stories, and songs. At 9:45 the scouts were expected to be in their tents and at 10 PM there was the bugle call for taps, signaling that it was time for the scouts to go to sleep.

In 1919 it was decided to expand the camp and Samuel T. Russell donated materials for the construction of a dining hall and kitchen building. Samuel Russell had this building equipped with the modern conveniences of the era including hot and cold water, pumping apparatus, a 1919 dishwashing machine, and proper toilet facilities. In 1919 Samuel Russell helped to form a corporation to own, maintain, and operate Camp Russell. This corporation, known as Camp Russell Inc., consisted of the leaders of the Ilion, Utica, and Rome Scout Councils. On October 7, 1919 Mr. Russell turned over the deed to the 15 acres to Camp Russell Inc. with the only condition being that the property be used every year for at least four consecutive weeks as a scout camp.

In 1920 the Ilion Council disbanded due to a lack of funds and, after the summer of this same year, the Rome Scout Council left Camp Russell in order to develop their own scout camp north of Rome, Camp Kingsley. For the next seven years the Utica Council operated Camp Russell alone. Scouts from Ilion and the rest of Herkimer County still continued to use the camp, but they did so under the direction of the Utica Council.

In 1923 Samuel T. Russell purchased ten acres of land adjoining Camp Russell and gave this land to the scouts for their use. The scouts then helped Mr. Russell reforest this area. Reforestation was another of Samuel T. Russell's philanthropic activities. In the second half of the nineteenth century much of the lower Adirondacks were heavily lumbered, including the White Lake area, leaving the land littered with brush and stumps. This left the land vulnerable to erosion and fire. Samuel T. Russell took it upon himself to reforest the area around White Lake and he had the Boy Scouts help him. This was the beginning of the scouts of Camp Russell learning "hands on" about conservation and nature. Between 1918, when the camp was founded, and 1927 the Boy Scouts helped Mr. Russell plant over 125,000 trees, mostly red and white pine.

A newspaper article of 1923 described the reforestation work of Samuel T. Russell. "Marble shafts may some day carry the memory of present day greats through the next generation, and maybe a building in this town or that city, may bear the name of a man who made a name for himself in the early years of the twentieth century. But, Samuel T. Russell will have a thousand shafts pointing skyward where other men have one; and the white pine trees in the White Lake tracts will tell the story of his activities to children of this section 100 years from now." These trees that were planted by the scouts have become a thriving forest, which is still enjoyed by Camp Russell today.

The cost to attend Camp Russell in 1923 was $7.00. That same year the camp was visited by New York State Governor, and 1928 Presidential candidate, Alfred E. Smith.

On March 12, 1927 the Herkimer County Council was formed. It was temporarily a district of the Utica Council but was responsible for its own finances and officers. That year Camp Russell was run jointly by the Utica and Herkimer County Councils. In 1928 the Herkimer County Council conducted its own four week camping season separate from the Utica Council. The two councils continued to share the camp in this manner, with the exception of a few years, until 1939.

In the 1920's Camp Russell added new dimensions to its program. Scouts attending Camp Russell could join a number of different organizations. One of these organizations was the Mystic Order of Kon-e-on-ca. This was a type of fraternity or lodge for campers, based on American Indian traditions. Membership was gained "only through the attainment of the highest ideals of scoutdom" and scouts considered it an honor to become a member. After induction, members were given a secret handshake and password with which to identify each other. This Kon-e-on-ca Clan would hold special ceremonial campfires where members would dress in blankets and wear feathered headdresses. In the late 1920's the Kon-e-on-ca Clan was replaced by the Mystic Order of Ka Mar Go, which was virtually the same. Another organization Camp Russell had in the 1920's was the Wantonoit Club. This was a national organization formed by Professor H. W. Brown, of Colby College, offered at many summer camps. To become part of the Wantonoit Club, a scout had to identify 200 different natural objects around camp and for this feat a scout would receive a special certificate.

Samuel T. Russell, donor of the camp and honorary president of the Herkimer County Council, passed away on May 25, 1929 after a brief illness. The cause of death was blood poisoning, contracted en route home from a trip to California. He was survived by four children who would continue his legacy of aiding the scouts of Camp Russell.

In the early 1930's Samuel T. Russell's children donated additional property to the camp. This allowed the camp to expand its waterfront area, a popular place for scouts in the 1920's and 30's. The waterfront program stressed the importance of swimming skills, water safety, and lifesaving procedures. The waterfront staff made sure all scouts learned these skills. The motto for the waterfront was "every camper a swimmer, every swimmer a lifesaver." Scouts aspired to become members of the Camp Russell lifeguard, especially the position of captain of the lifeguards. The waterfront staff took their job seriously, vowing to make the "supreme sacrifice" if necessary.

Scouts at Camp Russell in the 1930's enjoyed a variety of events. Newspaper articles from the decade described such events as a camp circus, an annual minstrel show, a family picnic, "ghost campfires," and a variety of contests. In these contests the scouts would divide into teams with such names as the "Topnotchers," "Mercuries," and "Mohawks." The teams would then compete in swimming, athletic, and scout skills competitions. Scouts in the 1930's also had the chance to learn about the American Indian from a full-blooded Onondagan, Dah-had-da-quad-da, whose English name was Robert George.

From the collection of photographs taken in 1919 given to
the General Herkimer Boy Scout Council by Dr. Jones in 1986.

In the 1930's a new organization replaced the Order of Ka Mar Go at Camp Russell. the Order of the White Swastika. This was another organization based upon the traditions of the American Indian, the swastika being an ancient Indian symbol. This organization, like the orders of Kon-e-on-ca and Ka Mar Go, was for outstanding scouts at Camp Russell. As the 1930's progressed and the symbol of the swastika became more and more degraded by Nazi Germany, the Camp Russell honor society again became known as Ka Mar Go.

In 1934 the Herkimer County Council took the name General Herkimer Council, honoring the famous general of the Battle of Oriskany. The General Herkimer Council served all of the boys in Herkimer County, with the exception of the Town of Webb, and the area of Richfield Springs in Otsego County.

In 1938 the Upper Mohawk Council, formerly known as the Utica Council, announced they were leaving Camp Russell in order to develop a new camp of their own, Camp Ballou. at Frankfort Center. From 1939 to the present the General Herkimer Council has operated Camp Russell alone.

In the 1930's and 40's Camp Russell had to deal with the major events affecting America and the world at that time, the Great Depression and World War II. In true scoutlike fashion Camp Russell continued to operate but with cut backs and adjustments.

Camp Russell made it through the depression well. A 1931 newspaper published by the scouts at camp, called the "White Lake Chief," described how the depression was affecting them: "Many cheers. Only 13 cents was uncollectible in the Camp Russell Bank. No depression there. Hurray." In 1937 the cost for a week's stay at camp was $7.50 and in that year Camp Russell was able to make improvements. The camp purchased an electric refrigeration machine, moved the camp hospital from a tent into a permanent building, and enclosed the dining hall with mosquito netting. At the end of the 1937 camping season, Camp Russell actually showed a profit. As the 1930's closed, attendance at the camp was increasing.

World War II brought more challenges to Camp Russell. Work on camp property was slowed as practically all of the scoutmasters and other volunteers were either in the army or working in support of the war effort. The government policy of rationing consumer goods also forced Camp Russell to adapt. A bus was chartered to transport scouts to camp in an attempt to help parents conserve gasoline and tires. In order for the camp to feed the scouts during the war, the boys had to bring from home their books of ration stamps.

In 1945 Camp Russell offered a new feature for scouts, a rifle shooting range. The rifle range was strictly monitored and only two people at a time were allowed on it with the instructor. Also in 1945 the camp purchased an additional ten acres of land and the camp honor society, Kamargo, became chartered as Lodge 294 of the Order of the Arrow. The Order of the Arrow is a national organization, based on American Indian traditions, for honored scouts recognized by the Boy Scouts of America.

In 1946 Camp Russell lowered its fees from the year before, which had been $12 for a week's stay. There were five different rates in the new revised camp fees, the cheapest being $9.00 a week for scouts who registered as a troop with their leader and brought their own tents and cots. The most expensive rate was still $12 for those scouts who came individually.

Scouts in the 1940's studied various merit badges, some of which no longer exist. These merit badges included Handicraft, Pathfinding, Angling, Public Health, and Carpentry as well as Camping, Cooking, Swimming, First Aid, and many others.

During the 1950's and 60's various forms of pageantry became part of the program at Camp Russell. Camp newspapers, the "Trailblazer" in the 1950's and "Chipmunk Chatters" in the 1960's, describe such weekly events as backwards days, pajama parties, and comical bathing beauty contests. The most elaborate form of this pageantry took place in 1953 when the camp renamed its village campsites. Formerly the campsites had Algonquin Indian names, Kahagon, Auskrada, and Otenogan. These were changed to the names of the nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, who were the longtime enemies of the Canadian Algonquins. An elaborate ceremony was held complete with "Iroquois Indians" (members of the Order of the Arrow in Indian costume) demanding the Algonquin names be changed or they would "make war" on Camp Russell. These "Iroquois" came across White Lake on canoes and met with the camp director and program director at the waterfront area. A "peace treaty" was then made and the camp promised to change the names. In the following summer weeks, the old village signs were burned in a ceremonial bonfire and a special feast was held with the "Indians."

The cost to attend Camp Russell in 1955 was $15 a week, with a unit leader, and $18 for those registering individually. The following year, 1956, mother nature forced Camp Russell to change its daily schedule when the camp's dining hall collapsed in a freak wind storm on April 5th. The building was partially covered by insurance and with that money the camp bought cooking equipment for the scouts. From 1956 until 1961, when a new dining hall was nearing completion, all of the scouts had to cook their own meals.

Two of the children of the late Samuel T. Russell, Helen and Joseph Russell, presented a gift of 146 acres of land to Camp Russell, in memory of their father, in 1957. This huge tract of woodland, reforested by the scouts and Samuel T. Russell decades before, became the camp's conservation and nature area.

In 1959 Ted Russell, the General Herkimer Scout Executive from 1957 to 1982, together with S. E. Coutant, of the New York State Conservation Department, created a land management plan to develop the area. Scouts working on conservation merit badges began to carry out the plan. Scouts working on the Forestry merit badge were each given their own quarter acre of woodlot to manage through pruning and other forestry techniques. Scouts also built brush piles to attract more wildlife to the area, and constructed check dams. These scouts, much like the scouts who helped to reforest the White Lake area four decades earlier, were learning about nature and the conservation of natural resources by doing, not by watching.

In the 1960's Camp Russell began using the lumber taken from the conservation area to build a variety of structures around the camp. These structures included the new dining hall, cabins for the staff, a staff showers building, a chapel, a replica of a French trapper's cabin, leantos, and a program center.

The conservation program also achieved recognition from a number of sources. On April 26, 1960, Camp Russell was cited by the Eastern Loggers' Association for the best utilization of forest products and land management. On October 14, 1961, Camp Russell received an award from the United States Department of Agriculture for "Outstanding conservation achievements through their exceptional contributions to the conservation of natural resources." Also in October, 1961, an article appeared in "Scouting Magazine" describing how Samuel T. Russell reforested the area and Camp Russell's conservation program.

On Saturday, July 20, 1968, Camp Russell celebrated its 50th Anniversary. This celebration consisted of a tour of the camp, an outdoor supper, a memorial campfire, and the burial of a time capsule. This time capsule contained a number of patches, a 50th Anniversary commemorative neckerchief, and other scouting paraphernalia of that era.

In the 1970's Camp Russell continued to build and be recognized for its conservation program. A Health Lodge was completed in 1972 and a headquarters log cabin was completed in 1976. In 1971 Camp Russell received the Gold Seal Award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for running the best conservation program in the country. In 1979 Camp Russell was rewarded by the New York State Conservation Alliance for having the best program for outdoor education in the state.

Since the 1970's Camp Russell's daily program has been more oriented towards merit badge instruction. Scouts can attend merit badge classes from 9 to 11 o'clock in the morning, from 2 to 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and after supper at 7 o'clock if they choose. Scouts still have the opportunity to do more than just earn merit badges. There is time every day for scouts to take boats out on White Lake, use the rifle and archery range, go swimming, play volleyball, or just relax and enjoy themselves.

In 1976 Camp Russell began a High Adventure program. This program was set up, and is still run by, by Alan "Spike" Woodruff, who has been attending Camp Russell as a scout or staff member since the 1950's. Since the first years of camp, scouts had always made hiking and canoe trips into the Adirondacks. This program offered something more. Camp Russell became a trail base from which scouts could be outfitted and guided throughout the Adirondack Park. Today Camp Russell's guides take hundreds of scouts each summer on hiking and canoe treks across the lakes, rivers, trails, and mountains of the Adirondacks.

In the 1980's and 90's more facilities were constructed at the camp. These included a pavilion, a pole barn, a camper's shower building, and a V.I.P. Cabin. In 1983 a nature trail system was laid out which traverses the camp and conservation area and in 1989 a fitness trail was added.

The camp's conservation program continued to grow and expand in the 1980's. In 1981 the camp received its second Gold Seal Award from the Department of Agriculture, making Camp Russell the only scout camp in the nation to win the award twice. In 1984 the camp obtained a portable saw mill which allowed the camp to mill its own lumber on camp property. Before this time trees felled on camp property had to be transported over 50 miles to be milled. In 1985 the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded Camp Russell with the Silver Jubilee Conservation Award. This was a one time only award presented to the council with the consistently best conservation program in the United States.

On July 10, 1993 Camp Russell will have a day long 75th Anniversary celebration. This day will feature exhibitions, demonstrations, and events of all kinds. A new time capsule will be buried and there will be a dedication ceremony for the Camp Russell museum. This museum is located in the old ice house at camp and it is the result of work done by Kamargo Lodge of the Order of the Arrow. The museum traces the history of Camp Russell through photographs and other memorabilia.

Despite all of the changes that Camp Russell has had over the years, it has retained many traditions. Scouts are still awakened to the bugle call of reveille at 7AM and taps are still played at 10PM. Every morning and evening there are still flag raising and lowering ceremonies and there are still daily inspections to make sure the scouts are keeping their tents and areas clean. Songs are still sung after every meal.

The Indian names of the village campsites are gone. In 1991 the village names were changed once again, this time to honor those who founded scouting in America. However the Indian Lore merit badge is still taught and Kamargo Lodge of the Order of the Arrow is still an important part of the camp.

One tradition that has gone almost unchanged is the campfire. Every Sunday and Friday night the camp holds an opening and closing campfire for the week. Scouts still gather at these campfires to sing songs, some of which have been sung since 1918, watch humorous skits, or receive their advancement awards. One longstanding tradition of the Camp Russell campfire is that all scouts who attend camp for the first time are asked to place a pine cone into the fire. This pine cone symbolizes the scout and the ashes of the campfire represent all of the scouts who have attended Camp Russell. Together with these ashes are also the ashes of campfires that have been brought to Camp Russell from National and World Scout Jamborees. When a new scout puts a pine cone into the campfire, he is not only symbolically binding himself with all of the scouts who have attended Camp Russell in the past, but also with all scouts from around the world. The campfire at Camp Russell is always closed by the same three songs: "There's a Long, Long Trail Awinding," "Trail the Eagle," and finally taps.

Woodcarving has always been a part of the camp. All around Camp Russell you can find totem poles and other pieces of art created by woodcarving. Most of these carvings are the work of Frank Devito, who first came to Camp Russell in 1927 and who, with the exception of a few years during World War II, has returned as a staff member ever since. In 1977 Frank Devito erected a 60 foot totem pole at the camp. This was said to be the tallest totem pole east of the Mississippi. This totem pole was eventually taken down due to age but this summer, as part of the 75th Anniversary celebration, Devito will unveil a new, even larger totem pole to replace it.

Nature and conservation have always been important traditions at the camp. Scouts working on conservation merit badges still do work to improve the area by selectively thinning the trees, pruning the trees, planting new trees, as well as constructing brush piles and check dams. In addition all scout troops that attend Camp Russell are asked to do a camp improvement and conservation project to make the camp and conservation area a better place for the scouts who will come after them. All work in the conservation area and camp is done through the volunteer labor of scouts. In this way all former scouts, be they from the 1920's. 50's or 90's, who come back to Camp Russell can look back with pride and accomplishment at what their work as youngsters did. They can see the thriving forest they helped create and maintain or see a building they helped to construct and know they are still being enjoyed by scouts today.

Another tradition at camp is the sense of family that has developed among the camp staff. In the late 1980's a Camp Russell Staff Alumni Association was formed by Carl Sahre, who first began as camp director in 1971, and the association is open to all former and current staff members. The motto of the alumni association is "once a Camp Russell staff member, always a Camp Russell staff member." One weekend every summer the staff alumni gather at Camp Russell to see their old camp and reminisce about old times. Former staff members, as well as former scouts, frequently return to Camp Russell to volunteer their time and labor long after they have left camp.

From a handful of scouts and 15 acres of land Camp Russell has grown. The camp is now nearly 300 acres in size and over 1,300 scouts and leaders will take part in this year's in-camp and High Adventure programs. The camp no longer serves just the scouts of Herkimer County and the Mohawk Valley. In the past decade scouts have come to Camp Russell from 13 different states, and the District of Columbia. One scout troop has come from as far away as North Carolina. Camp Russell is also no longer just for boys, as a number of female Explorer Scouts have taken part in the camp's High Adventure Program over the years.

Throughout all of the history of Camp Russell, it has continuously served the scouts of Herkimer County and the Mohawk Valley. Not only has Camp Russell given youngsters years of summertime fun and recreation, but it has also tried to give them something more. It has attempted to teach scouts values and skills that they can take with them into their adult lives. Scouts who have attended Camp Russell have gone on to serve their community in many ways. They have gone on to have careers in medicine, law, education, business, conservation, and even national politics.

Samuel T. Russell was a person who cared about his community and its youth and because of this, 75 years ago he gave a portion of his land on White Lake to the Boy Scouts for a summer camp. As part of a speech in 1919 Samuel T. Russell said about the camp he helped begin, "if ... one boy has been made better physically or morally more equipped for his life work (all my work) is worth while. If added to this, these advantages have been brought to some hundreds of boys, so much the better and so much greater the satisfaction." In the 75 years since the camp was founded by Samuel T. Russell, all of his hopes and dreams for its success have been realized.

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