Camping’s golden era: Short on gadgets, but flush with style
It was the golden age of camping.
It was absent of Gore-Tex, Smart Wool, Nalgene water bottles or light-weight Titanium cookware. Instead the men and women wore scratchy wool underwear and sharpened their knives around the campfire.
A loose-knit group of historians, naturalists and educators, bound by their love of old-style camping convened to relive those lost methods at the Cradle of Forestry in the Pisgah National Forest last weekend. They call themselves the Acorn group. Because, as Michael Eldridge, put it: “We’re nuts.”
Eldridge was deftly sharpening a collection of knives and axes, which, when paired with a saw, was called the woodsman’s trilogy in the golden age. It’s a far cry from the modern woodsman’s trilogy, which is more along the lines of Budweiser, hot dogs and an air mattress.
Eldridge and his fellow camping re-enactors put themselves on display near the Cradle of Forestry visitor center, where visitors could stop by, ask questions and see the demonstrations.
It was a nod to history, but many in the group also claim to prefer sleeping in a canvas tent and wearing all-leather boots and suspenders.
“In the 1960s and 1970s, I squirmed around in a tiny little backpacking tent,” said Steve Watts, one of the group’s organizers, who wandered around camp puffing on a pipe. “And now I just appreciate being able to stand up in my big canvas tent and put my pants on like a human being.”
The event, billed as “Camping in the Old Style,” was put on by re-enactors affiliated with the Traditional Outdoor Skills Program through the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia. They were true to form — dressed in era garb, crafting hatchet sheaths out of leather and splitting wood in checkered flannel.
“This is called woodcraft,” Watts said. “Not like building bookshelves.”
The rise of recreational camping
This golden age they speak dates to the late 1800s, in the epoch of industrialization. When America’s largely agrarian society began to flock to cities for paying jobs in the urban factories, many still longed for a taste of the countryside they once knew.
It was at this time that workers in America, now with actual salaries and time off, began camping for leisure. It was a very different kind of camping than the labor-oriented tent villages that sprung up around logging, mining and railroad work sites that defined earlier decades.
The explosion of the Ford Model T propelled the recreational camping movement, giving city folks a means to actually travel to the countryside for short periods of time. It was said that Henry Ford was a recreational camper himself and would give away a grill and charcoal with the purchase of a car to encourage the practice among his customers.
In the 1920s, at the peak of leisure camping, a larger percentage of the country’s population went on camping trips than they do today, according to Watts. He also posed the question: Does what most people consider camping today even qualify?
There are definite similarities between modern-day car camping and the re-enactors set-up, but with a twist.
Today, a neighboring camper may keep you up all night, blaring classic rock tunes on a battery-powered radio. Decades ago, a camper’s arm would get sore turning the crank on the Victrola all night to produce the suave tune “Old Pal, Why Don’t You Answer Me.” And the needles need to be changed every few songs.
For Jennifer Mancke, the old gramophone at the reenactment is just perfect for a night under the stars.
“I get a signal everywhere I take it. I never lose power; and with just a few cranks I can get people dancing and entertain the whole camp,” Mancke said.
Her other pastimes on display at camp were her journal and drawings — two more examples of forgotten entertainment that take a little bit more engagement than the flip of a television switch or the press of a smart phone button.
Mancke and her husband Tom were staying together on cots in the largest tent in camp — a double-wide canvas you might call it. (they were the only married couple in the group) — or rather the only ones who could convince their spouse to also attend.
And although the outing is a retreat for the couple from Columbia, S.C., the values spill over into the rest of their lives. Jennifer Mancke teaches at a small, alternative private school and insists her students sharpen their pencils with a knife. She also makes them light candles each morning. She said many children today should be taught the skills children in the 1920s learned.
“Back then kids carried knives and could make fires,” Mancke said. “Now they are all discouraged from being around fire and knives.”
Yet, the chamber pot sitting outside the door of the tent and the banner Mancke wore across her chest championing women’s suffrage, acted as reminders of the aspects of antiquity we perhaps should be grateful to have left behind.
But one thing is for certain: building a good campfire is a practiced skill. Certain types of wood are ideal for a fast boil, while others make excellent coals for baking. Some wood can even be hazardous, popping and spewing sparks when set afire ablaze.
But, for the experienced camp cook, proper food cooked over a fire would make any freeze-dried or dehydrated camp food of today’s lightweight backpacking world look pitiful.
“Food never tasted so good, and you never felt so healthy as cooking over a fire,” camp cook Suzanne Simmons said.
Simmons wasn’t intimidated by a weekend in the 1920s, cooking over the fire. In fact, as an educator at the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia, Simmons takes herself all the way back to the 1700s for most of her re-enactments.
“So, here I’m in the new ages,” she joked.
But, the proof is in the pot. Simmons was busy that evening preparing a seasonal dish of fresh butternut squash, apples, dried cherries and pecans, cooked over the fire with a touch of butter and ginger. Golden age campers would typically bring certain staples, but also buy fresh, seasonal products on their trip.
When the filling was ready, she would add an egg, transfer the contents to a Dutch oven placed on the coals, and bake it into a pie.
She called the recipe Kephart’s pie — named after Appalachian legend Horace Kephart — because it uses whatever ingredients are at hand.
However, as the other campers began eyeing the food in the pot, she said it was a distinct possibility that the meal would never reach pie form.
“We may put it in a pie,” Simmons said, “or just eat it like it is because it’s so darn good.”