The Wavus Years

For years I had dreamed of owning a private children’s camp. As I mentioned in the section on the College Years, I had been a counselor and done recruitment and administrative work at Al-Gon-Quin, the boys’ camp run by Herb Twining. Many of the Michigan athletes worked at the camp each summer, and Benny Oosterbaan, my basketball coach at Michigan, had recommended me to Herb after my freshman year. I could see how much the campers grew in mind, body and spirit. Shirley and I both thought it would be a wonderful experience for our children, but we could never afford to send them to such a camp. Therefore, I was always on the lookout for a piece of land on a lake where we could get started with a camp of our own.

I mentioned this dream to Don Taverner, the Alumni Director at the University, and he told me about a camp where he had been a counselor years before. The owners had started the camp from scratch back in 1922, but were now both over eighty years old and wanted to sell. They wanted to turn the camp over to someone who shared their philosophy and goals for the upbringing of young people. So Don and his wife, Olive, and Shirley and I decided to make the 80-mile drive down to Damariscotta Lake to investigate.

After we met the owners, Delbert “Chief” and Emma “Mrs. A.” Andrews, they took us all around, showing us the cabins, the dining hall, etc. We didn’t cover all of the 250 acres, but quite a lot of it.

Mr. Andrews was known as “Chief” because he had modeled the camp after an Indian nation. He named it “The Wavus Camps.” Because he wanted to have both boys and girls, he divided the grounds into two areas, one area for boys that he named Damariscotta Camp, and one for girls named Camp Wawanock.

Chief explained that each camp had a totem pole with specific symbols or “rays,” as he called them. For Damariscotta, they were:
–Hear oh Braves, look up and listen to the symbols of the totem, to the dreams that braves before you laid upon you and bade you follow.
–First the torch for you is lighted and it’s gleam is yours to follow; ‘Tis a challenge and reminds that truth and goodness are eternal.
–See yourself there, with the duties God and man have put upon you; those before you bid you bear it, bear with courage, bear with vision.
–They remind you to grow gracefully, not in one direction only – Grow in wisdom, grow in stature, grow in grace of God and fellow.
–Next we see the yoke depicted by which oxen, bound together, pull together as one heartbeat, rendering unto others service.
–Glenn Cunningham, the runner, who, men said, could never do it; get you out and do as he did; try and try and don’t stop trying.
–Here a man his bread is sharing, breaks his loaf in half to share it; those before you bid you also — share yourself and your possessions.
–As the links of a chain make the strength that forever holds together great forces, so our tribe is made ever stronger by the loyalty of each brave and warrior.*
–Ever may the golden arrow stir you to achieve with honor all your goals and aspirations, all the challenges that will face you.*
–See the fire as it glows there, kindled by each brave and warrior; bravely look into the future, as the campfire’s glow unites us.*
–Hear, O Braves, look up and listen to the symbols of the totem, to the dreams that Braves before you, bid you follow.

*added during the years we owned camp

The ones for Wawanock were:
–These are the rays of the totem that burn and gleam bright on our pathway. These are the symbols we cherish, and through the far years will remember.
–High aspiration is pictured by the arrowhead pointing straight upward. Higher and higher we’re climbing, each knowing deep joy in fulfillment.
–Bravery the Indian speaks of; the courage to do what needs doing. When the right needs defending, be brave; have the courage and grit to defend it.
–Industry we have endeavored to signify by the brown beaver. What good are ideals and ideas without the stern purpose of working.
–Patience the heron must practice while waiting for fish for his dinner. Full many a task is accomplished if self-control rules our emotions.
–Love, said the Master, is the greatest; and we, too, would follow the Master. We, too, would love friend and foe, and help all with deep understanding.
–Knowledge is power to master the problems and choices of living. Not only the knowledge of books, but the lessons experience teaches.
–The spider calls us to be steadfast. He’ll weave his web over and over. We, too, must be willing to try, and try again, times without number.
–Forget-me-not speaks to remind us to be loyal in thought, word, and action to the highest and best that is in us, to the ideals carved on the totem.
–Truth by the grail is depicted; to be trusted is value unmeasured. So bear thyself daily that none need ever doubt aught that thou doest.
–The glow of the fire casts its radiance of cheer into dark dreary places. So a smile or a laugh lightens a heart that perhaps without you would be heavy.
–Often the problems that face us are more than one person can handle, but when two or more work together, a defeat is transformed into triumph.
–Humility bids that we all look to the Master of all for our guidance. He, like the wheel of a ship, will charter the course we must follow.
–These are the rays of the totem that fashion the patterns of Wavus. These are the symbols we cherish, and through the far years will remember.

Chief told us these symbols represented the ideals that he tried to teach the children during the summers. He went on to say, “We want to sell the camp and know you are the type of men that would carry on our values and traditions.”

When we asked what the price would be, Chief said he would sell the whole thing for $425,000. Tavie and I swallowed and explained that we would have to borrow the money as we had very little. “Oh, that’s no problem,” he said, “let us say $325,000 with no down payment, and pay what you can from the profits after each camp season. I want you to have it because you would continue to maintain the moral teachings we have given the children for 32 years.”

The new owners of Wavus Camps, the Taverners & Westermans, 1954

After going home to think it over, Don Taverner and I signed a contract that we thought we could live with, based on projected earnings from a modest operation. It would mean that we would have to recruit x-number of campers each summer. Don and I would be partners and share the responsibilities of running the camp. We would both recruit campers and would make all decisions together.

Wawanock Staff: Ginger, Alice & Mrs. Westie

This all sounded great until we had to get to work before the 1954 summer. Over the years, Wavus Camps had registered as many as 200 boys and girls each summer and brought in a good income. As Chief and Mrs. A got older, however, the whole operation went down hill, and there were less than a hundred campers in their last summer of operating the camps (1953).

After our first camp season, the summer of 1954, Don realized that he could not spend an equal amount of time either recruiting or physically being at the camp. In addition, one of his boys was not well and needed his attention. He wanted out, and I agreed that it would be best for both of us. So Shirley and I paid Don $15,000 over the next few years, in addition to the $3,000 per year we were paying the Andrews. It took us nearly 25 years of very hard work, much of which rested on Shirley’s shoulders, before Wavus was totally ours. Along the way, however, it provided enough extra income to send our four children through college (with a little help from them by working at school when they could) and to build a new home in Orono.

Head Counselor Uncle Zeke Jewell

It is quite a story of how someone with no money could buy such an establishment, including 250 acres of land with over a mile of prime shore frontage. There were 80 buildings on the property, including a farmhouse, a blacksmith shop, a large barn, many cabins for children and parents, two lodges, and a two-story dining hall that would seat 250 people upstairs and had a large recreation room on the first floor.

Uncle Westy on the tennis court

Shirley did the lion’s share of recruiting for the camps by mail, and went with me to all of the winter and spring camp reunions. She also directed the girls’ camp, hired her own staff of counselors, and supervised the kitchen and camp infirmary. Her nursing degree was invaluable. The University was very cooperative by letting me work at the camp during each summer. I would start football practice each year immediately after we closed up camp in late August. Our children had wonderful summers, making lots of lasting friends as well as benefiting from the camping experience. It was a dream come true.

Gary & Jeff Wren with the pony

I have many powerful memories of the Wavus years — far too many to recount here. But to give you an idea of the richness of those experiences, I have written down a few examples.

The Wild Life and Pets at Wavus
The wild life and pets at Wavus produced many interesting stories for the children, counselors and parents. At the barn were horses, calves and goats. In the surrounding areas were fox to be heard barking at night, and the call of the loons on the lake along with the constant croaking of the big bullfrogs sitting on lily pads in the swamp added to the evenings.

We also had several pair of ducks that we kept fenced in an area of shallow water at the lakeshore. Each year the majestic blue herons could be seen standing on one leg patiently waiting for a passing minnow or small frog. The goats were purchased to give the horses company in the barn. They tended to keep them quiet and to keep them from kicking the stalls while anxiously waiting for their grain.

Chief Westy - "OH CHIEF, I saw a chipmunk"

One year Shirley hired a counselor who brought two baby raccoons with her to camp. She had picked them up along the road after a passing car had hit their mother. After the camp season was over and the children went home, we had to decide what to do with the coons that had become quite people-oriented, tame, and dependent on having someone feed them. The campers often gave them scraps from the kitchen. Finally it was decided to take them home to Orono with us. Our children really enjoyed them, and we had plenty of yard space for them to roam and eventually live on their own in the woods.

As time passed, everyone in the neighborhood enjoyed seeing the Westermans’ two little coons running about. One night we had a call from the police informing us that the coons were scaring people by peering into their windows and making a lot of noise climbing on their roofs. I went out and finally was able to catch them and bring them back to the house.

Obviously we would have to take them back down to camp and simply let them go to fend for themselves. It was hard to do, but when we let them loose they disappeared into the woods never to be seen again.

The Wavus Foxhunt
Each evening Shirley and I would stay up for a while to plan for the coming day and wait for counselors to check in after a day off. One night, several stopped by the office and I happened to mention that I had heard the fox barking earlier in the evening and perhaps they would enjoy going out on this moonlit night to call him. I explained that it’s great fun to see one up close when he least expects it. Their question was how in the world do you call a fox. I explained that you would go deep into the woods and make a squealing noise like a rabbit caught in a trap or crying for its mother. They were very skeptical that I was pulling their legs, so I challenged them to get their flashlights and warm jackets for a midnight foxhunt. Shirley and Uncle Zeke would come along to witness the fun.

Wavus display

Off we went away up in the deep woods in back of the farmhouse. My instructions were that they must walk as quietly as possible and turn off their flashlights when I would tell them to. After arriving away back near Dyer Pond where we had buried a few horses that had died over the years, I said, “OK, we will wait here and start calling the fox.” We turned off the flashlights, and I started to intermittently make the squealing sound like sucking on a straw. I told them that they had to be patient as it might take a while for the fox to come to investigate the sound in the night.

After about twenty minutes we heard the sound of moving branches and breaking twigs. I knew that a fox was coming near and it was so quiet that I could almost hear the counselors’ hearts beat. When I knew that the fox was very near I turned on my light, and there stood a beautiful red fox with shining eyes just staring at us. It couldn’t have worked out better, and before we knew it he turned and disappeared. It was fun, and the counselors couldn’t wait to relate their excitement to everyone in camp the next day. I had actually made believers out of them.

Patsy the Bucking Palomino
It was mid-June when I took several would-be counselors down to camp to prepare for the coming season. The incident that I am about to describe involves a beautiful Palomino mare with a small foal at her side. I had bought her the year before to use in our riding program. Our caretaker, Mr. Nichols, had taken care of the horse through the winter, but no one had ridden her since the colt was born.

One of the counselors by the name of Bob Bragg had played football for me for the past two years, and was to be our waterfront director. He was a fine young man, and I thought that he would be a good counselor. We knew each other pretty well, and I had told him of my experiences riding horses growing up in the west.

Mrs. Westie & Uncle Westy

I had taken the mare out of the barn and led her into the riding ring just to brush her and clean her up a bit. Bob kept urging me to get the saddle and show him how I can ride. “No,” I said, “she needs more time after having the colt.” “Fiddlesticks, come on, Coach, just a short ride won’t hurt her.” I knew better, but said “OK, get the saddle.”

After I put on the saddle, up I went — only to have the mare freeze — she wouldn’t move. Then all of a sudden she started to buck and rear, and then she fell over backwards pinning me under her with my wrist bent backwards. As the mare scrambled to her feet, I knew that I had a bad break.

I asked Bob to pull on it, but he refused and ran to get the jeep to drive to the hospital in Augusta. When we got there they took x-rays and then told me that I should go up to Eastern Maine General in Bangor to a specialist, as there were multiple fractures. We drove to Bangor, and Dr. Woodcock set the wrist the best he could and put me in a cast that I would wear for the next two months. To this day I have a deformed wrist that now has some arthritis further preventing normal movement.

The lesson is apparent – “don’t let anyone talk you into something that you definitely feel isn’t the best thing to do at the time.” We did find out later that the mare had a bad arthritic hip that created the pain to cause her to buck. We kept the mare for several years — not to ride but to give us two more beautiful colts.

Chris Campbell’s Pet Crow
During the Wavus years we had several families that would send most of their children to camp over a period of time. One example was the Campbell family from Orono, Maine. Their father, Ashley, was the Dean of Engineering at the University of Maine, a man that I came to admire a great deal. One of his students was Lew Clark who has been a very special friend of the Westerman family.

The Campbells were our neighbors who also lived on Spencer Street in Orono. They had six children, five sons Ash, Chris, Gordon, Philip and Ben, and one daughter, Martha. All the boys enjoyed an interval at Wavus during some point in their youth.

One year, Chris brought a pet crow with him when he came to camp. It seems that the crow had fallen from the nest and injured its wing, and young Ashley had nursed it back to health and named it “Gus.” Once back to health, the crow developed a unique bond with Chris, and the two became special companions.

The crow lived free with other crows at Wavus, spending most of its time in the big pines, but it would often be seen sitting on Chris’s shoulder. The unique sight became the talk of Wavus for years to come. The crow eventually developed a cataract in one eye and would cock his head to one side while cawing with his crow companions. To fully appreciate the story of this pet crow at Wavus, you must hear it first hand from Chris himself.

In 1979, we sold the camps for $425,000 to Ed Snyder, the owner of the Philadelphia Flyers of the National Hockey League. He then resold them for $1.5 million to a group of former campers that then ran them as a non-profit foundation. I guess in hindsight, we really gave them away, but there is no real point in looking back. It served our purpose of providing our four children a wonderful experience that was priceless.


1 Response to The Wavus Years

  1. John W. Moraites says:

    Dear David,
    My deepest condolences to you and your family. Your father is someone that I will never forget and a man who has influenced my moral fiber. I was born on September 7, 1950 and attended Wavus camp when I was four and a half, the summer of 1954. It is my understanding that I was the youngest camper to attend Wavus. The story I was told by my parents is, when first speaking with your father, my father wanted to send my sister Ellen and brother Peter and I to the Wavus. He heard of Wavus from Dr. Wren. Your father said he could take Ellen and Peter but as far a I went, I was too young as the rule was a camper must be five years old to attend. My father said “but Johnny will be 5 in Septmeber but your father was still reluctant. My father said that either all the “kids” went or we would have to wait until next year. You father finally agreed and off we went for for the next 10 summers. My younger brothers Billy and Nicky followed the tradition and also went to Wavus.

    I must tell you that Wavus holds a very dear spot in my heart. The summers spent at “camp” were some of the best summers of my life. The things that I learned at camp have been carried with me throughout my life. From time to time I reflect back upon the morl teachings/stories that were told during morning lodge meetings. One of the more memorable stories is the one about the boy who lied and his father hammered a nial into their firepalce mantle. After the boy admitted to the lie, the father would remove one nail but it always left a hole in the matle.

    I remember reading the golden rule that hung over the stage and it seems to me that in today’s world those words of wisdon have unfortunately been lost.

    I could go on and on about Wavus and the impact it had on my personality and way of life. I would not want to think of what my childhood and adulthood would have been like without the experience of Wavus.

    I also remember the day you bit into a turkish taffy bar and your front tooth came you and you were so made that you threw the taffy bar and your tooth into the woods. I am sure Uncle Westy was thrilled with that one!!

    It make me very happy to be writing you and it appears that life has been good to you and your family. Your parents were/are wonderful people and I am one of the lucky ones to have had them a part of my life.

    John W. Moraites

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