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Local Trivia: Lakeside Beach and the Van Leuven Browne Hospital-School

By Derek Smith

The White Star steamer Wauketa departed Detroit for its usual voyage to Port Huron, Michigan.

It was May 29th 1915.

On board this particular day were 12 passengers, passengers who had not paid the normal fare of $1.00.

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They were guests of a Mr Bielman of  the White Star Line. They were special passengers with special needs bound for the new Van Leuven Browne summer camp at Lakeside Beach.

Along their route, they would have enjoyed the beauty of the park at Belle Isle or perhaps were awed by the great mansions lining the shores of Grosse Pointe. They might have watched as families enjoyed a picnic lunch at Tashmoo Park on Harsens Island, or were entertained by the sound of big band music echoing across the water from the dance pavilion on Stag Island. They might have wondered about the workings of the many sawmills scattered along the river’s edge as they traveled north on the St Clair River.

However, I am convinced that the wonders of this voyage were certainly dimmed by the anticipation of their arrival at the Grand River dock in Port Huron and their subsequent automobile journey to Lakeside Beach.

Wauketa’s route would consume all of the afternoon and wade into the evening hours.

Upon their arrival in Port Huron at eleven pm, they were met by Lieutenant E. Burns and walked or carried to waiting cars. From there they made their way through the cold night air to the camp at Lakeside. There they were greeted by a group of enthusiastic Boy Scouts and other volunteers, who managed the tired children to their cots. Having finally arrived, if not already dozing, they were courted to sleep by the susurrus sounds of Huron’s waves meeting Lakeside’s beach.

It was here where they would participate in a summer of school, much different than what they were accustomed to.

For some it would be their very first “tenting” experience; for some it would be a chance to learn how to swim or for the first time, simply enjoying the freedom of buoyancy. For others, it would be learning about nature and acquiring some of the skills of a seasoned camper.

For all, it would also be a continuation of their regular classroom academics, but in a much different environment. During these next 100 days of summer, these young campers would renew old friendships and form new relationships, relationships which would last their lifetime.

Camp Origins

In the winter of 1915 after collaboration with mother Blanche, Earl Casey, a patient and student at the Van Leuven Browne Hospital School wrote Port Huron’s Mayor John Black, for permission to pitch tents on the lakeside beach property. Earl knew about this area having grown up in Port Huron. These tents would provide shelter for some crippled children who may otherwise never experience the joys of camping or the pleasure of Lake Huron’s blue waters.

Mayor Black responded with an enthusiastic yes and so began the plans for the Lakeside camp.

Blanche Van Leuven Browne and her charges would strategize over a period of several months what they would need for tents, supplies, furniture, etc, everything they might require for a comfortable camp for twenty people or thereabouts.

The money would be spent freely. There were no restrictions on which items could be purchased, since it was Blanche’s own wallet that funded this initial spending spree!

James Green who was commissioner of parks for Port Huron coordinated the effort to bring the camp up to standards that would be required for the physically challenged young campers.

Green ordered wooden floors for the tents and a water pipe connection from Gratiot Ave. to the camp so the children had ready access to fresh drinking water. The commissioner also had electric lights installed in the tents.

There were wooden walkways built between the tents and from the campsite to the water’s edge, since wheelchairs and sand do not get along well. All of these refinements were gifts of the City of Port Huron. Everything the city could do to make the camp a comfortable and pleasing experience was tended to. The citizens of Port Huron also reached out to make sure that the children’s days were ones of happiness and satisfaction. The young campers echoed in unison that “no better people live in the world than those of Port Huron”.

There was a mess tent and living room facing the lake with a piano, a phonograph with 100 recordings, a bookcase and desk, and a long dining table.

There were 2 other tents one on the north side of the camp which housed the boys and another with two rooms which housed Miss Browne and the girls.

The days began at 7am with the flag raising and the inspection of the facilities. Study period was from 9am to noon.

Wooden Walkway to the Beach. I believe it is Earl Casey and Steve Shomin in the wheelchairs. (Left to Right)

After lunch, the children could enjoy the various entertainments of the camp, swimming, nature studies, shorthand, typing skills, piano, building sand structures, or perhaps extra study towards fall’s upcoming classes. Boredom was seldom found resting on the young minds of these ambitious campers.

They enjoyed their evening meal around 5:30. The flag was lowered at 7pm and lights out by ten o’clock. The children recited a prayer before each meal and an evening prayer at bedtime. Mother Blanche was a firm believer in God and the power of prayer.

The Port Huron community also came together to provide many days of entertainment for the children.

Picnics were plentiful and complete with all the fixings for a superb outing. Arrangements were made for all the children to attend the big Chautauqua. Chautauqua was an annual gathering held in Pine Grove Park. It started as a non-denominational Christian gathering based in Chautauqua N. Y. From there it spread into a traveling event of performers and entertainers featuring world-renowned guest speakers, lecturers, big bands and other musical venues, singers, acts and presentations of many different varieties. The event lasted seven days and was held in a large tent on the Pine Grove Park grounds.

The Elks played a significant role in the welfare and entertainment of the young cripples providing meals for them at their lodge, boat trips to Wallaceburg, automobile rides and numerous other forms of amusement.

Richard Forman, or “Uncle Dick “ as he was affectionately called by the young campers, was one of the children’s favorite people. He lent his “big automobile” and acted as chauffeur for the kids almost every day and night, as required for any task at hand, or for the children’s simple amusement of a “joy ride”.

A typical day could include a 20-mile ride to Lexington for ice cream, off to the circus in the afternoon and then an evening dinner at the Elks.

Uncle Dick rallied for the local support of the Lakeside Camp and also for the Camp Okawana that followed. He was a mentor and hero of the children, the role he played in the lives of these disadvantaged kids was substantial.

Another key player in the lives of the youngsters was Dr. Clements, the camp physician. He attended to the physical and most likely, some of the emotional needs of the children.

I am thinking he was a busy person, considering the number of youngsters in camp and the fact that their outdoor activities would be more prone to injury when considering their physical limitations. When he wasn’t doing all this he would help to coordinate and chaperone the campers to the various events they attended.

The children summed up the kind and caring Dr. Clements with “He has a heart as big as Alaska but not nearly as cold”. He was a person, like all the staff, overworked and underpaid. Their reward was the laughter and happiness of the young tenters.

Some of the  Staff and Children of the Van Leuven Browne Lakeside Summer Camp
        ( Possibly Lt. Burns (Back row army uniform) Edan O’Neil, ?, Uncle Dick, Dr Clements, ?, Mother Blanche, Earl 
                                          Casey and Joe Sullivan 2nd row in front of Dr Clements  )

With some efforts from the children, from the first of June 1915 through July 12th, mother Blanche handled the camp by herself. Miss Edna O’Neil finally arrived on the 12th and brought three more children from the Hospital-School. In the following weeks, three more children joined the Lakeside camp making a total of sixteen children.

Joe Sullivan and His Team of Goats along with Earl Casey and the Young Campers at the Lakeside Camp  1915

Of all the activities presented to the kids, bathing was indeed the favorite. When one child was given permission to “get wet”, the rest made their way into the lake, some being carried, some on crutches, some hobbling on unsteady legs, but eventually they all got there. Once in the water, their experience was no different than other children.

Laughing, splashing, playing with wooden water toys and learning their first strokes of swimming, activities which would keep them busy for hours on end.

The nearby summer cottagers would participate in the merriment of the children and many of them would become friends over those summer day months of camp. The campers were invited to lots of local parties, where they were indulged in almost every flavor of ice cream.

Miss Browne said of the first camp “ several of the children brought to me and given up by doctors as hopeless, have been cured, often I removed braces, giving the children freedom and letting nature have a chance.”

The Detroit Sunday News on July 18th, 1915 stated, “ It is plain to see to anyone who observes carefully that Miss Browne’s method is commendable, and although the deformities seem very sad to onlookers, the children appear to give very little attention to their misfortunes. They are brown, merry and helpful, a truly happy family.”

What a great summation to the wonderful weeks these children would enjoy at the Lakeside Camp.

It was a camping experience that would follow them the rest of their lives.

In early September, Miss Browne would take the children back to the Van Leuven Hospital- School in Detroit for another year of schooling. They were anxious to get back to their studies, but at the same time, looking forward to returning next summer to the Lakeside camp they had so enjoyed.

Earl Casy who had been in the school for four years would take on the challenges of teaching this year.

On September 11th, 1915 the White Star Line steamer Wauketa would depart Port Huron for a voyage north to Detroit.

On board were 16 passengers who had not paid the normal fair of $1.00. They were special guests, young passengers who had just enjoyed a truly remarkable summer, a summer that one could only dream about, a summer that would child would make any child envious.

These young charges had been given a new perspective on life, given a feeling of accomplishment. They had replaced any negativity with thoughts of enthusiasm and happiness.

They had learned many things during their summer of camp and felt many different emotions, especially the love of a lady named Mother Blanche and the Christian spirit and kindness of helpers from a community that rallied behind them, to make those summer weeks so special.

 The children and Mother Blanche thanked Mr. Bielman of the White Star line for the free passes, the Leonard Moving and Storage Company for taking their outdoor equipment to and from the camp, the police department for taking the children to and from the boat, to Lieutenant Burns and the Boy Scouts for setting up the camp, mayor John Black for his many gifts, and to Commissioner Green for his kindness in making the camp convenient.

Also thanked were the Port Huron Street Car Co. for free tickets, Port Huron Bread Co. for free bread and cakes all summer, the Port Huron Creamery Co. for their discounts, the National Biscuit Co and Towar Creamery Co both of Detroit for their free ice cream and cookies, the Buffalo Sled Co. for a special coaster wagon delivered with no charge and Mooneys Auto Truck Co, for helping move belongings to and from the dock and the Lakeside site.

Yes, the Van Leuven Browne Lakeside summer camp was more than a camp of children. It was a camp of generous community volunteers who gave freely of their time, a camp of kindness, a camp of love and learning, a camp of compassion and benevolence all coming together with nature in a mutual alliance of Faith.

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