The Conservation Youth Camp Program was established in the 1960s and was operated by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. There were several camps scattered throughout Wisconsin, and each year there were two 6-week sessions that campers (workers) could attend. My camp was Statehouse Lake in Northern Wisconsin. My older brother attended in 1970 and I followed in his steel toe boots as I begrudgingly attended 4 years later. The camps became co-ed in 1974 although, at Statehouse Lake, our session did not include females.
Our camp was located right outside of Manitowish Waters in Vilas County Wisconsin, a small town with about 500 inhabitants. The Camp Director during the 1970s was Robert Brismaster but everyone called him Mr. B.. Most campers did not have direct interaction with him. He felt like a drill instructor to most of us, as 16 year old's, most were not excited about engaging with him. His reputation of sternness preceded his presence. Instead, campers leaned on their individual camp counselors to set the tone for how the camp was going to be run. It was important to Mr. B. that campers established good work habits. Even though the YCC was a work camp for teenagers, and among such beauty, it still had a bit of a military feel. Because most campers didn’t have any direct interaction with Mr. B., we relied on his reputation on how things were going to be structured. Some say he was aloof, others said he was shy while others said he was just mean. The key thing to remember is that he took his job seriously and wanted to ensure everyone’s safety among campers while teaching hard work and discipline.
The pay was $30 per week and room and board was included. Campers got paid twice during the 6-week session. Because we remained in camp on most weekends and we were in a rural setting, it was a good way to save a few bucks while in high school.
Sans TV for 6 Weeks but Plenty of Company
We had no TV for 6 weeks while we were there. We were entertained by ticks, mosquitoes, horse flies, deer flies, and gnats. It was my first exposure to deer flies but don't know why they're considered flies as their sting inflicts the same pain as a yellow jacket or wasp. Horseflies stung too but not to the same extent as deer flies. I initially figured that anything with the word 'deer' in it can't be too bad. Living in southern Wisconsin, my nemesis was horse flies, so once I got home to Racine my perspective changed as I no longer worried much about horse flies.
On a more serious tone, we had plenty of free time to explore and play. Saturday afternoon and Sunday were free times so recreation was essential to keep our spirits up. Recreation included softball, volleyball, basketball, ping-pong, swimming, and fishing. I played basketball and ping-pong whenever I could find a partner or two. I don't remember bringing a radio to camp but the largest nearby city was about 25 miles away with a fairly week signal so radio didn’t help pass the time at all.
Escanaba Lake Trail
For half of my session, I worked on the Escanaba Lake Trail which was located near Boulder Junction. One slight advantage of working here was that it was about 30 minutes from camp so those who didn't get enough rest the prior night got a chance to doze on the bus. At the time, the Escanaba trail had rolling hills and was quite scenic and the full trail traversed around 5 different lakes. Common trees found here near the trail included aspen, balsam, and maple. Our job as campers was to clear brush, remove trees and stumps to help this trail be one of the best groomed and scenic ski trails in northern Wisconsin. That’s the good news; the bad news was that part of this trail was in a marshy area with very little wind. As I look back over 45 years, I don't know what was more challenging about this work, clearing the trial to the best of my ability with multiple blisters on both hands or just surviving the insects.
Going To a Rock Festival
Ha, ha. We finished our work at Deer Skin River at about 2 pm and some of us novice 16-year-olds thought we had the rest of the day off. I learned later in life not to have any expectations about being let out of work early, it's better to be surprised than disappointed after your expectations don't come to fruition.
Anyway, back to 2 pm. About 40 of us tired and thirsty campers begrudgingly boarded a bus and drove about 20 miles to our next site. Feeling like a tree sloth hanging upside in a South American rainforest, I was praying for a flat tire on our gray bus covered with road dust so we could just sit and relax while the tire was fixed. No such luck. About halfway to the quarry, one arrogant counselor smirked and said we're going to a rock festival. Indeed, a mixed reaction among the 16 and 17-year-old campers on the bus. Some were intrigued by this and wondered what may lie ahead for the rest of the afternoon. Others, perhaps a more cynical bunch knew the counselor was up to no good. We were located in Northern Wisconsin and it was a Tuesday afternoon so there was no chance in hell that we were going to an actual music festival. Later, we pull up to a quarry and we all knew it was a sham. We proceed to make a long line of workers moving rocks from one side of the quarry to a pickup location. What a fun rock festival and you know what, we didn't even hear music while working in the quarry. Counselors thought it was fun but most of us thought they were just being assholes.
Yes, Jesus Loves Me
While driving to and from our job site, the counselors taught us some very vulgar songs. My parents would have been astounded at the level of vulgarity as we were only 16 years old. These songs were way beyond R-rated, but we all joined along as peer pressure took root.
There was only one PG-rated song that went like this: "The chicken that they give us they say is mighty fine, one flew off the table and killed a friend of mine. I don't want any more Statehouse Life, please mom I want to go home. The pay that they give us they say is mighty fine, they give us 50 dollars and take back 49. I don't want no more Statehouse life, please mom I want to go home."
The songs were sung during most of our trip until we got into town, then the songs turned to G-rated. We typically sang, 'Yes, Jesus loves me, yes, Jesus loves me, yes, Jesus loves me the Bible tells me so' while we drove through a small town in Vilas County. Windows were typically down so I can just imagine those elderly ladies in those small towns thinking how well behaved we were as we sang such wholesome songs.
The one thing Mr. B. would not tolerate was using urinals as an ashtray. Legend has it that during a previous session, several cigarette butts were found where they should not have been.
To find the culprits, after dinner one evening, Mr. B. calmly announced that the camp was going to install a cigarette vending machine so smokers would not have to walk into town to purchase their smokes. He proceeded to ask a group of 100 young men who smoked Camels, several hands went up. He then went on to Kools as one young man raised his hand. On to Marlboros as three individuals raised their hands. While this occurred, a counselor was adding each of their names to a list (apparently there were several Marlboro cigarette butts thrown to the bottom of the urinal.) Once he was done, he asked those Marlboro individuals to stay around after dinner. I just wonder what they were thinking as 3 of them were the only campers left in the dining hall. At this point, Mr. B. confronted them to determine the culprit(s). No one came forward. He then told them they had to clean all urinals so clean that peanut butter could be eaten from the bottom of the urinal. I don't know if he had actually had them eat the peanut butter as I never got a straight answer but his message was received loud and clear.
Peeling Potatoes for 100
During one week, I was lucky to have kitchen detail instead of working the ski trails or river restoration projects. Of course, white t-shirts were required for kitchen duty. For three of those five days, I had to peel potatoes by hand. I was expecting to peel about 10 pounds of potatoes before I could take a break and wander around the kitchen. Unfortunately, I had to peel about 100 pounds of potatoes instead. I was flabbergasted. I had no idea how I was going to peel that many potatoes. At some points of the day, I started feeling sorry for myself although when I'd look at the number of bug bites on my hands, I felt grateful to work the kitchen for that one week. About halfway through, I had several other campers who pitched in to finally complete the job of peeling potatoes.
I now had a new perspective when it came to preparing food. Once you peel so many potatoes, in the future when your mother asks you to help peel 5-10 pounds of potatoes for a family of 10, I no longer felt compelled to complain.
Little Bohemia in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin
I remember the scenery in Northern Wisconsin is beautiful and pristine, with great northern forests and lakes that number in the hundreds. One might even claim this is “God’s Country” by the incredible beauty and virgin forests. However, at some point, most campers became acclimated to the scenery and look for other interesting things to view while traveling to and from the job site. Thankfully, because of where the camp was located, our bus often rode by the Bohemia Lodge off Highway 51 in Manitowish Waters. For those who were unaware, Little Bohemia gained fame and notoriety because, on the afternoon of April 21, 1934, the FBI had a shoot-out with the John Dillinger gang. A group of gang members and several girlfriends had arrived there for a weekend of rest. The following day, the FBI was notified of this fact and due to the imminent departure of the gang, the FBI moved in with a limited amount of preparation. The women were captured during this raid but most of the men escaped out the back of the restaurant. I didn’t get the chance to actually visit this infamous crime scene while at camp but a field trip to Little Bohemia would have been a great choice. I vaguely remember thinking how such an infamous event could actually take place in such a remote and peaceful area.
There was one cabin mate that I didn't get along with. He'd constantly harassed and teased me. I don't know if he was more annoying or aggravating but the tension built during those 6 weeks. Towards the last week or so, I told him to knock it off and he persisted. I then started pushing him and begged for a fight but he resisted. That made me angrier as I continued to push him as we got closer and closer to the screen door of our cabin. I then pushed him with all my might and he flew through the screen door and landed outside. As he lay on the ground, he looked at me with bewilderment and I told the counselor to discipline me accordingly. At that point, I didn't care.
About 5 minutes later, I heard another cabin mate nervously say that Mr. B. was making his rounds tonight (which had never yet occurred) and what do we do about the broken screen door? Several campers hung up a makeshift protective shield using gray blankets to keep the flying insects from penetrating. At this point, my legs were wobbling so much that I grabbed the bedposts for support. As I had mentioned earlier, Mr. B was known to be a strict authoritarian so who knows how we would have managed this situation. He walked in the main door and said hello and chatted for a minute with several campers and the counselor and then walked to the next cabin. I knew he had noticed but didn't say a word. Perhaps this was his way of saying that some things need to be addressed in-house.
Garden Party at 4:30 am
Reveille (bugle call) started early one morning, hours after half the camp was frocking out and about around Midnight. I didn't have access to a watch or clock but looked outside and knew something was amiss. We typically rose at 6:30 which was right around dawn. On this morning, dawn had not yet made an appearance so I wondered what we were up against. We were directed to get dressed in our work clothes and don't forget our work boots. We were also asked to bring our ax, steel-toe boots, knee protectors, and shin guards along with our protective helmet. About 100 16-year-old young men gathered in a large circle in darkness on a dew-covered field. Several counselors faced us from the middle of the circle. Without any explanation or breakfast, in our full gear, we started doing jumping jacks, running in place, pushups over and over again for nearly 90 minutes. I've never been to prison but I felt like a convict for that entire morning. We were exhausted. The bad news, we had to now go to work.
What Precipitated the Garden Party?
At the start of camp, several counselors emphatically told us we could ignore curfew by leaving our cabins after bedtime if we didn’t cause a large scene and wake up any of the camp’s staff. Again, it was critical we especially don’t wake the ladies who staffed the kitchen.
At around midnight, about 10 campers came back from the bars quite inebriated. In those days, the drinking age for beer was 18 so for those mature-looking 16-year-olds, there were no issues getting served. They proceeded to wake up half the camp and run around the camp raising a ruckus. Not to be left behind in the fun, I joined them even though alcohol had not stimulated me from doing so. You had dozens of young men banging pots and pans, screaming, jumping off the pier in their underwear, and running through the woods hooting and hollering. This went on for about 25 minutes until the counselors settle down the troops. Unfortunately, the ladies that staffed the kitchen were woken up around so all campers had to pay in some manner.
The Fallout from the Garden Party
I was a hard worker who took pride in my work. However, after the garden party, I knew I needed to pace myself. At this point, it was not about reputation but survival. We worked on a cross-country skill trail that day that needed extra grooming. That meant we had to remove stumps, small brush, and sometimes clear trees off the path. There was no power equipment, the only power equipment was the camper’s brawn. For the majority of the day, I kept a close eye on our camp counselor. Survival that day meant doing a masterful job at pretending to work hard even if you weren't. That sometimes meant getting dirty and sweaty to convey hard work. Sometimes, it's not what you accomplish but how your work is perceived by those in authority.
Most Challenging Part of YCC
After camp, I had a few friends and family members ask me what was the hardest part of camp. Was it being away from home? Funny question, with 10 people in an 1100 square foot home, this respite did wonders to my spirit. Was it the dozens of blisters I accumulated on my hands where no work gloves were allowed, no, blisters were temporary? What about the food, didn't you miss your mother's home-cooked meals? Well, my mom is a good cook but at 16, I had a voracious appetite and at the same time, didn't wear a skirt to dinner. No, the hardest part of YCC was the mosquitoes. They were everywhere. Mosquitoes were quite prevalent in the camp but the worst place for those critters was on the cross country ski trail near the marshy areas. They were incredible. Being deep in the forest, little wind, and lack of sunlight allowed them to attack at all hours. I can't remember how many bites I accumulated and being 16, you're not that sophisticated on how to best protect yourself. Counselors didn't provide much direction or empathy as I'm sure they kept their secrets to themselves. All I can say is at one point in camp; I had 20 bites alone on my left hand. One more side note, during my older brother’s session (Kirt), campers had to provide blood samples before and after their session to UW-Madison for research. However, I could not find any online publicans showing the results of their study.
Be Careful What You Say
I remember coming back from camp in late August of ‘74, ready to start my junior year in high school, and met my younger brother in the driveway. He shook his head and wondered why I would ever subject myself to that kind of abuse and hard work. He laughed at how little we were paid for such hard work. Yes, I was even taxed at such a low amount. He and I got chatting and I said: “You’re next, Kirt and I went and now you’re next in line.” He shook his head and said, "Over my dead body would I subject myself to such harsh and brutal conditions. I'm not going to allow those camp counselors to boss me around. And for what purpose, you're paid peanuts for your work." I was surprised he was unwilling to take the torch but so be it. I must add the fact that 8 years later, he joined the Marine Corp and was on active duty for nearly 25 years. If that's not ironic, I don't know what is.
The Smoking Gun Tape
As I mentioned earlier, there was no TV available during our 6-week work camp. However, my camp occurred from mid-July to late August 1974. For those knowledgeable about United States history, this period happened to be the final weeks of the Watergate hearings. Therefore, Mr. Brismaster showed some heart and allowed us to view the TV on the lawn outside his cabin. This occurred on several evenings as several of the adult staff had a much better idea of the gravity of the situation. I didn't quite know the magnitude of the hearings with a limited perspective on presidents being impeached but I knew it must have been important as one could feel the tension in the air. Besides, watching TV at such a camp would typically be not part of the agreement. Regarding the smoking gun tape, which had been recorded in 1972 which documented the initial stages of the cover-up. Two days before Richard Milhaus Nixon resigned (August 8, 1974) and a week before camp had finished, the White House had released that tape.
The only other comment I'd like to make here is what our "law and order" Camp Director Mr. B. thought of our "law and order" President having to resign from the highest office of the land.