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YMCA’s 130+ Years Of Impact: Summer Camp With The Dawson Family

Feature photo by Hillary Ehlen

The YMCA has been making an impact in our community for more than 130 years. For February’s cover story, we met with individuals and families who’ve been a part of the organizations past and present to share stories and hear the reasons why they continue to support the Y.

Tom Dawson — along with his sons Mike and Alex — sat down with us to explain their experience with Camp Cormorant and the generations of their family that’s been involved.

Tell us about your experience with Camp Cormorant?
Tom Dawson: I would have gone to the camp in the 1960s — one week each summer for several summers. I sold saltwater taffy, initiated by the YMCA, to pay my way. A certain amount of each sale went to registration. Most kids sold saltwater taffy to earn their way to camp.

I would say there were probably 50-60 kids each week. We would load up on a bus from the Y on Roberts Street and parents would pick us up at the end of the week.

Camp Cormorant "brochure"

Camp Cormorant “brochure”

There were campfires with singing and storytelling. Counselors would tell spooky stories. At the time that I went, there were no girls at the camp. I can remember wanting to be a counselor when I was older. The older kids also got to go on a day canoe trip at the end of the week.

Mike Dawson: When I went, girls were allowed. I went for the dances at the end of each week and I had a new girlfriend at camp every year. It was fun meeting kids, making those connections, and the comradery of the camp was a big deal. I was a big fan of the activities: swimming, volleyball, playing games out in the field.

I remember a specific time where we saw a red moon up in the sky. Nobody knew what it was, so the counselors came up with stories that gargoyles were going to come out and get us. Then the counselors would throw rocks at the cabins and frighten the kids inside — all in fun, of course.

Mike and Alex Dawson attending a summer of Camp Cormorant together.

Mike and Alex Dawson attending a summer of Camp Cormorant together.

Another great part of the experience is looking back at the photos of your cabin and seeing kids from around town that you would recognize. I also enjoyed getting letters from my parents.

Alex Dawson: I first went when I was 10 or 11 years old. I didn’t like to be away from home, but I have very fond memories of camp. I would go with my brother — we bunked together one of the years. I also remember getting letters from mom and dad — they would send candy and we would stash it under our bunks.

I learned how to ride a horse and shoot archery at camp. I also liked the dances. The campfires were fun and I enjoyed when each cabin would put on a skit. I think I went three or four years. I would say there were definitely more than 100 kids there each week we went.

Tom Dawson's grandfather bought the YMCA sign in front of Fercho.

Tom Dawson’s grandfather bought the YMCA sign in front of Fercho.

Tom, what did the experience look like for your grandfather, Charlie Dawson?
TD: He has journals full of stories. He would take the train to the camp with his bike. He was dropped off at Lake Park, eight miles from the camp, and would bike the rest of the way. When you think of how young he would’ve been, that was a long way at the time. It was a real excursion. But he absolutely loved camp. You can tell by reading all of his journal entries.

Charlie Dawson journal

Tom Dawson’s grandfather, Charlie Dawson, kept detailed journals for years with his stories and memories from his time at Camp Cormorant in the 1910s.

Tom Dawson’s grandfather, Charlie Dawson, kept detailed journals for years with his stories and memories from his time at Camp Cormorant in the 1910s. Below are a few sections of his entries.

“I arrive at Lake Park 2:30 and leave on wheel for camp with heavy rain clouds and thunder spurring me on. About 6 miles from Camp, it sprinkles but I intend to ride as long as possible. It stops and I make camp 4:00 and receive general welcome … within 5 minutes it pours. Pretty lucky for me.”

Charlie Dawson journal

“While walking to Cormorant, we got chased thru a pasture by a bull, believe me, we got over the fence in double quick time.”

“Big candy hunt is special feature this P.M. … hiding directions and instructions for older fellows candy hunt, we do the job right, they will have to travel about 7 miles before finding their candy.”

Written by Kara Jeffers

Fargo Monthly Editor Kara Jeffers is from Garrison, North Dakota, a small town north of Bismarck, North Dakota, on Lake Sakakawea. She graduated from North Dakota State University in May 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in theatre arts. In addition to working at Spotlight Media, Jeffers also works at the Fargo-Moorhead Visitor’s Center, where she’s one of the first people (and, at times, the only person) visitors meet when they arrive in North Dakota—talk about pressure.

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