The Pirates Of Dingley Dell
Lake Champlain Weekly – October 14, 2015
By Michael Langlois
A history of an early twentieth century Vermont Boys’ Camp.
Few people who live in the Champlain Valley know that there once existed a magical place on the Vermont shores of Lake Champlain. A place inspired by three extraordinary individuals who sought to heal their souls and, in the process, helped to shape the character of a younger generation.
Camp Aladdin. The name evokes images of fairytale characters in faraway lands, but for eleven glorious New England summers – 1928 to 1939 – the camp in South Hero, Vermont, was a very real place where adolescent boys spent their summers learning to navigate life’s challenges through hard work, discipline and, of course, a lot of fun.
“When you talk about a pirate ship, well, your mind just runs to all kinds of fantasy,” said Bret Corbin, author of the book, The Pirates of Dingley Dell: A True Swashbuckling Story at a Vermont Boys Camp. “I had heard talk about the founders and how they had done great things; how they were unconventional and I thought it would make an interesting piece.”
In 1928, husband and wife Francis Godfrey Baker and Marion Georgina Weller Baker with their good friend, Ellen “Nell” Edwards, opened the Adventures Summer Boys Camp (later renamed Camp Aladdin) at Beech Bay on the southern end of South Hero Island. The three friends had spent the previous five summers working as councilors for Camp Lanakila, part of Vermont’s Aloha chain of summer camps. Initially, the friends had used Lanakila to seek refuge from the lasting effects from their time during WWI. They soon realized, however, that their part-time hobby could be a full-time venture.
“They (Francis and Marion) had an opportunity to be young and happy,” Corbin said. “They were both creative people and they had a chance to place those heavy war experiences in the background.”
Francis, an ingenious engineer affectionately called “The Skipper”, was an expert boat builder who was frequently called upon by the military and private sector to solve difficult mechanical problems. Marion was a talented artist in her own right and had served with “Nell” in the Red Cross as nurses for an overseas military hospital. Marion – a well-read woman – promptly dubbed the camp property Dingley Dell, a reference to a convivial society manor house in Charles Dickens The Pickwick Papers. “Nell” acted as the head nurse for the camp. Together Francis, Marion and “Nell” worked tirelessly to breathe life into The Adventures Camp.
Camp Aladdin catered to predominately well-to-do families from the larger cities with sons between fourteen and nineteen years of age. Young campers attended a nine-week session beginning on July 1 and were expected to bring, “three suits of underwear, six pairs of sailors’ white Navy trousers, one pair of sailors’ blue Navy trousers, six sailors’ white knitties, jerseys, tennis shoes, Kodak, and musical instruments, if desired,” writes Corbin.
In addition to these personal items, the boys were expected to bring a positive attitude and a strong work ethic to camp. Francis Baker believed that to build a strong character one must be willing to dream, try, fail, try again and, eventually, succeed. “He (Francis) gave them a love of imagination,” said Corbin. “He showed them how you can be unconventional and produce really amazing things.” The young boys never could have anticipated the powerful life lessons that they would take away from Dingley Dell.
Francis harnessed the energy of the young campers who helped bring his engineering designs to life. At any given time, the boys worked on various outbuildings, dilapidated cars or newly constructed watercraft with names like Warlock and Flying Foo. The intrepid engineers’ most ambitious project was a two-decked pirate ship named Aladdin. The seventy-five foot long ship with a twenty-foot beam boasted twenty-two berths and five masts with eight rainbow colored sails. The Aladdin, with a Dutch-influenced bow and a Spanish stern, made its debut on Lake Champlain during the camp’s second season.
“It would have been every boy’s dream to pull up alongside Lake Champlain boaters in a pirate ship with its Jolly Roger flapping in the breeze and replica canon sitting menacingly on the bow,” said Corbin. “The weapon didn’t actually fire any projectiles, but it sure did make a heck of a boom.”
The Aladdin travelled many nautical miles in the course of the summer, ranging from excursions on the Richelieu River or up the St. Lawrence to Montreal, to points on the New York shores of Lake Champlain. It took eight to ten kids just to operate the ship and assure its proper and smooth functioning, writes Corbin.
“Although their travels were filled with magic, mystery and intrigue, there was still a great deal of work that needed to be done to keep the ship on course and operating safely,” he said. “After a few days, they (the boys) were genuinely tired and thought a great deal about the pleasure of rest.
“The “Skipper” made sure that there was minimal time for thought of homesickness or boredom,” Corbin added.
The voyages also incorporated endurance exercises with games like “Shipwrecked Sailor,” where the campers were dropped at a remote location or left to swim to the closest shore or island. In order to eat, they would fish, set animal traps, or search for edible vegetation.
“Self sustainability is something that most kids don’t experience today,” said Corbin. There was an element of being with your peers and deciding how you were going to survive. I think it was lots of fun for them.”
For Corbin, the writing of the book was a ten-year love affair with local history. “It was an opportunity to write a real life historical piece that read like fiction,” he said. “I didn’t believe that anybody would believe (Camp Aladdin) is really true. Adults would like to go back and relive that time and I had an opportunity by writing this book.”
In the summer of 1939, “The Skipper,” Marion and the boys made their last voyage on the Aladdin. The prospect of WWII and ongoing financial problems made keeping the camp open harder to justify. Yet the memories of Camp Aladdin for these young Pirates of Dingley Dell would last a lifetime.
“I think everything there (Camp Aladdin) was just so warm,” said Corbin. “It was a nice time with people who really cared about each other. It was the kind of camp that everyone would like to be at all the time.”