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Camp Alexandra – A Brief History

by Donni Klassen

Inspiration and coordination by Jack Berry

A camp has one primary duty and that is to see that every camper learns to become a better person by being at camp...our camp should be dedicated to the ideal that people come to know and respect one another by living and working together.

alexandra neighbourhood house

Historically the social service agency has gone by two names: Camp Alexandra and Crescent Beach Community Services. Since the early 1970s, the agency has opened its doors, year round, to the Crescent Beach Community as a Neighbourhood House. In October 2009, the name of the society was changed to Alexandra Neighbourhood House. This name is in keeping with the role the society has played for over 40 years. All the services and Activities will remain the same.

Camp Alexandra was founded in 1916 as a summer camp for children from the Alexandra Orphanage in Vancouver. Although this was its primary function, from the very beginning the Camp also hosted groups of needy mothers and children from Vancouver, who would otherwise have had little chance of getting away from the city.

The Camp itself dates from 1916, but its parent organization, the Alexandra Orphanage, goes back to the very early days of Vancouver. The Orphanage was opened by members of the Women"s Christian Temperance Union and associated churches who, on Thanksgiving Day in 1892, undertook the care of three motherless children by placing them in a Mrs. Priestly's home in Mt. Pleasant. Shortly after, others applied for care and the ladies saw the immediate need for a "Children"s Home" run under their own protective wing. The first building occupied was a house on the corner of Homer and Dunsmuir, and the first annual meeting was held February 9 th 1893. A constitution and by-laws were formulated and adopted and a Board of Management chosen.

In 1900 it was necessary to increase the accommodation due to the constantly increasing number of children needing shelter, and a large addition was made to the building at a cost of $3,000. For $1,200 five lots adjoining the property were also purchased.

By 1914 both the Orphanage and the city had changed greatly. Eighty children were in residence and west 7 th was no longer in the bush. The children needed some relief from the Home and in 1916 they were given a month at camp. This was so successful that the Board of Management decided to acquire a permanent site.

For Camp Alexandra, the seminal year was 1917, for this was the first year of the "Fresh Air Fund" raised by public subscription, to send city children, and particularly orphanage children, for a holiday. Ocean Park, where Camp Kwomais was already a going concern, was considered a possibility and in June, after a visit to Ocean Park and Crescent Beach, a committee was struck to "investigate, decide and act." It is presumed that the first camp was in Ocean Park, with the children using tents provided at no charge by the Ocean Park Board.

Picnic at Camp Alexandra in the 1920s

Picnic at Camp Alexandra in the 1920s

Also in 1917, through the vision and efforts of Mr. Percy Gomery, camp services were extended to forty mothers and children, who were taken to camp at the expense of the Fresh Air Fund. In a very few years, these mothers and children became the dominant element, outnumbering the Orphanage children ten to one.

Old dining hall

Prior to 1920, Crescent Beach was barely a village and on three sides, the camp was bounded by open space. It was an ideal spot for disadvantaged mothers and orphaned children to rest, relax and gain health and strength. The success of the first camp may be deduced by the subsequent purchase, on May 9, 1918, of the Crescent Beach property from Mr. Agar for $800. Approval for the construction of a building at a cost not to exceed $2,000 swiftly followed the purchase of the land.

Camp Alexandra, games day 1919

In May 1919 two more buildings were added. The Nursery and the Wigwam (now the Stagehouse) were barged around from English Bay and over the summer, 270 mothers and children came to camp in addition to the 70 to 80 Orphanage children.

Camp members awaiting the train

On the day that one group prepared to return home, there would be a large crowd of children and mothers at Crescent Station. A north bound train took the campers home and a south bound train later in the day brought the new arrivals.

The haystack kids

Before 1923, some mattresses were stuffed with straw. Here the children have straw ready to stuff their mattresses. That year camp matron Mrs. Becket ordered all mattresses burned and replaced with a more sanitary type that were filled with excelsior. Too bad, stuffing time could be such fun!

Communication between Crescent Beach and Vancouver at that time depended on the railway, which was much faster and more convenient than the new-fangled motor, while telephones were a luxury restricted to the city. There are few details available on the first camp in 1918, but the emphasis during this early period was on fresh air and three good meals a day. The set-up was institutional and activities were regimented in accordance with practices of the time. As a new concept of social work developed, attitudes changed and new growth and sounder development of the Alexandra Fresh Air Camp resulted.

Regular exercise 1920s

Daily exercise helps to build strong healthy bodies

On August 29 th, a grateful mother wrote to Mrs. Nelson, Matron of the Cr�che:

"After returning from the Crescent Beach Camp and saw (sic) how well equipped the camp is for the entertainment of the cannot help but feel a sense of gratitude to those in charge. When it was intimated to me about going down to the camp, I felt somewhat reluctant, knowing that the general mode of camping...seems unsanitary, rough and rugged, and was quite sure that we could not adapt to that style of camping for a single day. But I assure you that the whole aspect, to me, was changed, after I beheld how comfortable they are down there...abundance of everything to eat and drink whenever they feel so disposed. When Miss Morrison and Mrs. Smith would come out to the camp, the little ones would flock around, holding on to their dress, even them though so small seems to realize their sense of gratitude to their "providers". Again, I must thank you.." A. DeVarz

Camp Alexandra 1919

In 1920 the new two storey building (the Dining Hall) with a sleeping porch and staff quarters upstairs, and kitchen and dining area downstairs, was completed. In 1921 another two storey building was erected with quarters upstairs, and downstairs, a hospital area with nurse"s room and a large recreation hall with fireplace and moveable curtains for a stage. A total of 800 campers attended in 1921.

In June 1920 the Mayor of Vancouver, Major Owen, attended and opened the new dining hall. The camp grounds were dedicated by Major Owen in memory of his son, killed in WWI. The cement base to the flag pole is so inscribed.

In 1923 seventy–five mattresses were burnt, 3 buildings were fumigated and a new ice-box was installed in the kitchen. Roll-up mattresses filled with excelsior, (fine, curled wood shavings) were purchased. Spenser"s filled these mattresses each year at a charge of 65 cents, until 1940 when they suddenly raised the price to 80 cents. The difference in price was enough to keep six children at camp for two weeks, so the solution was to buy one ton of excelsior for $40, freight it to camp, and have the staff fill the mattresses!

Boys" camp 1930s

The first boys camp for "underprivileged and pre-delinquent" boys was held in 1925 under the direction of Gordie Stevens, a probation officer loaned to the Camp by Juvenile Court. He and Mr. McCabe, the other boy's worker at court, alternated the camp position each year. Age of the boys was initially 9 to 12 and 60% of them were repeat offenders.

In 1925, Queen Alexandra, after whom the hospital, the Orphanage and the camp were named, died.

In 1928 a plea for funds for the Fresh Air Fund, which had been established in 1918 to enable the underprivileged to attend camp, lauded the benefits of a holiday by the sea where:

"in the warm sun at Crescent Beach and within a few hundred yards of the shimmering ocean, these mothers and their children who have been subjected to harshness and poverty all winter, will be revived...a complete rest will be theirs, on the sands of the beach and among the wavy grasses of the camp estate, and they will return to the city re-invigorated. Camp frees tired women from the maddening of city cares and gives them a breath of fresh air." "Plenty of sleep and plenty to eat" was the rule at camp.

Bathing Beauties Enjoying the water

For most of the summer months the tide would be either out or at slack, consequently there were plenty of sandbars exposed for the children to play on. Wet sand clings to bodies and gets enmeshed in bathing suits. To prevent a build up of sand in camp, a tower with a water tank on top was erected to provide showers and bath water. Crescent Beach"s early water system was mostly above ground and along with the water from the camp"s tank it could be said on hot summers" day the children enjoyed warm water from an early form of solar heating.

In 1930 electricity was installed and wiring at the camp was completed by July 1 St. The 1930"s marked the beginning of a new and sad era and was also the start of major changes in the relationship between the Orphanage and the camp. The Depression had now begun, though nobody knew then how severe it would be, nor how long it would last. The role of the Orphanage was changing, and the numbers of children were shrinking. Government was undertaking a number of responsibilities previously handled by independent organizations and the financial support for both the Alexandra Orphanage and the Fresh Air Fund was more difficult to obtain. In the fall of 1930, the Orphanage and Fresh Air fund elected to join the Vancouver Welfare Federation, the predecessor of the United Way.

By the end of the 1930's, camp routines were well established. It was not in any sense a "holiday" camp, but an important and necessary service for the needy. It was producing results far greater than anybody had expected when they first proposed a month by the sea for the orphanage children. In 1934 the sign at the camp that had previously read "Alexandra Orphanage Camp" was repainted to read "Alexandra Fresh Air Camp". In 1937, only about 50% of the applicants could be accepted. No charge was made to campers and they often left the camp with clothing and toys, provided by the Women's Auxiliary.

Much of the Camp's organization, structure and routines were intended to help mothers cope when they returned home. Food was simple and economical yet wholesome and satisfying, and the menus could be easily duplicated in the home. Cleanliness, order and discipline were demanded of the campers and their children. In spite of this, an obvious "us and them" attitude existed in Crescent Beach right from the beginning, between the summer residents and the campers. The prosperous cottagers did not look favorably on their children mixing with the poor and the orphans who came to camp. This attitude was based on a still prevalent class prejudice, one of the original targets of the Settlement and Neighbourhood House movement, which believed that bringing the classes into contact with each other, as neighbours, would enable each to learn from the other.

Costume Day

Many of the campers were mothers and on days such as costume day they took an active role in the proceedings.

"almost without exception, every camper benefited from a change of environment, rest, nourishing food and the more intangible things camp had to offer – learning to live together as a group, a way out of long-accustomed ruts of negative and harmful thinking, the laying of a foundation for cultural beginnings and learning to appreciate the simple beauties and joys of living that are available to everyone regardless of circumstances."

By 1941 the effects of the war were being felt financially. With agencies concentrating on war work, camp was on the back burner until the end of May. The war had also greatly improved the financial position of many of the people who had previously come to camp. In her 1941 report, Mrs. Beckett said "this does not mean there are not a great number who need our care, but there should be a greater effort made to reach these people."

Many repairs were needed in 1941 - interior painting, repairs to swings, awnings, play shed, lattice gate and laundry traps; repairs to the tents and shingles on the oldest bungalow, painting the verandah's, oiling the kitchen floor and repairs to the electric lights. Electric lighting was finally installed in the tent houses. For the three previous years, electric lights had been obtained in the tents by stringing telephone wire from the main building, "which is not a very practical thing to do and last year caused fuses to burn out."

In the 1940's camp was financed through the Vancouver Welfare Federation and from the income of the Alexandra Children"s Home. Until 1941, no fees had been charged to the campers. Owing to the increased need for war services the sum of $406.15 required for insurance, taxes, escalating railway fares for the campers, and provisions, was not granted. The options were to curtail the number of camps or to charge each camper a small fee. Neither option appeared attractive, but camp staff were adamant in their desire to maintain the number and length of camps so, in 1942, camp fees were established. Each camper paid a fee according to his ability, but no one was turned away because of inability to pay.

During the 1940"s camps for the underprivileged provided rest and change to mothers who would not otherwise have a holiday. They also taught the value of routine, good food and sufficient rest.

Social workers provided the Family Welfare Bureau with copious notes on each camper, some certainly less than flattering. Comments included:

"...somewhat discipline whatever with children....a good....eats an enormous amount for such a small girl, very sweet and unspoiled, splendid athlete...contributes greatly...very dirty and untidy about hair and hair and wears bathing suit under dress to meals, manners disgusting...neat and clean, liked by all, lovely personality...feet are always dirty, good sport...tired and rundown...not very intelligent, children very badly behaved...morbidly retrospective."

In 1941, acting on a recommendation made the previous year by Mrs. Beckett, the Board purchased an additional acre of land across the road. With only 1 1/4 acres of grounds, activities and programs often had to be curtailed to suit the local residents or were handicapped by having an audience hanging over the fence. The new paved road was also going to bring some changes and although earlier in the year, 21 acres behind the Camp had been available, the additional acre was an improvement.

By 1943 the cost per day per camper had risen to 65 cents, and fees were collected from those campers that could afford them to help offset the cost. The liaison between the camp and sponsoring social agencies was close and in spite of charging fees, the camp made every effort to accommodate those who most needed it. Following the depression and the war years came groups of people who needed much more than fresh air and sunshine, and it was realized that camp must attempt to fill these needs rather than to dispense charity. Symbolic of this thinking was the change in name from the Alexandra Fresh Air Camp to Camp Alexandra. A greater emphasis was placed on the social and recreational needs of the camper. Special periods were set aside for elderly campers and new standards of programming began to evolve. Camping season was extended from the beginning of June to the middle of September.

Camp programming was as excellent as the physical surroundings were limited. Circuses, sea festivals, breakfast hikes, camp newspapers, archery, horseback riding, campfires and overnight trips made a rich and varied holiday diet.

By 1960, the camp had served more that 45,000 people, providing for most the only holiday they could ever have.

In 1960 72% of the children at Camp were from broken homes or low income families. The need for an additional site was becoming pressing. The camp owned 2 1/2 acres of grounds around the camp, 1 acre across Sullivan street and five acres "high on the hill on the south side of Stokes Rd.", two and a half miles from the camp. This area, which is the present day 20 th Ave. between 128 th and King George Highway, was still in 1960, very sparsely populated and was uncleared except for a small area around the supply cabin which had two sleeping porches used for overnight camping. The Board continued pressing the Department of Recreation and conservation for a lease of Crown Lands, commending them on their program of setting aside public lands and developing camp sites. Many recommendations were cited as a result of a 1960 survey including: continuity of camp directorship and the importance of acquiring a more rugged campsite as:

"Crescent Beach no longer offers scopes for the type of camping experience these children should receive. The bulldozer has obliterated old woodland trails, residences have been erected in favorite picnic spots of yesterday and the last outdoor chapel is now only a memory. Camp activities must of necessity be confined largely to the camp grounds in the heart of Crescent Beach with interested spectators lining the fences and robbing the occasions of all sense of privacy."

By 1960 Camp Alexandra was a branch of the Alexandra Community Activities and a financially participating member of the Community Chest and Council.

In 1963 land was leased from the Provincial Government and Imperial Oil at Lake Sasamat, and Camp Wallace, later to become Camp Sasamat, was established. This wilderness setting was to be used for older age groups of children, leaving Camp Alexandra for mothers with young children and senior citizens.

In 1973 the original Alexandra Orphanage, which since 1969 had been used as a hostel for transient youth, burned to the ground. In 1976 the property was sold and the Alexandra Foundation was established with the proceeds of the sale.

Today, Crescent Beach Community Services at Camp Alexandra provides social and recreational programs, services and special events for the community on the Semiahmoo Peninsula and greater Vancouver. The demand for social services has continued to increase proportionally with residential immigration, and continual upgrading of the facilities and expansion of programs and services has occurred.

The summer camping program has continued uninterrupted at Camp Alexandra since 1916 and now includes sessions for adults with a developmental disability, adults with a mental illness, teen and young moms, as well as the camps for low–income families.

Beacher Place

In addition to administering Camp Alexandra, Crescent Beach Community Services assists Surrey"s Parks and Recreation with Beacher Place. The arrangement is involved, but Community Services looks after all bookings and the interior, and the city looks after the exterior and uses it for free.

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