The lost history of Camp Talawanda
Man seeks commemorative plaque in remembrance of historic Camp Talawanda and its trailblazing owner Wilma McFarland
Ed Hodges, a self-proclaimed history sleuth and retired teacher in San Jose, went to visit Lake Tahoe with his wife, and his sister, Vicki Carruthers, in 2009 while on vacation.
When there, his sister reminisced about a camp she had attended as a young girl with their sister, Susan Hodges, in the 1950s. This all-girls camp was named Camp Talawanda — notably one of, and possibly the first, all-female camp in Lake Tahoe, according to Carruthers.
In Hodges’ personal blog about Talawanda, he states that his sister had encouraged him to track down the old camp. After asking around, the two were directed to the Gatekeeper Museum in Tahoe City. After their visit to the museum, they were directed to a golf course in Kings Beach where they were told to meet “Captain Beck … Not only did he know where the old camp was located, he told us that his wife also attended it as a girl,” writes Hodges.
He and his sister were finally able to locate the camp. Unfortunately, there were no remnants of the once thriving summertime destination.
“We expected to see a housing development, but to our pleasant surprise the camp property was still empty land,” Hodges writes. “According to (a) neighbor, the land is under Forest Service control.”
They were also told by a local that the old Camp Talawanda sign was being held in a home nearby.
“Just at dusk, we located the house with the sign, but alas, (the home) had just sold… during the sale, another neighbor had acquired the sign.” writes Hodges. “Throughout the search, my sister and I got the feeling that there is a story waiting to be told, the story of Camp Talawanda.”
Eager to find more about the camp’s history, Ed Hodges began to scour the internet for any details of Talawanda. Over years of researching, Hodges found that the camp had been owned by an inspiring woman named Wilma McFarland, affectionately known as “Birch” by the girls at the camp. According to a 1941 Modesto Bee article that Hodges had found, McFarland had moved west from Iowa in 1918 to teach at Modesto High School and then went on to establish the first-ever Girl Scout group in Stanislaus County. This experience in leading young girls peaked an interest in owning her own camp, where she could continue to empower young girls in the outdoors, and so she finally established Camp Talawanda in 1932 in North Lake Tahoe.
In another article entitled “Directing Girls’ Summer Camp Yields Satisfaction,” McFarland was interviewed about her ownership over the camp and what it meant to her. In the article, she stated that the name Talawanda “… means wind in the pines,” and goes on to tell the interviewer how she found the location for her beloved girls camp.
“We looked at many places, and the Forest Service offered us the site near Lake Tahoe where the camp is,” she said.
Many campers, including Carruthers, have stated that the camp was a place free of stress, and that others seldom ever felt homesick. When McFarland was asked about homesickness by the Modesto Bee, she said, “Once a little girl went home for the final two weeks of the six week term, (but) on the other hand — many of the girls when they arrive at camp say simply, ‘Well, I’m home.’”
Hodges was also able to get in contact with several campers over the years, one of them being Jackie Foret, who was a camper and camp counselor at Talawanda. In a letter to Hodges sent Feb. 2, 2009, she helped Hodges get into contact with several other campers, and even recalled two girls who were sent to the camp to escape war zones in England during World War II.
Wilma McFarland’s granddaughter, Leslie Helms-Joost, is the daughter of McFarland’s adopted son Jim Helms.
“My grandmother started it and then my mom and dad took it over until we closed it up.” said Helms-Joost. “I remember going up there from the time I was 5 until we closed it in 1970. I spent every summer up there. It was great, we had horseback riding, tennis, we’d go to Lake Tahoe and go swimming, go on trips to Virginia City, ice skating … in the summers we would go into desolation for a week on horses. We would take all of our food on a mule and go in for a whole week. We had people come from the Bay Area that had no idea how to sleep outside in a tent or anything.”
Helms-Joost said her grandmother started the camp for women to be able to spend more time outdoors and believes it to be the first ever all-girls camp in Lake Tahoe.
“Over in Tahoe City there was a boys camp, and we would play baseball against the boys every summer. We won every time,” said Helms-Joost. Asked about her grandmother, she said, “She was a wonderful woman. Very smart, intelligent lady. She passed away when I was 25. We were very close.”
She also explained that as houses began to develop around the area, neighbors would complain about the noisiness of the girls camp, as well as other problems, such as horses escaping from the camp and running around on the nearby golf course and tearing up the turf.
“They didn’t want to hear people having fun,” she said.
According to Helms-Joost, her parents decided to close up the camp after the noise complaints began to file in. The exact circumstances of its closure are unknown. After the camp was closed, Helms-Joost said that the Forest Service tore down its structures.
According to Helms-Joost, the camp had ended “because of all of the houses around the area. They said that the camp was too noisy for the homes and people wanted to come to relax. One person spoils the pie. One time our horses got out and ripped up the golf course from running around.”
Ed Hodges is now seeking to revive the memory of Talawanda by establishing a commemorative plaque where the camp used to lie.
“Camp Talawanda was the iconic example of a well run girls summer camp – safe, fun, nurturing,” said Hodges. “Wilma McFarland’s kindly spirit and effective management were the reasons for success. This camp should be honored with an informational plaque reminding people of its place in history.”
Hodges said he currently has an endorsement from the North Lake Tahoe Historical society, and the support of the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. If all goes well, the plaque will be installed by next spring.
Helms-Joost believes that her mother, father, and grandmother, all of whom have since died, would be proud to have a commemorative plaque placed where the camp once lay.
“I think it would be wonderful,” she added. “I know my mom and dad and grandma would look down on that and be very happy. And I would like to be there. I wish it was still going.”
Elizabeth White is a staff writer with the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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