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Colbytown Camp: A Home Without a Key

What happens to refugee children in a new country? This was the question in a 1930s religion class at Colby Junior College that sparked the idea for Colbytown Camp. The class learned about Dorothy Canfield Fisher's “New Americans in Vermont” program and was inspired to create a similar program. They decided to found a camp that would help Americanize refugee children, and it opened June 27, 1940, on Little Lake Sunapee. They called it Camp Halekulani, or House Without a Key.

Each summer, approximately 24 girls were invited to attend the camp free of charge. In the beginning, all the campers were refugees, primarily Jewish, from countries including Czechoslovakia, France, Poland, Germany and Austria. After World War II, fewer refugees entered the U.S., and the criteria changed. Instead, American children from New England and beyond who were in need of a healthy, stable environment were admitted. Though refugee children no longer attended Colbytown, the camp continued to accept girls of different races and religions to keep it diverse.

The camp was directed by two Colby Junior College faculty or staff members. Initially volunteer positions, the directorships became paid positions in 1956. Camp counselors were college student volunteers, and many college and community members also gave their time to make the camp possible. The Colby Junior maintenance crew, for example, helped prepare the camp for the season, while townspeople donated their time and money, and often hosted campers for a meal.

Life at Camp

In the beginning, there were concerns from both the campers and the townspeople. Some of the girls were afraid to attend because they had been held in concentration camps and did not comprehend the idea of recreational camp. Some New London residents, however, were hesitant to host foreign guests due to the rising fear of communism in America. After residents understood the project's objectives, though, the community accepted the camp, and its name was changed to Colbytown Camp to reflect the partnership between the college and town.

The camp's daily structure didn't change much over the years. A typical day included a wake-up bell followed by the raising of the flag and then breakfast. This was followed by a chapel service and a snack of milk and crackers. Then there were two-hour-long activity periods followed by lunch and a rest hour. The remaining two activity hours were followed by swimming, dinner and an evening program. The day ended with a rendition of “Taps.”

While at Colbytown, campers were required to participate in chores with their counselors called "squad work," which enabled the girls to learn cleaning and caretaking skills. There were five sets of squads, one for each cabin, with rotating responsibilities that allowed campers to partake in each set of skill-building tasks.

Colbytown also worked with the girls after their camp days and provided scholarships to those who were accepted to Colby Junior College. In addition, a program for junior counselors was created in 1969 to allow campers to return in a more mature role and ease the burden on counselors by providing time off.

Closing Time

A recurring problem for Colbytown Camp was funding—tight finances threatened the camp with several near closures. Starting in the summer of 1943 and throughout World War II, campers were required to bring their ration cards and two pounds of sugar to help supplement supplies. In1975, the camp could no longer run just on student contributions and the camp decided to look to outside sources, such as New London, for increased funding. In the 1980s, in final effort to stay open, Colbytown Camp asked the Colby-Sawyer administration to borrow funds; the college was unable to contribute due to preparations for its coed expansion. Colbytown Camp closed in 1989, one year shy of its 50th anniversary.

The camp's legacy lives on in the lives it touched and in the repurposed beams from Colby Lodge that now support Lethbridge Lodge on campus, as well as in a photo exhibit in the Lodge that tells the story of a house without a key.

-Lisa Ray '13

To learn more about Colbytown Camp, please visit the online exhibit at

Photos courtesy of the Cleveland Colby Colgate Archives