Cheryl Mullenbach

It was known as the oldest girls’ camp in Iowa and one of the oldest in the United States. Camp Hantesa was established by the Des Moines chapter of the Camp Fire Girls in 1919. The original site was in an apple orchard at the corner of 56th Street and Grand Avenue in Des Moines.

A group of Camp Fire girls in the 1920s.
Credit: U.S. Library of Congress

Just a year later the camp moved to a spot just below Table Rock along Pea’s Creek at Ledges (later a state park) near Boone. During those early years the girls pitched tents facing the creek and swam in the Des Moines River. It wasn’t unusual for them to hike into the camp from the top of the Ledges carrying their baggage on their backs due to the poor conditions of the dirt road that led into the camp. The girls ate in a dining room tent and their chef prepared their food over an outdoor fire. They brought their own dishes and washed them after each meal.

In 1924 construction of the first permanent building was under way. By 1925 the $5000 structure was ready for occupancy. In 1930 excavation began for a swimming pool—150 by 50 feet, with a depth ranging from 4-10 feet. It was equipped with diving boards and was built for $16,000.


Over the years additional buildings were added to the site—a new kitchen, trading post, director’s house, health lodge, cook’s and caretaker’s houses, and craft buildings. The resident lodges were given appropriate names—Blue Bird, Happy Hill and Shady Glade. And there was the Indian Village for members of the Horizon Club—girl campers in grades 9-12. The campers paid 50 cents each to help purchase enamel dishes with the Hantesa symbol engraved in them. Campers brought their own bed tick filled with straw for mattresses.

Most of the improvements made to the camp were funded with “girls’ pennies,” group projects—such as candy drives, bake sales, and carnivals, and parents’ and friends’ contributions. There was a “Do-Dads” group who often helped with building projects.

The first director of the camp was Clara Nelson, who served from 1921 to 1931. She was succeeded by Mary Fiedler, a former camp counselor, who served from 1932-33. She left to become a director with a Camp Fire group in California. M. Genevieve Clayton became director in 1934 and served well into the 1960s. A lodge built for year-round camping and conferences was named after Clayton.

The original camp covered a few acres, but over the years it expanded. A Boone couple donated 40 acres and a log house to the organization. And in time it grew to cover 132 acres of wooded land.

A typical week at camp in the 1930s consisted of instruction in swimming, first aid, nature lore, camp craft, folk dancing, dramatics, pageantry, handcraft, basketry, pottery, and archery. In 1932 the girls were entertained by the De Lofto Tumbling troupe of Ames. It was a group directed by C.E. Daubert, the swim coach at Iowa State University. They presented swimming and lifesaving demonstrations and a tumbling exhibition.

In 1937 the girl campers used their imaginations to visit many lands of the Far East. They “studied the habits of the Chinese and Japanese,” while “visiting” several small island countries in the region.

A typical day began at 6:40 a.m. with reveille, flag raising, and breakfast at 7:15. This was followed by camp clean-up, morning sing, craft time, swimming, and lunch at 12:15. At 1 p.m. the girls headed to the library, followed by a rest hour, and a snack of milk and crackers. The afternoon activities ended with a craft hour and swim time.

The older girls in the Indian Village held their activities separate from the younger campers. They enjoyed “more privileges,” “later hours,” and evening campfires. They participated in “special programs” every evening such as a kid’s party, baseball, and all-day hike, and a “dramatic night.”

Camp Hantesa was a busy place in the summer season with about 375 girls staying at the camp every week.

©Cheryl Mullenbach

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