Remembering One Of The Country's Oldest Summer Camps

Jul 22, 2019

Swimming at Camp Quanset in the 1920s
Credit courtesy: Centers for Culture and History in Orleans

Nowadays, the shoreline along Pleasant Bay in Orleans features is dotted with large private homes, many on stately bluffs overlooking the water. But years ago those shores were home to numerous summer camps for boys and girls – some of the first of their kind in the country. One in particular – Camp Quanset – was started in 1905 by a local woman named Mary Hammatt.

“She did it as a way to create a playgroup for her daughter,” said Jill Klein, who attended Camp Quanset from age 8 to 16 and later became a camp counselor. Klein is a college professor and Interim Dean at American University in Washington, and spends time during the summer at her home in East Orleans.

East Orleans summer resident Jill Klein attended Camp Quanset as a camper and later as a counselor.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

“The property that the Hammatts owned was vast and right on the Bay, and over the years they built the cabins and created a rigorous sailing program,” said Klein.

The cabins had names like Windward, Bunker Hill, and Chin-Chin. There was riding, archery, tennis, and singing. And everybody participated, regardless of their proficiency level.

“Nobody cared if you could actually sing. And I can admittedly probably sing every camp song all way off key," said Klein with a laugh.

There was even a musical called 'The Girl from Quanset' written for the camp in 1908. The Orleans Centers for Culture and History found the old songbooks and re-staged 'The Girl from Quanset' - twice – in recent years.

The Centers for Culture and History in Orleans re-staged "The Girl From Quanset" twice in recent years.
Credit courtesy: Centers for Culture and History in Orleans

Campers came from all over – some from other countries – but most hailed from East Coast states. The shared summer experience created permanent friendships among many of the campers.

“I will run into people, and you may not have seen these people for 50 years, and yet there is this immediate ability to re-connect,” said Klein.

The camp culture also instilled in Klein a lifelong passion for sailing.

“I sail by Quanset every day that I’m out in my boat, and I somehow am able to look past the beautiful homes that are there today, and I can still imagine the cabins that I lived in,” said Klein.

Sailing in Pleasant Bay during the 1950s.
Credit courtesy: Centers for Culture and History in Orleans

After more than 70 years of consecutive operation, Camp Quanset closed for good in 1976.

“For many of the families, there wasn’t the interest in the next generation, so a combination of the financial viability of running a camp and just the interest of keeping it going,” said Klein. “When we learned that camp was not re-opening, it was cause for a lot of long-distance crying. We didn’t have the internet back then, and our long-distance bills were pretty high.”

A section of a map showing the original layout of Camp Quanset.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

Today, there are no physical remnants of Camp Quanset, Mary Hammatt’s original 60-acre property having long ago been sub-divided for private homes. But for many people in Orleans, Camp Quanset is kept alive through shared memories and stories of a unique piece of the town’s history.