Byron Clark: A Model Progressive

This past weekend, I attended the annual conference for the Northeast Popular Culture Association in Queens, New York, for my first presentation in an academic setting. It’s something that I’ve been quite excited about for the past couple of months. The Byron Clark paper is one that I have been working on for several years now, off and on, and it was nice to finally get some real research done on the paper in order to present a viable argument and my findings.

Byron Clark was born in 1866 in Strafford, Vermont, and throughout much of his youth, lived in both Vermont and New Hampshire. By the age of 19, he had joined the Episcopal Methodist Church, and began travelling around the United States, from New Hampshire to Florida, to California and back into Vermont by 1893. There, he settled into the community and ingrained himself for the rest of his life in Burlington Vermont.

Clark is best known for his creation of YMCA Camp Abnaki, a boy’s camp run by the YMCA and one that is still in operation to this day. On July 10th, 1901, Clark took a small group of boys and volunteers and brought them to Cedar Beach, in Charlotte, Vermont, where they camped out for two weeks, before returning. The trip was a success, and Clark repeated the excursion. Eventually, he and the YMCA made the Camp a more permanent fixture of the YMCA, by selecting North Hero as a lasting campsite. From there, Clark and camp workers began to expand the camp, installing buildings and by the time of his death, making the camp a well known and respected institution throughout the state of Vermont, and indeed the world.

Clark, is widely known to this day for his role in the founding of Camp Abnaki. While looking at his life outside of Camp, one can see that he was heavily involved in the Burlington community, and can be regarded as an example of the progressive era. Looking over a list of the organizations that he belonged to, a clearer picture of his motives and drive become apparent. Between the late 1890s and mid-1910s, Clark joined a number of different organizations, such as Vermont Society and Sons of the American Revolution, Vermont Antiquarian League, Vermont Humane Society, Order of Descendants of Colonial Governors, Vermont Anti-Saloon League, Society of the War of 1812, Society of the Army of the Potomac, Boy Scouts of America, The Green Mountain Club and several others. Each of these groups are generally aimed towards building a better community, either through recognizing one’s roots, or actively working to build better people – a key part of the Progressive Era.

In Clark’s instance, his motivations stemmed primarily from his faith. The Episcopal Church was part of a larger movement of progressive churches, ones that saw movement on a number of fronts, such as prohibition and education, and two fields that Clark was actively involved with. It was suggested at the conference that Clark might have been an Evangelist, given his drive to convert people in order to better themselves, which certainly seems to be something Clark advocated. Still, within the context of the times, Clark seems to be best described as a sort of progressive.

Looking at Clark’s record, it’s easy to see that he has left a lasting legacy of sorts through his work with Camp Abnaki. ‘Help The Other Fellow’, the Camp’s Motto, is a mantra that in essence, sums up the Progressive era in a few short words. Over the past hundred and eight years that the Camp has been in service, hundreds of thousands of campers who have come through Abnaki’s programs have been impacted by this thinking, even if they were only there for a couple of weeks. I have a feeling that it will continue to teach and inform campers in the years to come.

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