Camp Sangamo

Camp Sangamo in 1922 (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

When the Boy Scouts opened their first Camp Sangamo in 1920, the amenities included a Victrola, a croquet set and two rowboats. But no telephone. As the Scout organization explained in the Illinois State Journal prior to opening:

There will be no telephone at camp because the best work in a scout camp comes through isolation. Camp Sangamo will be isolated from the rest of the world. Once in camp, a boy will not be permitted to go to the city unless the case is very urgent.

That first camp, which opened in June 1920, was on the shores of Clear Lake, a pond east of Springfield that was a popular recreation site at the time. The Springfield and Decatur Scout councils cooperated to open and operate the camp, which was attended by Scouts from both councils.

Scouts rotated through the camp in four or five two-week installments every summer, 75 to 90 boys per session. They slept in tents, although permanent buildings housed such facilities as the dining/recreation hall, a post office and a lending library. Food was prepared by the domestic science department of Millikin University; camp officials said campers gained an average of five pounds a session.

A boy could attend the camp for $9 per two-week session.

Daily activities revolved around sports, water activities and Scouting skills. Organizers said some Scouts would be able to move up an entire rank during a single camp session. Each day ended with a classic Scout campfire.

Camp Sangamo was clearly oriented to white Protestant Scouts. Protestant church services were held at the camp both mornings and evenings on Sundays. “Arrangements will be made to bring the Catholic boys to Springfield for Sunday Mass,” administrators said. Newspaper publicity did not mention any accommodations for Jewish Scouts.

In the 1920s, the Illinois State Journal published a weekly page of news for boys, including a regular Boy Scouts feature (Courtesy SJ-R)

Articles about the camp in 1920 also didn’t say anything about whether African-American Scouts – Springfield had two African-American troops – were eligible to attend Camp Sangamo. In 1921 and 1922, however, when the camp hosted five two-week sessions for white scouts, the camp opened to African-American Scouts for a single week – the last one of the season.

Camp Sangamo lasted at Clear Lake for only five years. It was replaced in 1925, thanks to the generosity of Springfield financier Jacob Bunn. The Journal told the story in Bunn’s obituary in May 1926.

The Abraham Lincoln council of Boy Scouts had been concerned for some time with the problem of securing a permanent summer camping place for the scout troops. A site on Clear Lake had been used for a number of years, but it was found necessary to abandon it.

On May 1, 1925, Mr. Bunn bought and turned over to the scout council 74 acres of beautifully wooded and rolling ground, located seven miles north of the city and about three-quarters of a mile west of the Walnut street road. It is an ideal camp site. The old camp name, Camp Sangamo, was retained for the new camp at Mr. Bunn’s suggestion.  …

Like everything else he did, he did this with a free hand, with a refreshing wholesomeness, out of his own desire to serve the youthful generation and to give to the boys of Springfield an opportunity to expend their energies and to satisfy their natural craving and appetites through these substitutes of play and recreation and the exercise of their capacities for doing practical things in which boys are always happy.

Some facilities were moved from Clear Lake to the new site, but the new mess hall and lodge were built by workmen from the Abraham Lincoln Hotel and the Myers Building (their services were donated), while Scouts themselves finished siding the buildings. Bunn, meanwhile, organized an endowment fund to help pay for future maintenance.

Camp Sangamo was the primary camp site for area Boy Scouts for another 15 years, until the Scouts built a new facility at Lake Springfield. That camp, later named Camp Illinek, opened in 1940. (As of 2020, Camp Illinek was mainly used by Cub Scouts.)

Area Scouts, however, continued to use Camp Sangamo. The largest camporee ever held to that point by the local Scout district, featuring 550 Scouts and leaders, was held at Camp Sangamo in 1955, and Explorers and other Scouts camped there into the 1970s.

The council finally sold the Camp Sangamo property in 1975. The proceeds were spent to improve the Abraham Lincoln Council’s newest camp, a 740-acre property near Hettick in Macoupin County that was dedicated in 1973.

That site’s name: Camp Bunn.

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