A Camping We Will Go (05/07/2021)

At the start of 2021 my plan was to publish a series of Footnotes about objects and events in Agricultural and Extension Education that no longer exist such as the Agdex filing system, the d-CON pocket calendar for agriculture teachers, the Harvestore breakfast, the Farmer’s Wife Magazine, and the list goes on. So now, five months into the year I am finally ready to start that series of Footnotes.

We will start this series with the FFA Camping Trips since it is time to be planning such trips. While some chapters may still go on camping trips, they are nothing like the ones in the 1930-1950 era. My first remembrance of FFA camping trips was when my older brother, who was a member of the Lampasas (TX) FFA chapter, boarded a school bus with a bunch of fellow FFA members on a camping trip to Yellowstone National Park. The bus was loaded with camping supplies and food, the agriculture teacher slid behind the steering wheel, and they were off.

FFA Camping Trips

FFA camping trips have been with us ever since the FFA came into existence. Henry Groseclose, one of the founders of the FFA and the first national Executive Secretary, wrote a booklet in 1932 titled Handbook for Future Farmers. He provided guidelines for planning trips with the boys.

Fun and Work for Future Farmers was written by L. L Scranton, North Dakota State FFA Advisor, in 1934. There is an entire chapter on “Educational Tours, Summer Camps, Fishing and Hunting Trips”. Scranton reported on several educational tours/camping trips various FFA chapters had conducted:

  • The Bethel-Athens High School FFA Chapter (TX) took a 4,500 mile tour of the United States and went through 21 states, part of Canada, and the District of Columbia. There were 13 boys on the school bus and each boy brought his share of food for the trip. Sacks of sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, canned peas, beans, soup, peaches, apples, plums, and cured meat constituted the major portion of the food supply. The food was produced on the farm homes of the boys. A stove, ice box, and folding cots were carried as camping equipment.
  • The FFA chapter at Arendtsville (PA) visited 26 states and one Canadian province in 1933. The instructor wrote:

These Pennsylvania boys touched Mexico at El Paso; bathed in the Atlantic at St. Augustine, Fla., and in the Pacific at Long Beach, Calif.; slept on the sand along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon; enjoyed the giant forests of sequoias and redwoods, and the enchanting scenery of the Yosemite; marveled at the geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone; viewed the wonderful panorama of sights along the Columbia and stood in awe beside the mighty Niagara. The boys earned the funds for their trip of 10,000 miles by operating two group projects in connection with their agricultural studies. They traveled the entire distance in their own bus.

In the 1945 booklet, Future Farmers of America …in Action, written by the National FFA Executive Secretary, A. W. Tenney, we find this caption on a photograph (see the photograph below, p. 25):

It’s chow time on a camping trip. Camping is one of the favorite outdoor recreation activities of F.F.A. members. They take their tents to streams and lakes, where they swim and fish. At night games are played around the campfire.

Figure 1. Photo from Future Farmers of America… in Action

In the 1954 book Practical Activities for Future Farmers (also written by Tenney) considerable detail is provided for planning and conducting camping trips. One finds tidbits of wisdom such as potatoes should never be left off the food list and pranks should not be tolerated during the time everyone is supposed to be sleeping. There are recipes for Camper’s Stew, Doughboys, Squaw Corn, and even Barbecued Squirrel in the book.

As late as the 1960s camping trips were a suggested activity for FFA Chapters. In the FFA and You, published in 1962, Bender, Clark and Taylor listed camping as a desirable FFA activity (see photo below).

Figure 2. Illustration from FFA and You (1962)

When did the interest in FFA camping trips start to decline? A very rough and totally unscientific look at the decline in FFA camping trips can be gained from the website newspapers.com. I conducted a search for “Future Farmers of America” + “Camping Trip”. The results are shown in Table 1. A potential flaw in this methodology is these exact words have to be in the article and they must appear on the same newspaper page. So, it is very possible that an article about the FFA might be on a page along with an article about Boy Scouts going camping. The numbers given are certainly inflated because of this. Also, not all newspapers are indexed in newspapers.com. However, these data give us a rough idea of FFA camping trends. See Table 1.

Table 1 Mentions of “Future Farmers of America” + “Camping Trip “appearing on the same page in newspapers.com

Decades Number of Hits States With Most Hits
1930s 641 CA (67), WI (60), DE (51)
1940s 570 PA (64), CA (50), IL (42)
1950s 1011 CA (92), PA (91), OK (60)
1960s 783 PA (130), CA (74), IN (53)
1970s 480 CA (73), PA (48), WI(42)
1980s 228 WI (21), CA (20), IN (19)
1990s 95 CA (23), IN (13), WI (7)
2000s 53 PA (7), NC (6), CA (5)
2010s 41 CA (13), MT (7), WA (3)

The data shows that the 1950s was the highpoint for FFA camping trips with over 1000 mentions in the newpapers during that decade. A spot check of the “hits” for the 1950s reveals some interesting facts.

  • The Streator (IL) FFA raised capons to fund their camping trips to Wisconsin, Missouri, or Tennessee. The best capon producers were allowed to go on the trip (The Times, Streator, IL, Feb. 24, 1958).
  • The Davenport FFA (OK) decided to go to Tenkiller Lake at the end of May for their annual camping trip. Approximately 40 boys were expected to attend. The eight grade boys were invited to attend [apparently for recruitment purposes] (Lincoln County News, Chandler, OK, May 21, 1959).
  • The South Lebanon FFA (PA) spent a week camping at Cherry Springs State Park. The 18 boys lived in tents and did their own cooking. There was even a school board member on the trip. During the week they attended a potato growers field day and attended the Potter County Dairy Show. This was the fourteenth year they have gone on a summer camping trip (The Daily News, Lebanon, PA, August 17, 1957)
  • The Blair (WI) FFA went on a fishing trip to Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario and caught 108 fish (The Winona Daily News, Winona, WI, June 8, 1956).
  • The Linden (AL) FFA had a fishing and camping trip on the Tombigbee River. There were 12 seniors on the trip. They reported “The fish were not biting much but everyone enjoyed the trip.” The did eat what they caught (The Democrat-Reporter, Linden (AL), June 9, 1955). Perhaps they could take lessons from the Wisconsin boys.
  • The Reedley High School (CA) FFA had a five-day camping trip to Florence Lake. Ray Irwin’s 17 inch rainbow trout was declared the largest fish caught by anyone on the trip (The Fresno Bee, Fresno, CA, June 24, 1956).
  • The agriculture teacher at Ashley (IN) owned a cabin in Ontario, Canada. Boys were taken in weeklong shifts to camp there in tents. For 1955 there were three shifts involving 34 boys (Steuben Republican, Angola, IN, July 27, 1955). The article below is about the 1959 camping season. It appears other Indiana FFA chapters started participating in these trips.

Figure 3: A camping tradition. Article appeared in the Garrett Clipper (IN), Aug. 6, 1959

  • The Powell High School (WY) FFA spent three days camping in the Beartooth Mountains. At one time this was a custom but was discontinued during the war years. The advisors hope this will become an annual part of the program in the future (The Billings Gazette, Billings, MT, July 14, 1955).
  • The Broken Bow FFA (NE) went to Yellowstone National Park during July. The boys camped out each night and cooked their own meals. Chapter members enjoyed fishing and saw different methods of farming. On the return trip the fourteen boys and advisor came through the Tetons and Jackson Hole (The Custer County Chief, Broken Bow, NE. July 26, 1954).

It appears Yellowstone National Park might have been a desirable travel destination for FFA camping trips. An article in the June 5, 1941 Bloomington, Illinois newspaper (The Pantagraph) goes into considerable detail about an upcoming trip to Yellowstone for the Mackinaw FFA Chapter (see Figure 4 below).

Figure 4: Newspaper article about Illinois FFA members trip to Yellowstone.


Why Go on Camping Trips?

In the early days of the FFA many FFA members had never left their home states or knew much about agriculture outside of their local area. Going on camping trips exposed them to the wider world and they were shown different types of agriculture.

The early FFA members were typically farm boys who were used to hard labor. Participating in recreational activities was a real treat. The early FFA literature emphasized the importance of recreation in the FFA chapter’s program of work. To attract students, there needed to be some fun activities.

There were other benefits to camping trips. In an Agricultural Education Magazine (July, 1949) article titled “Planned Summer Camping Trip” the agriculture teacher, Dan Mizner, of Deer Lodge, Montana explained how the students were given the responsibility for planning the 1948 trip. The recreation committee was in charge and the decision was to go to the southwest (the previous year the trip had been to the northwest).

The committee obtained a tour-aid booklet from Conoco and started planning the route. They decided how many days to be gone and the distance to travel each day. They then wrote letters to the Chamber of Commerce in the locations they planned to spend the night requesting information about camping facilities and locations to visit. The committee sought approval from the school board and secured a bus and driver. Parents were communicated with. A recent program graduate agreed to take his truck on the trip to carry the food and supplies. A budget was developed for the trip.

The resulting trip was for 18 days and involved 22 members. Some of the places visited were Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, Grand Canyon, Sequoia, Yosemite, Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. They also visited Hoover Dam, Hollywood, Griffith Park and Zoo, the Golden Gate Bridge as well as many farms and factories. They were even guests of NBC and attended the Jack Carson-Eve Arden broadcast.

The trip covered 3,987 miles and the final cost to each member was $48. But the most significant fact is that the students did all the planning.

Figure 5. Photo accompanying the “Planned Summer Camping Trip” article
in the July 1949 Ag Ed Magazine.

Another unique benefit of camping trips was the “to develop brotherhood” aspect of the FFA. Students developed deep friendships on these trips, even if they started out as enemies. Calvin Crandall, agriculture teacher in Parma, Idaho wrote an article in The Agricultural Education Magazine (June, 1949) titled “Bitter Rivals Became Fast Friends on Summer Tours.”

Mr. Crandell relates how the towns of Parma and Wilder, Idaho were rivals on and off the athletic field. Vandalism was common. The two chapters decided to have a joint summer camping trip. This would reduce costs, lighten the load for each agriculture teacher, and hopefully develop a friendly spirit between the two chapters.

Mr. Crandell relates (1949, p. 284):

The trip up to the camping grounds was rather quiet and the boys were quite clannish, staying in their own school groups. However, by the time we arrived a few of the boys were mixing and that evening when tents were pitched there was once camp, not a Parma camp and a Wilder camp, but an F.F.A. camp.

The cooperation between the two schools soon spread to other activities involving the two schools.

Figure 6. Photo from the Ag Ed Magazine accompanying Mr. Crandell’s article.

Concluding Remarks

Times change. The word is different now. I am not advocating we return in mass to FFA camping trips. However, there were benefits to these trips. The question is how can we derive some of those benefits in this day and age.