What was Camp Robinson Crusoe?

Camp Robinson Crusoe ("CRC") was a summer camp located in Sturbridge, Massachusetts (USA). Unfortunately, it has now closed. For its time, it was extremely innovative. It was coed, and non-competitive, dispensing with traditional activities like "color wars". It was quite democratic, and allowed a lot of space for individual activities. Each group voted on a group activity for the morning, and then campers were free to sample various individual activities in the afternoon. It was not possible to attend for only a portion of the summer; campers had to enroll for the full eight weeks. Parents were only allowed to visit during two specified visiting days in the middle of the summer.

Many of the photos on my camp pages are from the groups for the older campers, called "Primitive", in which the campers lived in tents rather than bunks, pumped their own well water, cut their own wood for the wood-burning stove in the kitchen, and cooked their own meals. The "Primitive" units were clustered around the third and smallest of the three man-made lakes on the camp property. The camp was very important in the lives of many of its campers, who tended to return there year after year.

Josh and Leah, late 1950s
Josh and Leah Lieberman on the CRC Commons, late 1950s

The camp was founded in 1929 by Joshua ("Josh") and Leah Lieberman. In 1931, Josh's book "Creative Camping" was published. It's described as, "A coeducational experiment in personality development and social living, being the record of six summers of the national experimental camp of Pioneer youth of America".

Click here for more on Josh and Leah, with photos

From the summer of 1929 through 1931, the camp was located on a peninsula on Bailey Island, in Casco Bay, just south of Brunswick, Maine. A small island just off the shore was called "Robinson Crusoe Island" by the campers. That gave the camp its name, which was retained when Josh and Leah were able to buy over 400 acres of land in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, to which the camp moved in the summer of 1932.

Here are photos from the camp in Maine
Here are photos from the camp in Sturbridge

Josh and Leah's two children, Robert and Nancy, both worked as associate directors at the camp. Nancy's husband Nils Frederiksen also became an associate director. All photos of Josh and Leah together were provided by their granddaughter, Ditte Frederiksen McNeil. Robert ("Bob"), who changed his last name to "Hill", continued to operate the camp after Josh retired. However, the camp went bankrupt in 1970.

Click here for more about Bob Hill
Click here for more about Nancy and Nils Frederiksen

Click here for a map of the camp land in Sturbridge

During my July, 2006 visit to the camp, someone asked me, "Was it a Jewish camp?" It was not; the camp was non-sectarian. However, I think that a large majority of the campers were Jewish. CRC drew most of its campers from New York City, which has a large Jewish population, and Jewish families may have had more of a tradition of sending their children off to summer camps than non-Jewish families. And of course, once it established a clientel, families tended to recommend it to their relatives and friends.

Another question I was asked was quite a surprise: "Was Robinson Crusoe a nudist camp?" I have no idea where that idea might have come from. No, it was not. During each summer, there might be one or two "skinny dips" scheduled, but these were strictly sex-segregated events, one for the boys, and one for the girls.

The camp property is just south of Old Sturbridge Village ("OSV"), a re-created New England colonial-era village. The campers made good use of OSV, each group visiting it about twice each summer. We always looked forward to those trips, and particularly to visiting the General Store, where we would use the spending money our parents provided to buy candy and other items (for some reason, long-stemmed clay pipes were popular with my group). We would always walk to OSV, entering it from the back near the farm area. But the camp was honest about walking the campers through the property to the entrance, and properly paying for our visits.

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This page was last updated December 16, 2012