In 1939 Helen Worth Gordon, Conservation Specialist of the U.S. Forest Service hosted the executive committee of the Virginia Federation of Garden Clubs on a tour of points of interest and educational value within the George Washington National Forest. During that tour Mrs. Gordon suggested a nature camp for children as a worthwhile project for the Federation. Lillian Schilling of Afton, Virginia, kept that idea in mind and revisited it two years later, during a meeting of the Conservation Committee of the Federation in Richmond. As chair of the committee, Mrs. Schilling proposed that the most effective way for her organization to attain any worthwhile and lasting results in their efforts to aid the conservation movement would be to appeal to and teach the youth of the country. Thus the concept of Nature Camp was born. Mrs. Schilling’s vision was truly radical at a time when most Americans knew little about the destructive impact our actions can have on the environment, global warming and acid rain were unknown phenomena, and such terms as ecology and biodiversity had not yet entered the common vernacular.
The following summer Nature Camp began at Sherando Lake in Augusta County. The inaugural session opened on 20 July 1942, with 24 campers in attendance. At Sherando Lake Nature Camp shared facilities with other groups that used the Forest Service’s recreational area during the summer. The schedule expanded from one session to two in 1943, but competing uses precluded a longer operating season. After ten years it became apparent that Nature Camp could not continue—and certainly could not grow—without a permanent, exclusive home. The Virginia Federation of Garden Clubs considered a number of alternative sites, including Goshen Pass and the head of Crabtree Falls, before deciding on the valley of Big Mary’s Creek, which had been suggested by the Forest Service district ranger at the time. Although this new site offered the advantage of much greater seclusion, it lacked any existing facilities.
A building campaign began in the winter of 1952, but construction of new bunkhouses, T-houses, dining hall, and office building had not been completed enough to hold camp the following summer, the only gap in Nature Camp’s otherwise unbroken history. Nature Camp reopened in 1953 with three sessions and expanded to its current format of four sessions the following year. The new location at Big Mary’s Creek allowed Nature Camp to serve a much larger population of campers during the summer. All of the existing buildings were built in the 1950s and 1960s under the guidance of Lillian Schilling, who served as camp director through the summer of 1969. Brent Heath, now a third-generation bulb grower in Gloucester, Virginia, succeeded Mrs. Schilling as director and held the position for two years.
In 1972 Col. John H. Reeves, Jr., professor of biology at Virginia Military Institute, began his 25-year tenure as director of Nature Camp. Perhaps his most significant and valuable contribution was to empower the staff of counselors to serve also as class instructors. Under Mrs. Schilling’s direction, most of the classes were taught by college professors, game biologists, and amateurs with extensive expertise in a particular field. Col. Reeves had the insight to recognize the uniquely effective and inspirational relationship that could develop between campers and counselors both in and out of class.
Col. Reeves retired in 1996 as was followed as director by Jim Jordan (1997-1999), professor of anthropology at Longwood University, and Paul Cabe (2000-2003), associate professor of biology at Washington and Lee University. In 2006 the Virginia Federation of Garden Clubs concluded that it could no longer afford to operate Nature Camp, but a grassroots coalition of current and former campers, counselors, parents, and friends—under the leadership of the Nature Camp Foundation—launched a successful effort to keep Nature Camp open. Nature Camp now operates in conjunction with the Nature Camp Foundation and independently of the Virginia Federation of Garden Clubs, although through its member clubs and districts, this organization continues to support Nature Camp financially and to provide several annual scholarships to campers.
Current director Philip Coulling has been affiliated with Nature Camp for over 30 years and has served as camp director since 2004.