There’s only one place in the world where Tamakwa’s rich heritage is on view in such a captivating manner

By Robert Sarner, The South Tea Echo, Fall 2009

So many names and images. So many colours, shapes and sizes. So many years. So many memories. So much history and creativity. So much achievement. So much for posterity. So much to discover, all under one roof.

To walk into Beaver Lodge, better known as the Dining Hall, especially between meals when it’s empty, is to appreciate that it’s much more than a place to eat. In view of what adorns its walls, rafters and ceiling, it’s also an informal museum, a repository of nearly 75 years of camp life and tradition. It’s the closest Tamakwa has to a definitive record and showcase of the people, activities and benchmark moments that constitute the essence of camp. It’s nothing if not a feast for the eyes.

Each time I enter the Dining Hall, if I bother to look, I invariably discover something I never noticed before. I marvel at the countless objects, mementoes, photos and plaques evoking Tamakwa’s rich heritage. All manner of things endemic to camp – clipboards, canoe paddles, guitars, water skis, pieces of canoes, bow-and-arrow targets, sails – are on view. Hand-painted and illustrated, most are inscribed with the year, the name of their respective activity or program, and a list of campers and staff who took part.

The plaques commemorate everything from special events to drama productions, the arts and sports, including some long gone such as water skiing and trail biking. The full diversity of activities at camp is well reflected in the plaques which celebrate windsurfing, ropes, banquet, camp radio, the Treasure Island swim, fishing, land-sports, Color War, canoeing, sailing, woodshop, the Blue Brothers Band, outdoor fun, clay art, long canoe trips, half-court tennis, kayaking, the Tamakwa Project Israel, countless plays and other performances. It’s an impressive collection, built up incrementally over the past three-quarters of a century.

Pride of place is reserved for the large annual plaques installed over the central part of the Dining Hall. Each portrays a specific image or theme for the summer it represents, along with the names of that year’s campers and staff. Most of the plaques are vertical and framed with birchbark-clad logs. A few are square or horizontal. Some are veritable works of art.

The placement of plaques and other mementos is seemingly random, devoid of any apparent theme or chronological order. This only adds to the informal, helter-skelter charm of everything on view. With most of the walls, rafters and slanting ceilings now chock-a-block with items, space is running out for future installations.

Taken together, there must be more than 35,000 different names of campers, staff and visitors recorded on the plaques and other memorabilia. Some appear only once, others reappear dozens of times. The ultimate piece of related trivia would be to establish which Tamakwan’s name is inscribed the most often and how many times it appears.

Like all the other objects, the condition of the plaques varies widely according to their age and the materials used in their finish. Some are well preserved; others are in various states of decay, their writing and imagery faded. Most are dated by year, a few are of undeterminable vintage. The oldest object, based on an identifiable date, consists of a tree stump inscribed with a beaver symbol and the year 1937, but the names painted on it are barely legible.

Most pieces are self-evident, clearly evoking a particular Tamakwa activity or special camp program. Certain plaques pay tribute to those honoured with awards at summer’s end, including Schlector of the Year and the Shmutz of the Year awards. Others are incredibly historical mementos such as a photo of boxer Joe Louis autographed to the “boys and girls of Camp Tamakwa” and plaques commemorating the movie Indian Summer filmed at camp in 1992.

Scattered throughout the Dining Hall is a selection of iconic yellowing, black-and-white photos of Lou Handler, Omer Stringer, and various unidentified Tamakwans from blissful days from distant decades. Most are undated, some are under glass, others not. It all points to the need for a curator, a resident expert on every item in the collection. Just think what a job it could be to research and compile the story behind each piece with the goal of writing the definitive Tamakwa narrative.

Collectively, the Dining Hall display is a sort of informal documentation of camp history. It evokes the Tamakwa experience and captures the spirit of the camp in a way no other medium could. Done right, what’s exhibited in the Dining Hall could provide excellent material for a book. Perhaps for the Tamakwa’s centennial in 25 years. So next time you enter the Dining Hall, even if it’s only on Visitors Day, take a few moments to check out what’s on the walls and ceiling. You may have to strain your neck but it’ll be a treat for your eyes.

It’s a world unto itself. The wonderful world of Tamakwa.


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