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Historical Avon by Liz Neff
Liz Neff was born in New York State and grew up in Northern New Jersey. She has a B.A. degree in English and History from Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia. After living in San Diego and New York City, Liz and her husband, Bill, settled in Avon 41 years ago. Their children Bill IV and Katie were raised in Avon .
Liz is a retired Assistant Director of the CIGNA Life Insurance Corporation. She was a charter member of the Avon Jr. Woman’s Club and the Avon Newcomer’s Club, as well as the co-president of the Roaring Brook School PTO.
Liz did the publicity for the Avon Historical Society Antiques Shows in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Most recently, she was the president of the West Avon Garden Club while having served on Avon Historical Society's Board for several years. Although gardening and traveling are high on her list of avocations, research and writing are among her greatest interests.
Currently, Liz is also becoming locally renowned for her ongoing research on local barns, and served as interpreter for what was perhaps the first annual "Barn Tour 2010" to rave reviews. Please see our Barns of Avon Page for further information regarding what was an insightful tour of local barns in Farmington Valley.
Liz wrote the following article about Camp Gertrude Bryant, originally published in Avon Life many years ago.
"Camp Gertrude Bryant"
On July 7, 1947, the Avon Girl Scout Day Camp opened on the east side of West Avon Road across from the West Avon Community Club. It was an exciting day and one that the community had worked hard to make happen. Up to that point, the Girl Scouts had used the Boy Scouts’ Camp Alsop for cookouts. Now, they were going to have a real camp that would give them a chance to earn merit badges and to participate in all the other activities that Girl Scouting offered.
The first summer was a huge success. Originally intended for only 30 girls, leaders from surrounding towns asked if they could send their scouts to the day camp. Not wanting to turn anyone away, more counselors and equipment were added. Each two-week session was filled by at least 50 girls.
A part of the success of that first year was due to the exceptional director, Arline Slater. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and a former teacher at Middletown High School, Miss Slater had spent the war as the Recreational Director of the Red Cross Hospital Services for the Pacific Coast. Certified as a Water Safety and Life Saving Instructor, she had risen to the rank of Golden Eaglet Scout in her own troop. She had also been the director of the Fresh Air Camp in Burlington and the Jocelyn Diabetic Camp in Massachusetts. Her job was to get the Avon camp organized and up and running.
The other part of its success was the support of the Avon community. Knowing that the camp was a marvelous idea, even if there weren’t any money available to purchase land or equipment, the Avon Women’s Club, sponsors of local Girl Scouting, started a campaign to get the whole town involved.
The Troop Committee, headed by Alice Bryant, spread the word that a wooded piece of land owned by the Burnhams would be the perfect place for the camp. When the Burnhams heard that the committee wanted to use their land, they gladly donated it for the summer.
John O’Neil offered to supply bus transportation to and from camp, at a very nominal fee. A large refrigerator, needed to keep the milk and sandwiches cool during the hot summer days, was donated by Mr. Hodnett.
The West Avon Community Club offered their pool for swimming lessons and their club building for shelter, whenever the rain soaked the tents. The tents, loaned by different families in Avon, added enormously to the fun and spirit of the campers. Competing to be the winning unit at the end of every two-week session, the girls in each tent set up their own fireplace, water stand, wash bench, and cooking equipment.
A flag pole, donated by Sherman Eddy, centered the gathering spot used to open and close the day with the raising and lowering of the American Flag.
Although the Women’s Club raised money by holding rummage sales, dances, and other events, there were still so many things that they could not afford to buy. The whole town pitched in with donations of furniture, cooking utensils, sports equipment, lumber, paint, dishes, cutlery, and many other items needed to run a day camp. Having lived through the Depression and World War II, with rationing and a lack of goods, the people of Avon were used to helping each other. It was their camp and they were going to make sure it had what it needed.
The support shown by the community was more than the giving of material things – it was the giving of themselves and of their time that helped make that first summer so successful. Members of the Women’s Club, the mothers of scouts, and the senior scouts volunteered to be unit leaders, counselors, and junior counselors. Miss Slater was the only paid member of the staff; all of the other women and girls were volunteers. If you loved handicrafts, you became the handicrafts counselor. If you had experience with water sports and swimming, you became the waterfront counselor. Some counselors worked two days a week and some stayed through the entire summer.
Jack Bryant, husband of Alice, is said to have given up his golf membership in the Avon Country Club so he could spend the summer doing some of the heavier jobs at the camp!
During that first summer, the campers and staff talked about a name for the camp, a name that would reflect the enthusiasm and accomplishments of the Avon Girl Scouts. Several names were suggested, but the name that really seemed to fit was “Gertrude Bryant”.
Born in Avon, on August 17, 1917, Gertrude Bryant was a well-liked girl who loved birds and flowers. Starting as a Brownie at age seven, she eventually became an adult leader in Avon Girl Scouting. She was the salutatorian of her senior class at Simsbury High School; after graduation, she joined the office staff at Ensign-Bickford.
Although she appeared to be modest and unassuming, she was very independent, had a great sense of fun, and was considered “plucky” by those who knew her. Musically gifted, she was training at the Hartford School of Music (now the Hartt School of Music) to become a concert pianist. One of her greatest desires was to travel after the war was over.
On February 23, 1943, Gertrude enlisted in the Women’s Army Corp (known as the WACs); and after basic training, she was sent to Camp Patrick Henry, Newport News, Virginia. Assigned to the motor pool, Pvt. Bryant was not terribly impressed with her cushy assignment chauffeuring a three-star general around the base. However, her affable personality helped her to adapt easily to most situations.
While at her desk in August, 1944, Gertrude collapsed. She was taken to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., where she died on August 23, 1944. She had turned 27, just seven days earlier. It was a tragic blow to her family, as well as to the rest of the community. She became the first Gold Star woman in the Farmington Valley and her name was placed on the Avon Honor Roll, along with the other young people who had given their lives for their country.
The military funeral, held at the Avon Congregational Church, was attended by almost 700 people, some of whom were women she had served with at Camp Patrick Henry. These WACs, and a group of WACs and soldiers from Bradley Field, were honorary pall bearers. The active pall bearers were from the American Legion of Simsbury. Taps were played, an Army firing squad fired several volleys, and Mrs. Bryant was presented with the flag that had draped her daughter’s casket. Gertrude Bryant had come home.
On August 26, 1947, The Avon Girl Scout Day Camp was dedicated as Camp Gertrude Bryant in an official Girl Scout ceremony under the camp flag pole. It was more than a tribute to her memory; she had become a roll model to a new generation of girls who would someday go off into a world quite different from that of Gertrude’s day. But the small-town values that would be strengthened at this camp would be the same values that Gertrude had learned while growing up in Avon – take care of your neighbor, take care of your community, and they, in turn, will take care of you.
Camp Gertrude Bryant continued to open every summer for almost twenty years. The Lion’s Club became its sponsor in 1954; and eventually, the camp became a member of the United Way. Small buildings were built on the site, a well was drilled, and a week of over-night camping was introduced. A young Jeannie Thompson wrote in a 1955 article for The Lure of the Litchfield Hills that “one of the highlights of the camping season was the making of a radio transcription for WTIC. On this transcription the girls took part in songs and stories. This transcription was later broadcast.”
As with so many things, camping changed, too. Girl Scouts wanted to “go away” to two-week, over-night camps; and consequently, the number of campers began to decline until Camp Gertrude Bryant closed in the mid-1960s. In some ways, though, it has never closed. The campers remember it fondly and still talk about the fun they had there as children.
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