MOUNT VERNON — Time has changed a few things along the shoreline at Parker Pond over 75 years. But not much has changed at Bearnstow, an art and nature camp that opened in 1946 on the granite-rimmed pond at the headwaters of the west branch of the Forty Mile River in central Maine, taking over an existing but neglected hunting and fishing camp.

A New York dancer and lighting designer with a sense of adventure and a commitment to inclusion, Ruth “Reg” Grauert founded the camp the summer after World War II ended with her life partner, Frances Reid, on the principles of diversity and generosity and with an agenda that encouraged creativity and natural wonder. Grauert died last year at 101, which also happened to be the only summer Bearnstow was unable to host campers since it opened, because of the pandemic.

But Bearnstow, under new leadership, is back in business – and Grauert’s spirit is very much present.

“I just got chills – thank you, Reg,” said Bebe Miller, feeling what she took as Grauert’s soft touch as she spoke of her friend during a recent interview from the porch of the camp’s dining hall. Both Grauert and Reid were laid to rest on camp grounds, with Grauert memorialized in late June, a year after her death, her burial site outlined with flower pots.

Bebe Miller is the president of the board of directors of Bearnstow Camp and started coming to the camp when she was 6 years old. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Miller, an internationally recognized choreographer, began coming to Bearnstow as a young girl from Brooklyn in the 1950s and now, as board chairperson, is helping to lead the camp toward a sustainable future.

Grauert operated Bearnstow on guile, genius and passion, creating magic by assembling the right mix of people along a stunningly beautiful setting on a small, quiet and pristine lake. It began as an overnight camp for kids, who learned about the trees and bugs and how to dance, sing, swim and ride horses. Over the years, the camp added adult components, primarily dance workshops and related activities, reflecting both Grauert’s professional expertise and a growing organic bond that developed between Bearnstow and the Bates Dance Festival in Lewiston.

With both founders deceased, Miller and her team are looking ahead to what comes next. After a work week of maintenance by volunteers, they welcomed young day-campers in early July, resuming the tradition of kids having fun with nature and art. But the question remains, what will the future be? Under Grauert’s firm leadership, change came slowly to Bearnstow. She resisted trimming tree branches, let alone making substantial improvements to the buildings, to the point of neglecting necessary maintenance.

On the other hand, she danced with abandon at age 100 during the last summer she was at camp, in 2019.

With her passing, her friends are balancing the tradition of the past with the need for a sustainable future. That means tackling long overdue physical improvements, as well as changes to programming to encourage more adult users.

“We are moving past what we thought the camp would be with Reg,” said Miller, who holds the most institutional knowledge of the place. “And so, what is that relationship between what it was and my memory of how things were and where things are going? It’s a vibrant conversation about finding our way – not solve it, but find our way through this.”

As she spoke, Miller pointed to structural changes made this spring to the lodge, the oldest of the camp buildings, dating to at least 1880, and the oldest structure on Parker Pond. There is a new roof on the porch, new paint and glaze on the windows and frames, and new sills underneath. “And it’s all in a straight line. Reg would be very proud,” Miller said.

Day campers roast hot dogs on a fire at Bearnstow Camp in Mount Vernon. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The camp is something of a time capsule, harkening to an era before Grauert purchased it, when the complex was known as the Spruce Point Camps. In many ways, it’s similar to other Maine sporting camps up north and in the nearby Belgrade Lakes region. But as with each of those camps, this one has its unique character, drawn from the clarity of the water, the lay of land, and the four-legged, finned and winged creatures that occupy both, as well as the spirit of humans who have spent time here.

In addition to the lodge and a dining hall that doubles as the performance space, there are 10 sleeping cabins along the camp’s half-mile of shoreline, connected by meandering dirt paths. Some of the gabled cabins are situated just 20 feet from the shore; others are 50 feet from the water. They all have working toilets, showers and electricity, but all are rustic, built without foundations and supported by wooden posts and stones, with exposed stud walls and rafters. All have screened-in porches, with rocking chairs, and wood stoves, though they’re not used anymore because of the fire danger.

Loons are ever present.

A photo of people on the porch of a cabin in 1919, long before Ruth Grauert bought the camp and turned it into a camp for arts and the environment in 1946. Photo courtesy of Bearnstow Camp

The camp property occupies about 65 wooded acres, most of which are covered by an easement held by the Kennebec Land Trust, which maintains public trails throughout the property. The camp itself, because of its historic status as a classic Maine sporting camp, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006. It was established in 1915 as Stevens Camps, named for a local man who purchased 12 acres and the lone building. In 1922, it was renamed Spruce Point Camps, with most of the sleeping cabins added around that time. Ownership changed over the years, and electricity was added, but the camp ceased operation around 1940.

When Grauert and Reid arrived from New York at the end of World War II, they were eager buyers, committed to creating a camp with an emphasis on the creative arts and natural sciences as an alternative to the traditional Maine sporting camp. From the beginning, Grauert and Reid linked arts-related activities to environmental responsibility. They believed in the resonance of place, and the camp’s unspoiled environment offered an ideal setting to encourage artistic expression of all kinds and creativity in general. The name is said to come from the West Saxon words for “child” and “place.”

Grauert’s background was dance. Born in 1919, she danced in the Nikolais Company and the Charles Weidman Dance Company in New York. Later, after she established the camp in Maine, she worked as production stage manager for Nikolais and other dance com­panies, touring the world. She also taught lighting, as well as dance, and was a widely published writer about dance.

During the early years with Nikolais, she also supervised the children’s classes at the Henry Street Play­house on the Lower East Side, and that is where Miller first encountered Grauert when her mother signed her and her siblings up for classes.

“They had children’s classes, so my mother brought us – my brother, my sister and I. Reg was my first teacher, when I was 3,” Miller said.

Grauert and Miller’s mother became friends, and when Grauert learned that Hazel Miller had worked as a nurse, she offered her the job as camp nurse. “My mother brought us all up for eight weeks of the summer, until we were all 13. But I stayed longer. I didn’t want to leave.”

Now in her 70s, Bebe Miller is still here listening to the loons.

A photo of a dance class at Bearnstow Camp, date unknown, in an album of photographs of the Mount Vernon camp’s history. Photo courtesy of Bearnstow Camp

Many years ago, when Miller and her siblings were campers and their mother was the nurse, they stayed in their own family cabin. (“We called her Hazel, except when we were in Cabin 10, when we called her Mommy.”) A city kid, Miller found the woods of Maine enchanting. “I loved it right away. I loved the woods – a little scary at night, but wonderful sounds, and darkness. And a loud silence — I remember thinking that when I was a kid, sleeping here, the silence seemed so loud. It was all magical.”

She recently ran across a photo taken when she was 7, holding a horse bridal, and an essay she wrote at camp when she was 14, in which she quoted Socrates – wildly divergent experiences and both essentially unique to her camp experience. She remembers watching Grauert sharpen knives on a sharpening stone, demonstrate how to use a two-person saw, and swim in the pond without making a ripple.

“You see all that, and you take it in,” Miller said, attributing at least some of her success in dance to the feeling of being grounded that she learned from Grauert at Bearnstow. “It stays with you.”

But camps cannot survive on memories alone. Laura Faure, the former director of Bates Dance Festival and a member of the Bearnstow board, is leading an effort to raise money for the camp to sustain its future. She’s also raising awareness, in hopes of encouraging arts organizations and others to consider renting the camp for workshops and other activities. This summer, she is introducing Bearnstow to as many people as she can.

Ruth “Reg” Grauert at Bearnstow in the 1940s or ’50s. Photo courtesy of Bearnstow Camp

“It’s been all dance, because that was Reg’s world. That is what she knew best. But we need to diversify the programming. We need to reach more people,” Faure said. “No one knows about this place. We want to change that.”

The camp operates on a relative shoestring. This year’s budget is $120,000, which reflects minimal programming and ongoing maintenance.

Over time, the camp became a money-losing enterprise. Faure said. “Reg has always been very generous, and she wanted people here. She had eight interns every summer and ran workshops whether they had enough people or not,” she said. “She just wanted people here, and she wanted to be around artists.”

With only a small endowment, the board needs to change the financial equation so the camp survives. Faure envisions the camp could be used as a retreat for visual artists, writers and musicians, as well for people and organizations interested in ecology and the environment. In the realm of historic summer art retreats in Maine, Bearnstow is similar in some ways to both the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, which also was established in 1946, and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, which shares a remote waterfront setting uniquely suited to immersive creativity in a quiet community. But unlike Skowhegan, Haystack or the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts, Bearnstow lacks an international reputation or much recognition beyond its web of alumni and supporters.

Faure wants to change that. “It needs to be better known,” she said.

But first she and her colleagues must raise some money. Their goal is to raise $120,000 for a three-year restoration effort, involving upgrading the cabins to make them more hospitable for adults, with better showers, more comfortable beds and brighter lights so people can read at night, along with other deferred maintenance. They just installed a commercial grade dishwasher, for example, and are on the hunt for a better range. The camp no longer has horses, and there is talk of converting the stables into open-air art studios.

“There is a lot of energy and a lot of ideas,” Faure said.

They’re about halfway there, with $55,000 in the bank at the end of June and grant applications pending. Over and above the maintenance, this fall they will try to raise another $40,000 for a new multi-use arts building that might be built in three or four years.

“We have another year or two of just restoration. But over this winter, we will start to dig into the programming conversation again. We have to move forward, so I want to reach out to as many people in the visual art community, the literature community, ecology, environment science. The fundraising is easy. It’s straightforward – you have got to fix the toilets. But figuring out sustainable programming is really hard.”

Molly Hess starts a fire for day campers to roast hot dogs at Bearnstow. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Molly Hess, Bearnstow’s associate director, who is also a dancer and choreographer, described the camp as a place “where almost anything seems possible.” She arrived 11 years ago as an intern and quickly became day camp director. Grauert gave her more responsibilities with time, and with Grauert’s death, Hess is now in charge of day-to-day operations.

The camp is whatever the people who are there at the moment make it, said Hess, who lives in western Massachusetts when not living on Parker Pond. Nature, ecology, science, dance and theater are always present, and summer interns who lead the day camp are expected to teach campers their specialty. That might be kick-boxing, salsa dancing or circus arts. Hess arranges tree-identification talks with foresters and discussions with biologists about aquatic macroinvertebrates or animal camouflage techniques.

This year, there are two, two-week sessions of day camps for kids, with 15 campers each. There are also two, one-week adult workshops and a week for alumni.

Campers swim in the lake and hike the trails, and they all eat their meals around a series of tables in a screened-in porch just a few feet from the lake. When Grauert ran the camp, she sat the at the head table and told stories – about how she and Reid discovered the camp, how they salvaged Guy Lombardo’s peg-leg gold piano from a storage house in Augusta, or the first time she met Alwin Nikolais.

Bearnstow founders Ruth Grauert and Frances Reid (with Carolyn Beasley, center) in 1993. Photo courtesy of Bearnstow Camp

“She had an arsenal of stories, but she was so good at telling them, I never got tired of hearing them,” Hess said.

With the storyteller missing from the the head of the table, change hangs in the air, as inevitable the sunset, and no one knows what that means or what it might look like. But they also don’t seem too worried.

The charm of the camp also ensures it can’t change very much. There are only 33 beds, and the easement limits growth. The key is figuring out how to make use of those beds going forward so the camp survives without the generosity of its founder.

Miller is philosophical.

“I am not afraid of change, because it will change,” she said. “When you introduce new elements, you don’t know where it will take us. We can’t control it – that is what going forward is. But we can guide it. We know what is important to us. So the question is, how will that resonate with others and will it become clear enough that others understand it, too?”

She is confident they will, once they settle in, eat a meal and listen to the loons.

Bebe Miller turns on a light in the arts cabin at Bearnstow camp in Mount Vernon. Miller, who has been coming to the camp since she was 6 years old, is now the president of the board of directors and is working on the direction of the camp’s future since its founder, Ruth “Reg” Grauert, passed away last year at age 101. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


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