Camp Mary White: Strengthening women

By Billy Huntsman

Managing Editor

Campers at Camp Mary White. Photo by Friends of Camp Mary White.

Lincoln National Forest occupies a million acres of southeastern New Mexico, a sliver of green in a vast, tan, frozen sea of violence. Such greenery is offered up to the sky by several mountain ranges, among them the Sacramentos. The southern extent of these mountains is bordered to the west by Alamogordo and to the north by Ruidoso, while to the south and east are mostly small villages whose names are forgotten almost as quickly as they are said.

Over the mountains, almost directly east of Alamogordo, is the village of Mayhill. This forested hamlet contains a gas station, a small grocer, an inn/café, a post office, and a Baptist church. The nearest hospital is in Cloudcroft, 17 miles east.

Farming and ranching are common trades in the area, as is timber harvesting. To the south of the village are two RV parks, no doubt packed to capacity in the summer, when Mayhill serves as host to tourists seeking a temperate, quiet retreat replete with picturesque hiking trails. In the fall hunters flock to Mayhill, using it as a central point from which to branch out into the wilderness in pursuit of elk, deer, perhaps even so exotic game as Persian ibex or oryx.

In winter skiers and snowboarders, zealous patrons of the nearby Ski Apache and Cloudcroft resorts, overrun the village.

Southwest of Mayhill, deeper in the mountains, among the undulating green hills of flowers, trees, shrubbery, and open fields of tall grass in Escondido and Medina Canyons, is a modest monument to female empowerment.

In 2009 a roadside historic marker was installed at the intersection of Bear Canyon Road and NM-24, just short of the entrance to Muleshoe Ranch. This marker reads, “In 1927, ‘Miss Mary’ established one of the earliest Girl Scout camps in America and the first in New Mexico. Situated on 200 acres in Otero County, a stately pine lodge, Ingham Hall, nestles amid cabins and outbuildings of Camp Mary White. Generations of girls, who learned stewardship of nature and community at the camp, continue to be energized as activists by Mary White’s pioneer spirit.”

This marker would not have been installed if not for the efforts of the Friends of Camp Mary White, a nonprofit organization based in Lubbock, Texas. The organization is committed to the revitalization of the camp.

How It all Started

Available at the Alamogordo Public Library and online is a 1972 recording by Mary White detailing her life.

Mary White was born in Midland, Texas, on September 4, 1894, the first child of Elza and Maude White (née Miller) of Ohio, the children of pioneers. The Whites braved “the wild and uncivilized country” of Texas. Elza first worked as a hotelier, then a sheep rancher, until drastic reduction in the prices sheep and wool bankrupted him.

In 1898, the Whites, now with Mary’s younger brother, Elza Jr., moved to Roswell via the Santa Fe Railroad. Here, Elza Sr. leased the Shelby Hotel and soon got involved in the sheep business again.

“There were evenings of early darkness when we sat quietly and spellbound in the yard while our parents put shivers in our spine and our hair stood on end listening to their dramatic telling of ghost stories,” White says.

In summer White and her brother spent their days playing games, such as Run, Sheep, Run, Kick the Can, Steal Sticks, “or games of our own making” with other Roswell children, and swimming in Roswell’s Spring River, dogpaddling in the 50-foot depth.

“I must have been a great disappointment to Mother, for she was fond of dressy, feminine garments and probably wished many times that she had a ruffled little girl who enjoyed playing with dolls more than the tomboy activities,” White says.

In the early 1900s, Elza Sr. retired from the hotel business, as his ranching concerns were becoming more profitable, and the family took a ranch on the Peñasco River in the Sacramento Mountains, a ranch which soon became known as Muleshoe Ranch, for the shape of Elza’s brand.

During high school in Roswell, White participated in equestrian competitions and in horseshows, receiving medals and ribbons for her efforts.

When she was a junior, she, her brother, and some friends decided to visit Carlsbad Caverns for the first time. A relative of White’s, Jim White, was exploring then-unmapped portions of the caves. Among the enormous shadows cast upon the walls by their gunny sack-torches against stalactites and stalagmites, “one feels so insignificant.” Though she would make many more trips to the caverns in the years to come, White says none was as “thrilling and awe-inspiring as this first one.”

After high school White went to finishing school in Washington DC, where she spent two years.

“We were taken to concerts, theatrical and operatic events,” White says. “Many popular and outstanding artists, poets, writers, and musicians were presented at our assemblies. I was indeed exposed to the social formalities and cultural entertainments. I’m afraid very few of them rubbed off on me.”

The skills she gained in finishing school could not have been put to much use when, after graduating, she returned to Muleshoe Ranch, to take over the duties of the cowboys who had been called on to serve in World War I. But perhaps her time in DC was what compelled President Warren G. Harding, in 1921, to appoint White as acting postmaster in Roswell. As such, White became the first woman in Chaves County to hold a federal office. She was officially confirmed to the position in 1925 by President Calvin Coolidge.

Not long after becoming acting postmaster, White was elected by the Women’s Club as one of Roswell’s delegates to the Federated Women’s Club Convention in West Baden, Indiana.

“One session during the convention was devoted to the discussion of various organizations for girls,” White says. “One of the speakers presented the Girl Scout Movement, which at that time was in its infancy in the United States.”

White and the other Roswell delegate agreed Girl Scouts would be something the girls of Roswell would like.

In the fall of 1925, White says, she and another woman organized the first Girl Scout troop in Roswell, later confirmed to be the first troop in New Mexico. That first troop had 16 girls, who camped in tents just outside of Roswell, and Girl Scouts became so popular in Roswell that a council was established by the next year to promote the interests of Roswell’s troop.

“In 1926 this group conceived the idea of establishing a permanent pioneer camp for Girl Scouts and took steps to carry out this idea,” White says.

Girl Scouts’ national office in New York City agreed and sent a representative to plan the permanent camp’s location, layout, and financing.

White’s father offered 200 acres of his land in the Sacramento Mountains and the council accepted. The land was surveyed and the camp planned out. It would accommodate 120 campers and 20 staff members. The overall cost was approximately $35,000, about $480,000 in 2015 dollars, and the estimated construction time was three years.

White’s father raised much of the initial investment and by 1929 the camp was dedicated, dubbed Camp Mary White, and opened to any Girl Scout in the United States.

In 1931 White resigned from the post office to accept a regional camp director position with the Girl Scouts, overseeing troops and camps in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Until 1937 Camp Mary White was one of only two camps serving as national training centers for the national organization. CMW soon gained renown for its unique approach to training women with outdoor skills and leadership. One popular training method was the Camp to Cavern Pack Trip. The troop would alight out from camp, come down from the mountains, cross the desert, and come to the Carlsbad Caverns in the Guadalupe Mountains, a 10-to-12-day journey of 100 miles taken by horseback.

White resigned from Girl Scouts in 1940, at which point she served as postmaster once more, in Tucson, until World War II ended. From 1945 to 1951, she worked as director of Women’s Residence Hall at NMSU, Las Cruces, then in a similar position at the University of Texas, El Paso, until 1960, when she retired to Muleshoe Ranch, where she “often sat on her long porch, from which she waved to campers as they hiked to and from Camp Mary White,” says a Genealogy Trails article on Camp Mary White, available online. White continued to support her namesake camp until her death at the age of 94 on May 15, 1988.

The camp, under the jurisdiction of Artesia’s Zia Council, celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2003, and at this celebration many CMW alumnae came.

“There was a giant sense of disdain and disgust because the camp had been run down basically,” says Samantha Sword-Fehlberg, the daughter of CMW alumna Jeri “DJ” Sword. “It was amazing that the camp was still operating.

In regards as to why Girl Scouts would allow the camp to decay, Sword-Fehlberg, who successfully completed Girl Scouts by earning her Gold Award, the highest achievement within that organization, in 2012, says the organization has “lost sight” of what it believes in.

“That particular area (the Zia Council) was under the impression that girls don’t really need camping to make themselves into stronger women,” she says. “Maybe that’s a good argument, I don’t personally agree with it. But it was more they were under the impression that girls should be cooking and cleaning and being housewives, rather than learning leadership skills.”

After seeing the camp in such disrepair, CMW alumnae founded the nonprofit organization Friends of Camp Mary White.

“The main goal (of CMW) is to rekindle the magic of camping in girls’ hearts,” Sword-Fehlberg says.

At 21 Sword-Fehlberg, from Cedar Crest, New Mexico, and currently an astrophysics major at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, is the youngest member of the FCMW Board of Trustees, which also includes her mother.

Soon after the nonprofit’s establishment, they presented Girl Scouts with a master plan to revitalize CMW but were told CMW was going to be sold off.

“It was a very disheartening day,” Sword-Fehlberg says.

But FCMW’s enthusiasm was rekindled with the fortuitous discovery of a document that stipulated the land upon which CMW was situated could be sold back to White’s family for a particular amount plus one dollar.

“It was a weird clause but you know how they worked in the early 1900s,” Sword-Fehlberg says, adding, “Little miracles happen.”

Another caveat came with the fact that the camp could not be accessed without passing through Muleshoe Ranch, which was owned by Lorraine Marsh-Vogel, White’s grandniece. Marsh-Vogel approached her friend Barbara McCormick, of the McCormick spice company, and asked her for a loan, several hundred thousand dollars, to purchase the camp land from Girl Scouts. McCormick agreed.

Gradual renovations and additions eventually led the camp to reopen in 2009. Since then the Ferndust, Oaks, and Escondido units were stabilized and their kitchens updated. In 2012 the “gem of the camp,” in the words of FCMW President Liz Lonngren in The Alamogordo Daily News, Ingham Hall was given a new roof, unveiled at the camp’s 85th anniversary celebration.

Ingham Hall with new roof. Photo by Friends of Camp Mary White.

Currently the camp’s biggest concern is updating its septic system.

“The next biggest step is getting the septic system, which will lead to our (American Camping Association) accreditation,” Sword-Fehlberg says.

The significance of accreditation, she says, is it will allow the camp to formally advertise without being penalized or dropped by their insurance company and being shut down. Once the camp can officially advertise, Sword-Fehlberg estimates about 600 girls will be reached.

To fund this renovation, costing approximately $35,000, Sword-Fehlberg set up a GoFundMe campaign for the cause near the end of June. The campaign is attempting to raise $40,000. The $5,000 disparity between the funding goal and the septic system’s cost will go toward GoFundMe’s five percent service charge, as well as “a cushion,” depending on how long it takes to raise the money.

“That’s (the $35,000) not even going to cover the entire camp, that’s just for the lodge itself,” Sword-Fehlberg says.

The new septic system will allow Ingham Hall’s kitchen to operate under required health codes.

“The biggest problem now is where do you get the funding?” Sword-Fehlberg says. “Because you can’t bring in more girls because you don’t have the funding, but you can’t get more funding if you don’t bring in more girls. It’s kind of a sick cycle.”

Attendance at the camp currently is driven by word-of-mouth.

This summer the camp hosted 30 to 40 campers plus about 20 staff members, including Sword-Fehlberg and her mother DJ. Pit-latrines, cement square-holes in the floors of wooden buildings in the camp, were used for bathrooms.

“They beat country-squatting,” Sword-Fehlberg says.

Many of CMW’s previous renovations were funded by campers who attended the camp after hearing about it by the friend-of-a-friend system. The cost of attending Camp Mary White is approximately $250.

“Which is unheard of for a weeklong camp with horses,” Sword-Fehlberg says, adding this summer was the first time horses had been back at the camp in many years.

Camp Mary White’s horses. Photo by Friends of Camp Mary White.

To compare costs, Sword-Fehlberg compared CMW to Rancho del Chaparral, the ACA-accredited Girl Scout camp, the only other girl camp in the state, in the Jemez Mountains.

“For a weekend camp, it can run up to $400,” she says. “Which is outrageous for certain families.”

FCMW’s original master plan in 2004 predicted a 10-year end date for when the camp would be fully up and running.

“You always plan things and they always end up being longer than you think they would be,” she says. “Depending on our fundraising ability, I feel like the camp will be up and running in the next 15 years. That’s my personal opinion.”

Sword-Fehlberg says the time commitment does not intimidate her, she’s in for the long haul.

“I do love this camp,” she says.

Her passion stems from “seeing what kind of person you are when you’re disconnected from the world. It’s amazing.”

Another factor driving Sword-Fehlberg is the memory of a fellow camper, nicknamed Timber, whom Sword-Fehlberg met several while at camp. Timber passed away when Sword-Fehlberg was in sixth grade.

“(Timber) was a huge influence on my life,” Sword-Fehlberg says. “And all the people I’ve met at camp have influenced my life in a way that I can never explain.”

Sword-Fehlberg went on to say these people have impacted her so significantly because of the leadership skills they gained as campers at Mary White.

“It’s amazing to see how much a person can become themselves when they’re not worried about what they look like or things like that,” Sword-Fehlberg says. “And for girls, that’s a big issue right now. Body image is a huge thing and is going to be a huge thing for a while. How do you set yourself apart in a male-dominated world? You first need to learn how to love yourself and I just feel like going to a camp and spending time with all these amazing people helps you learn that.”

Visit the nonprofit’s GoFundMe page:

and its website:

Author: nmsuroundup

The student voice of New Mexico State University since 1907.

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