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Former Scout recalls Arroya

Mary Andrews, 83, a longtime Mitchell resident, spent time at Camp Arroya as a Girl Scout in the late 1930s. She's pictured at her home earlier this week. (Ross Dolan/Republic)

Mary Andrews is no Girl Scout -- but she used to be.

Now 83, Andrews still remembers her pre-teen years as a scout and summer visits to Camp Arroya on the north shore of Lake Mitchell.

These days, the 12-acre camp is barely visible to those driving by on North Harmon Drive. The camp is owned by the city of Mitchell and run by the non-profit Camp Arroya Inc., which rents the premises to churches, scouting groups and families for events such as graduations, weddings and family reunions.

The camp was originally deeded to the Girl Scouts after Lake Mitchell was built in the late 1920s, said Camp Arroya Board President Sherry Stilley. The scouts turned Camp Arroya back to the city in the late '60s, said Stilley. The original camp lodge building burned and prominent citizens, concerned about vandalism, formed Camp Arroya Inc. to preserve the camp and its heritage.

The group hopes to renew its current 25-year, dollar-a-year lease agreement with the city, when it ends in December.

Mitchell City Councilman Marty Barington is among those who believe the city needs to reconsider the lease renewal. The camp needs maintenance Camp Arroya Inc. can't provide, Barington has said and he believes, with some improvements, the camp could be enjoyed by even more people.

Andrews believes the city should renew its lease arrangement. She feels the Camp Arroya board is doing a good job managing the camp and should be allowed to continue with its mission.

She has fond memories of warm summer nights at Camp Arroya.

"They had Girl Scout camp every summer and we'd go and stay there for a week," said Andrews, who can't recall the exact years she attended, but she knows it was before World War II.

The camp was a cheerful respite for young girls who had experienced the Dirty Thirties.

"The dust storms had been awful," she said. "I remember them having to turn the street lights on in Mitchell during the day, because the sky became so dark with dust."

When her mother tucked in Andrews and her siblings at home, she put clean sheets over them to keep dust off the bedclothes and then covered the linens with copies of The Daily Republic -- to keep the dust off the sheets. Plenty of old papers were available since Andrews' father was "Butch" McComish, who worked for 40 years as The Daily Republic's press foreman, she said.

Andrews said she and other Girl Scouts and Brownies enjoyed the summer gettogethers.

Compared with modern camp programs, the times at Camp Arroya were pretty tame.

"We just stayed there and slept in the cabins," Andrews said.

The day was consumed with girlish chatter, arts and crafts and general fun. Swimming may have been an activity, she said, but it's not one she recalls.

Stilley, who also attended the camp in the late '50s and early '60s, said the camp had an excellent, sandy swim beach, which all the scouts enjoyed.

Andrews said the 20 to 25 girls who attended the camp each summer slept on bunk beds in two cabins. The cabins still remain -- one is now used for crafts and the other has since become a storage building.

Meals were served in the main lodge building. Today, only the fireplace from the lodge remains, incorporated as part of a picnic shelter.

The fun of Camp Arroya, Andrews said, was being with other girls and getting away from home.

"Sleeping there overnight, that was the real treat," she said.

The original road, which is not used today, was was short and steep back then, Andrews said, and it required careful driving. It has become overgrown and reclaimed by nature.

"Every Thursday night was 'Parents' Night,' when we'd show our visiting parents the crafts we made that week," Andrews said. "One girl always got so homesick she never made it through the week. She would leave with her parents."

Meals were cooked in the old lodge at the camp. Large pans of hot, soapy water and clear rinse water were made available in the camp kitchen and girls were expected to do their own dishes after every meal.

There was a boys' camp on the south shore of Lake Mitchell, but there were never any raids on Camp Arroya, Andrews said, and sneaking off just wasn't done.

As a lesson in self-reliance Girl Scouts were taught how to cook their own breakfast on coffee can camp stoves.

The girls would use a puncture-style beer can opener -- commonly available in those pre-pop-top days -- to punch a series of triangular vent holes just above the bottom of the can. The can was then flipped over and the bottom of the can became the cooktop. A fire was then built inside the can.

"We'd cook our bacon first," Andrews said, "and then we'd cook our eggs."

The small stoves worked remarkably well, she said.

Andrews grew up and stayed in the Mitchell area. She raised one girl and three boys and held varied jobs through the years, from selling knick-knacks at Uncle Zeke's across from the Corn Palace, to working as a cook in the Mitchell Junior High School kitchen.

Still, those early years at Camp Arroya come flooding back.

"I really loved it," she said. "I have fond memories of Camp Arroya."