One of my favorites scenes in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is when the March sisters gather around in their attic for their literary society — The Pickwick Club — to read the weekly edition of their homemade The Pickwick Papers, a newspaper they make to entertain themselves.
The creativity, design, whimsy, advertisements, and oddities found within it reminds me so much of the spirit of a camp, where making your own entertainment, instead of seeking it from the outside, is the norm. With their imagination and readiness, I think the March sisters would have been right at home at Camp Alleghany!
So I’m betting that there are more alums out there than just me who remember the Rattler, the Camp Alleghany weekly newspaper that used to arrive on your camp cot once a week? (The Rattler is still in production in a modified form, but I’m talking about back when you could choose Rattler as one of your camper activities.)
Well imagine my surprise — and the flood of memories — when I recently visited camp and opened a drawer that was just bursting with old copies of the Rattler! I felt like an archeologist, or anthropologist, discovering again all the richness and variety that is the history of ‘Ghany!
Those old Rattlers were printed on real newsprint in single sheet 12″ x 17″ front and back layups, or, in some cases, in the same size but with several pages. There were stories, announcements, ads, a full masthead with date and volume/edition numbers, news, reviews, upcoming events, camper registration names (in the off-season editions to find out who was coming that summer) etc.
Whither the Rattler?
This treasure trove made me wonder when we stopped doing at-camp production of the newspaper, and offering it as an activity. It also planted the notion, “Hmmm, I wonder if we should bring it back? And if so, how? What would the Rattler of the 21st century look like at camp for campers?”
I turned to resident Rattler expert and all-around Alum wonderwoman Kitty Capito Farrar for details. I knew as the Rattler’s current ace reporter she would have the story.
She says that Rattler was offered as an activity class on an every-other-day option mostly for Upstarts but also for interested younger campers into the 80s. That’s right, because I was one of those interested younger campers. I remember I was assigned to help with crossword puzzles and word finds and that I felt such a responsibility to make an entertaining contribution!
But at some point, and we’re not sure exactly when, it stopped being a camp activity and became a newsletter-like endeavor that was sent in the mail a few times each year mostly by alum Nancy Worthington. It included articles from Cooper Dawson and campers and was probably printed in Alexandria.
Kitty took it on in 1987 or 88, having it printed at the Washington & Lee print shop and then by the local newspaper printers. She says that there were lots of advertisements from local retailers in the early years (just as there are in all those old timey copies of the Rattle that I have going way back to 1927!).
But there were hard things, too. As any editor knows, getting writers to contribute stories is never easy, and the contribution started slowing to a trickle even though Kitty solicited them in her editor’s note. Soon, escalating printing and postage costs prompted my grandfather, Cooper, to cut back.
The Rattler was not entirely lost, though. With email — and more and more people valuing going green through being “paperless” — we decided to go to an electronic format, and still send the Rattler out that way a few times each year today!
The once and future Rattler?
But something in me is stirring with this idea, especially since many kids today feel they can’t write, or are scared at the prospect of doing so. Yet writing can be fun if you’re taught how to do it in a way that is itself fun and engaging. Writing well, whether fiction or non fiction, starts with simply being descriptive, and lots of campers can describe things in great detail!
And then there’s photos. Kids today (and definitely our campers) love to take pictures. I have a friend who’d love to share some of her photography and photojournalism skills with campers, who could take an ordinary shot to a fantastic shot by simply gaining a few pointers and practicing.
Whether the Rattler would ever come out again on every cot once a week is doubtful — we do want to be as green as possible. But maybe something as low tech as the March Sisters’ Pickwick Papers, with it’s handwritten, hand drawn, and pasted up version could make for a great weekly read at all camp gatherings, or posted on a bulletin board to check out in between classes.
And then we could morph with the latest technology and put it up blog style, too.
I’m still mulling the possibilities and with planning already under way for next summer, it could be 2014 before Rattler is an activity again. In the meantime, we’ll be posting archival stories from old Rattlers on the blog from time to time to give you a taste of the wonderful array of material and history that comes from being a camp that’s almost 100 years old!
–Elizabeth Dawson Shreckhise, Assistant Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls