From Fort Totten to the world, one man’s 100-year adventure continues

Louise Oleson, Editor
Harry W. Camp, Jr. returned to the place of his birth, now known as the Fort Totten State Historic Site. He was born September 20, 1910 and when he returns home from his trip to ND is preparing to celebrate with 120 of his closest friends and relations at his present home in Waverly Gardens, North Oaks, Minnesota. Camp is pictured here with his wife, Myrna, and daughter Wendy of Napa, California.

He was born in a house, just outside the walls of Fort Totten - the fort - on Sept. 20, 1910. On Monday Harry W. Camp, Jr., will turn 100 years old.

“It wasn’t much of a house,” he said, “but it was home to me, my folks and my two older sisters for six years.” Like their neighbors on the reservation, they didn’t have running water, indoor plumbing or electricity in their home.

His father, Harry W. Camp, Sr., was a finance officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He and his wife, Mabel, sent their children to school at the fort, which at the time served the community as its school, both for day students and boarding students.

“I didn’t do very well at school,” Camp said,  “You might say I flunked kindergarten and had to repeat it.

“I just wasn’t interested. I’d rather be outside playing with my friends.”

Camp’s younger sister was born in 1914 and the family left North Dakota in 1916, but he remembers Fort Totten well, even 94 years later.

“When you have siblings who repeat stories over and over again, their memories can become your memories, but I do recall many things on my own,” Camp said.

He talked about the Indian encampment days during the summertime when families came from miles around and camped just down the hill from the Camp home - it was the beginnings of what we now know as Fort Totten Days Powwow. “There were no pop-up tent campers or RVs in those days, just tepees.”

Camp remembers the dancing and the drums and the singing. “I was always down there with my pals,” he recalled.

The intelligent, articulate Camp is still in very good shape although limited a little by macular degeneration. “I can still do many things,” he said, “but I don’t drive,” he said with an impish smile. The “good” thing, he says about the condition of his sight is that his doctor told him, no matter what, you’ll never be totally in the dark.”

He gets by pretty well with his wife’s help and aids provided like Talking Books and a visual scanner that enlarges print so he can still read some things.

His mind, however, is as clear and sharp as it ever was.

He said when he was six years old and the family moved to the state of Washington and Fort Simcoe for his father’s new position with the agency was the first time he learned he was not an Indian. “All my friends back home were, so I just assumed I was, too, I guess, you know how children are,” he said grinning.

The remainder of his growing up years were spent in Washington where he learned to love the forest and at the age of 13 or 14 he’d be on the watch for forest fires and if he saw one would run to the firefighter recruiter to alert them. “That’s the way it was done in those days,” he said.

After much pestering they finally let him join their ranks as a volunteer, “Although most of the time I spent peeling potatoes and doing K-P duty, I did spend all my summers in high school and college years in the mountains as a fire look-out, dispatcher and later as a fire fighter,” Camp reminisced.

“When I finally made an application for civil service to the Forest Service they didn’t believe someone so young could have had the years of experience I’d listed and done all the things I’d done, so they questioned me,” he said.

“I told them they shouldn’t be questioning me, they should call the people I’d listed as references, they’d tell them – and they did.”

Thus his professional career began that spanned 42 years with the National Forest Service. It brought him to many places throughout the nation including New England, California and eventually to Washington, DC. His work included the whole experience with the Forest Service including moving up the ranks from forest ranger to become the Regional Director of Forest Research in the Pacific SW region.

He even did some time in Iran - about six months where he helped that nation set up its inventory of forests and production timber.

He had some interesting tales to tell of those few months in the Middle East. Once he landed in jail as he and his guide hiked into an area that required special permits to enter – the same area incidentally that three young hikers a year ago entered by mistake and have been jailed since. He told the authorities that he had obtained the special permit required and after  only four or five hours he and his guide were released. “It was lucky, too, because my guide had forgotten to bring his special permit with him, so they didn’t have to let us both go, but they did,” Camp recalled.

Even back then, Camp said Iran was no place he wanted to spend a lot of time, although he did say the experience was for the most part a positive one.

“In my years with the Forest Service I saw great changes in the ways forests were inventoried and researched. The most significant change came when satellites and aerial photography could be used rather than doing surveys from the ground. Those strides assisted their work in determining what forests or areas should be marked for harvesting and what should receive reforestation.

Camp’s work brought him to many places in the US and the Hawaiian Islands and eventually to California where he settled down, ready to retire in 1973. After a few years working as a consultant Camp realized that retirement felt an awful lot like working, so he made another change and retired altogether in 1977.

After the death of his first wife, Neva, he happened to take a two-week cruise through the Panama Canal. It was on that cruise he met Myrna Anderson who lived in Grand Forks, ND - her mother, Palma Lee, was long-time matron at the Odd Fellows Home in Devils Lake, ND, just 18 miles from the place where Camp was born.

They married in June of 1983 and lived near Camp’s son and daughter and their families in the San Francisco area for a number of years, but now have settled closer to their roots, and Myrna’s children and their families, in Waverly Gardens of the North Oaks section of St. Paul, Minnesota.

This week the Camps and Harry’s daughter, Wendy, from Napa, California, drove from Minnesota to Fort Totten to spend some time exploring Harry’s old haunts and to stay in the historic Totten Trail Inn bed and breakfast.

The stay had to be brief, however, because Myrna has planned a birthday party for Harry back at Waverly Gardens and at last count 120 of their closest friends and relations would be attending.

When asked after all he’s seen in his 100 years and everywhere he’s been, what he thought was the most significant or important advancement of the last 100 years, his response was, “Indoor plumbing,” he said with a grin.

“I remember going out to that outdoor biffy in the dead of winter and the snowdrifts were so high that my dad made a tunnel from the house to the outhouse. He even carved out a little area about halfway there so my sisters could play in it, sheltered from the wind,” he reminisced.

“Until brilliant me came along, I thought we needed more light so I used a stick and poked a big hole in the ceiling to let it in and down it all came!”