The Centennial Camp


Camp Cobbosse

Winthrop, Maine

Cost per 51-day session: $6,950

Cost per half session: $4,100

Ages: 7-15, boys athletic camp

It is sometimes hard to imagine a New England summer camp in the late '50s. It conjures sepia-toned, idyllic images of lakes, mountains and kids running through unspoiled campgrounds and swimming in pristine water.

Related Article: Choices, Choices, Choices

You can get a glimpse of what it must have been like in your mind's eye, but it's hazy at best. The kids and counselors spent eight weeks away from home, with few (by 21st Century standards) activities to choose from.

It was in this setting that two campers attending neighboring boys and girls camps eventually met and fell in love, with each other and camp.

Steve and Nancy Rubin have run the camp life spectrum for almost 50 years, first as campers, then as counselors, administrators and, most recently, as owners.

A good portion of those years was spent in New Hampshire at Camp Tomahawk (the boys camp) and Camp Wicosuta (the girls camp). Like so many others of this generation who are still in the camp business in one form or another, the Rubins have helped maintain the values and traditions of an era gone by.

While bearing the standard of a traditional, sleep-away camp, the Rubins have also taken a proactive approach to the challenges of the new century. Their camp philosophy has molded to the times, but remained true to its roots in spirit and action.

The Rubins have been running Camp Cobbossee in Winthrop, Maine, for the past 15 years. They are the third group of owners to run Cobbossee, which has been running continuously since 1902, making it the longest continuously-run boys camp in the U.S.

Cobbossee will celebrate its centennial next season, bringing in former campers from almost each phase of the camp's history. It represents not only a reunion of Cobbossee campers, but of the New Hampshire camps where the Rubins faithfully spent their summers.

Getting Here from There

In many ways, Camp Cobbossee is Camp Tomahawk, Steve Rubin's alma mater. Steve not only grew up at Tomahawk, he married the owner's daughter, Nancy.

Steve and Nancy rose in the ranks to become leaders at their respective camps, and much of the managerial responsibilities fell to them. Nancy's father, Red Bogart, eventually sold his camp interest and developed Tomahawk into luxury townhouses, so Steve and Nancy decided to buy another camp and take their campers and staff to a new location.

"We bought it because we fell in love with it; it's a beautiful site, and we saw the potential in it," says Steve. "The camp fires are held in the same area and in the same type of situation as the original. We have similar ceremonies, tradition and athletic competition as they had at the original camp."

Cobbossee is still Cobbossee, but with the indelible mark of Tomahawk on it. The Rubins brought in a partner three years ago who also grew up at Tomahawk, Tony Lembeck, cementing the mark of that camp in the psyche of Cobbossee.

Lembeck fondly recalls Steve teaching him how to swim when Steve ran the waterfront at Tomahawk. This tie personifies the camp's motto, "Friendships for a Lifetime," a phrase that has real meaning at Cobbossee.

It's a philosophy they strive to maintain by keeping the camper numbers relatively low and the counselor numbers relatively high. It ensures a high counselor-to-camper ratio and a family-like atmosphere.

"We watch over them, and we know everyone from the minute they're there," says Lembeck. "We have good contact with the parents and run it with a hands-on approach."

Training & Competition

The staff at Cobbossee is a mixture of college-age counselors, who stay with the kids in the cabins and implement the program, and coaches and teachers who head up each department at the camp. These department heads are experts in their fields -- whether it's tennis, basketball, soccer, baseball or any of the many sports practiced at Cobbossee -- and lead the college-age counselors with a defined program.

Cobbossee features all the major land and water sports, but also runs a few programs that are not very common -- team handball, ice hockey, lacrosse, roller hockey and street hockey.

"We find the things the boys really like and can afford to keep doing. Over the past five or six years we've introduced some wonderful things that we never thought of when we were kids, like lacrosse, which is a big sport and growing bigger," Steve says. "Lacrosse may not seem like a big expense, but when you're talking about all the equipment, finding good people to run it, and clearing some more land it does get expensive."

But the demand in lacrosse has more than justified the addition of this program, as has the more recent addition of a climbing wall. Steve says his camp can't be all things to all people, but Cobbossee is willing to add programming if it offers competition and a chance to learn.

This is where the staff mix comes into play. The boys are provided with solid instruction coming from professional teachers, who also impart their wisdom on the college-age counselors.

Lloyd Johnson, the head of the tennis department, coaches the Junior Davis Cup program for Jamaica. Johnson is both a good and unusual example of what Cobbossee strives for in its staff.

A good example, because he meets the criteria of teaching excellence, a love for children, patience and a good sense of humor. Unusual, because Camp Cobbossee's staff is mostly "middle America," says Lembeck, who adds that international staff, particularly summer-only help is not recruited as heavily as U.S. staff.

Mike Griffin, Cobbossee's athletic director, has been affiliated with the Rubins for more than 30 years. Lembeck says that Griffin was a basketball coach when Lembeck was a boy at Tomahawk.

"That's true for many great camps -- they keep their senior staff," says Lembeck. "The owners treat them right and give them the authority to run the programming the way they want to run it, but it is always guided by the underlying general philosophy of the camp."

Steve also cites a number of factors that lead to creating excellence in summer counselors and a high counselor return rate, which can be hard to come by these days.

"You've got to pay them and pay them fairly, but also give them responsibility, make them feel important, give them good feedback, and help them earn credits toward internships and classes for the job they've done during the summer," Steve says. "And, you need to make sure you stay in touch with them all winter long. That's the key to our camp, because the campers come back for the friends and for the staff."

Camp Cobbossee is very thorough in its recruiting and hiring, taking as much time as possible to go out to campuses and personally find and talk to people interested in working at summer camp. They also do thorough background checks, including criminal checks through state agencies.

"Every counselor we hire is a specialist; we don't hire general counselors who travel from activity to activity with the boys," says Lembeck.

Cobbossee hires specialists because it is primarily an athletic camp, with equal focus on instruction and competition. Competition at Cobbossee is huge. Cobbossee competes with other camps during the course of the summer in as many different sports as possible.

Then, during the final week of the season, Color War begins, representing the highlight of the summer for most of the campers. It's one of the things that helps ensure the camp's 90-95 percent return rate.

"We teach skills, sportsmanship, and an approach toward athletics that is quite traditional. We try to make the boys understand that the art of competing is what's so beautiful," says Lembeck. "The most important thing about sport is giving your all. Everybody likes to win, but you can't win all the time. If you do your best, you are a winner every time you come off the field. For me as a boy growing up at Tomahawk, those are the lessons that I learned, and I wasn't a great athlete. And here I am now, part owner of an athletic camp."

Bryan BuchkoComment