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Every Wednesday at 6:45 a.m., 8:45 a.m., and 5:45 p.m., we turn back the clock on WXPR with local historian Gary Entz to find out what life in the Northwoods used to be like. This is part of a new initiative by WXPR to tell the history and culture of northern Wisconsin.You can keep track of A Northwoods Moment in History and all of WXPR's local features on the WXPR Local Features podcast, wherever you get your podcasts.

A Unique Northwoods Camp for Deaf Children

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Wisconsin Historical Society
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Thousands of children come to the Northwoods each year to participate in organized summer camps.  While many camps are storied with long histories, there was one distinctive camp that had a short life but did much good in its nine years of existence. 

In 1966, a young boy named Mike returned to his home in Wausau after spending two weeks in a Northwoods summer camp.  He was as enthused as any young child could possibly be and could not wait to tell his parents about his experiences.  He made quite a few new friends and participated in many exciting outdoor activities that he had never done before.  He carried home a treasured scrapbook to share with his family.  It was full of photos and mementos of his stay.

Mike’s experiences at summer camp may not seem all that different from those of thousands of other children who attend camp every season until one considers how he spent all his previous summers.  Mike was born deaf and had previously spent his summers lonely and isolated from other children because they could not understand sign language and he could not hear.  Mike was one of seven children from the Wausau School for the Deaf that the Optimist Club and other Wausau organizations in 1966 helped to go to summer camp in the Northwoods.

The camp these children attend in 1966 was the Rustic Lodge camp for Deaf Children just north of McNaughton on Muskellunge Lake.  In 1945, Arvid Jonsson, who was better known as Ted, and his wife Margaret moved to Oneida County and purchased the Rustic Lodge Resort.  Throughout the 1950s they operated the lodge as a hunting, fishing, and recreational resort for tourists.  This made it little different from other resorts in the region.

In 1963, the Rustic Lodge became unique.  Ruth Ann Jonsson, the daughter of Ted and Margaret, became a teacher to deaf children and taught at the Wausau School for the Deaf.  She convinced her parents of the great need for such a facility, and they agreed.  The Rustic Lodge became a non-profit organization and converted its facilities to serving the needs of deaf children.  In the words of Ted Jonsson, “We attempt to provide a new dimension in the life” for children by helping them “see the wonders of God’s out-of-doors, the beautiful pine forest, sparkling lakes, and the fascinating world of wild life.”

Running Camp Rustic as a facility for the deaf was an expensive undertaking as it required a larger staff than other camps.  There was a trained counselor on staff for every four deaf children in attendance.  These counselors were fluent in sign language and able to instruct the children in outdoor activities that included swimming, horseback riding, overnight camping, nature hikes, and boating.

Ted and Margaret Jonsson did not take a salary for running the camp and helped sustain it through Jonsson’s insurance job in Rhinelander.  Unfortunately, there was not a lot of outside support.  Fraternal organizations throughout Wisconsin would sponsor individual children and pay their tuition, but overall capital for upkeep of the camp infrastructure and staff was hard to come by.

The Jonnson family made speaking trips to major towns across Wisconsin seeking backing for this one-of-a-kind camp in the Northwoods, but it never came in amounts sufficient to continue.  This camp that did so much good closed its doors after the 1972 season.

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