Not far removed from her pre-med studies at the University of Kansas and with no business experience, Maxine Gunsolly bought a summertime campground north of Grand Rapids, Minn., where she had been a counselor, and molded it into a retreat where girls could “just be girls” and were inspired to be strong and independent — just like “Gunny” — while mixing in horseback riding, tennis, swimming and camp songs.
Mary Meland, who attended Sherwood Forest Camp as a youngster, with her own girls to follow, said Gunny proved that “if you worked hard and wanted something, you could achieve that. And women didn’t do that too much then.”
Gunsolly, whose camp on Deer Lake drew girls from down the road and as far away as Mexico, died Oct. 29 in her Grand Rapids home after a steady decline in health. She was 87.
While Gunsolly closed the camp in 1990 after running it nearly 40 years, it lives on in other ways.
Some of the former campers have been gathering there annually since the mid-1990s, dubbing themselves “Sherwood Cronies,” rekindling memories of the camp they first experienced long ago during either four- or eight-week stays.
A book, “The Spirit of Sherwood,” is dominated by photographs taken at the camp over the years and includes campers’ memories.
“I saw more than one girl find happiness for herself at Sherwood because she found herself,” wrote Jeanne Borgens Bailey. “Many, many children felt a worthiness and self-confidence after camp. Parents would write back and say that the daughter who came home was a different one than the one left just four weeks ago.”
Despite the pressure to make the camp coed and increase revenue, Gunsolly said in an interview in 2008 with the Grand Rapids Herald-Review that, “I wanted to keep it all girls, as a place where girls could get away from it all and just be girls; dress the way they wanted and be who they wanted.”
Detail after detail for Gunsolly’s funeral Saturday in what was the lodge was a tribute not only to Gunny but her camp, said Meland, a Twin Cities pediatrician who transitioned from camper to camp counselor and now owns a slice of the property as a summer retreat.
Meland and the other camp alums “buried her wearing our camp sweatshirts,” Meland said. “She wore one, too.”
One of the trees on the camp’s grounds was felled and “converted into boards to make her coffin,” Meland added. “It was a very beautiful coffin.”
Taps was played on the camp bugle.
Raised in Emporia, Kan., Gunsolly was first exposed to the camp as a counselor, bringing her relief in the North Woods from the Kansas summer. “She just fell in love with it,” Meland said.
After college and just 25 years old, Gunsolly bought the camp with money borrowed from several families of girls who attended when Meland was a counselor.
“She took it on, with no plumbing or electricity, and built it herself, with help from some men in Grand Rapids,” Meland added.
Meland said it was that drive and initiative that so inspired her and the other campers, particularly because she “had no business experience at all. She was a college girl. We all felt this was such a remarkable example. … She did it herself. She found a way.”