Eighty years of character building at Kehonka

''Bally'' leafed through the pages of Camp Kehonka's picture album while listening to a recording of singing campers. Considered one of the oldest campers in America, Bally - A. Cooper Ballentine - is the soft-spoken owner and director of Camp Kehonka.

Kehonka, a girl's camp, was established in 1902 and continues to thrive independently, unlike agency camps, which receive government support. Over the past 25 years, 20 independent camps in the lakes region of New Hampshire have come and gone. Survival is an accomplishment. This past summer, 175 campers and 60 counselors came from 17 nations to Camp Kehonka.

The camp is on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee, in Wolfeboro, N.H., the oldest summer resort area in the country. Mr. Ballentine first came to Kehonka in 1911 seeking work as a chore boy. He has owned the camp since 1946.

He strives to instill excellence in his campers and wants his camp to remain the ''oasis of idealism'' that it has been called.

''Guidance of campers is the chief aim of camping; . . . more important than skills is establishing self-confidence, truth, dependability,'' he says. The camp program goes on 24 hours a day, and Mr. Ballentine emphasizes staff training to maintain the high standards. He says the ''essence of Camp Kehonka is excellence in everything you do.''

Maintaining the spirit established by the camp's founder, Laura Mattoon, crafts, music, and drama are stressed. Five full-time professional crafts people are hired for this purpose. Mr. Ballentine teaches the hammering and cutting of silver into jewelry, utensils, and bowls.

''The girls come here with the knowledge that they have to work hard . . . we send nothing home that is short of lasting value and interest,'' he said.

Other activities include horseback riding, tennis, swimming, and sailing - all taught with character development in mind. Beginner to advanced camping-sailors enjoy expeditions aboard a 37-foot ketch up Maine's coast. Sailing and canoeing trips also go around the lake.

Camping has changed significantly since 1902. The first camping program consisted of living in the woods, roughing it, and learning about nature. Today , the idea is to get campers on their own feet and less dependent on television and being entertained, Mr. Ballentine says.

A change has also occurred in the crafts made today versus those made years ago. Mr. Ballentine carefully handles the objects on his coffee table. Each piece has its own story and its own significance. A copper Paul Revere-style lantern was once a source of candle light for campers, and each girl was required to make one. A hand-woven basket made by an untrained townsman is an example of the New Hampshire crafts.

Today, the primary crafts of the camp are weaving, ceramics, and silver-working. While handcrafts are not as essential to everyday life as the basket and lamps of earlier days were, learning to make useful and beautiful objects still has social significance.

Kehonka is a ''Christian camp welcoming all faiths,'' Mr. Ballentine's wife, Althea, said. The Sunday worship services are led by the campers with singing, creative writing, and choral speaking.

''The reason our services are so happily attended is because of the participation. Everyone is thoroughly prepared, and wants to see what others are doing,'' Mr. Ballentine said.

And during the off-season months? One finds Mr. Ballentine busy with his crafts in his year-round home on Kehonka hill, preparing for the summer camp.

Nostalgia Quiz. The Camp Kehonka photos shown here span 80 years. See if you can guess the correct year. 1) "Scandalous advance:" bare legs in 19--. 2) Custom-built Ford wagon, 19--. 3)Pre-swim calisthenics at beach, 19--. 4) Unfloored tent, army cots, 19--. 5) Mount Major overnighters, 19--. 6) Steady as she goes, 19--. Answers: 1) 1907; 2) 1920; 3) 1920; 4) 1902; 5) 1924; 6) 1936

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