Virtual Boxwell: A History of a History

It’s an odd and awesome responsibility writing the history for something that has never really had a history written before. But that’s what VirtualBoxwell.org is—the history of Boxwell Reservation, a history, a story, that has never been told.

Sure, there are lots of camp stories. I have them. Every staff member who has ever worked at Boxwell, even for a summer, has them. Scouts who came for summer camp have them. But there has never been a comprehensive story of Boxwell. The closest Boxwell ever came to an actual history was Boys Will Be Men, a history of Middle Tennessee Council written by Wilbur Creighton, Jr. in 1983. Boxwell was a part of that story, but only a part.

VirtualBoxwell.org is hardly comprehensive at this point. Perhaps some day it will be; perhaps some day there will be an actual book on the history of the Reservation in all its incarnations. But for now, VirtualBoxwell.org will have to serve that purpose.

In some ways, you could say that VirtualBoxwell.org began back in the 1940, back long before the internet, when someone took an 8mm film of the day to day life at the Narrows of the Harpeth Boxwell. Or perhaps the start was in the 1950s, when the first known staff photos were taken, documenting those first staffs at the Rock Island Boxwell. Even then, someone knew this experience was going to be something special. You could look at the mid-1960s when someone brought a reel to reel tape recorder to Camp Stahlman and a group of staff members hammed it up for the microphone. You could also mark the beginning in 1985 when Floyd “Q-ball” Pearce made audio tapes that he sent to the staff at Boxwell when he could no longer return for the summer, marking the first audio “interviews” of any Boxwell staff. All of these were attempts to capture and record a unique experience.

But really, the VirtualBoxwell project began in earnest in 1998. I had finished my run as a Parnell/Craig staff member the year before, holding the position of Program Director at Parnell—a position I never dreamed of occupying when I began on staff in 1990. At 22 years of age, I was the second youngest program director in the reservation’s history at that point (Russell Parham was the youngest at 21 in 1976). I began graduate school in ’98 and wasn’t ready to give up on Boxwell, even though I knew I would not be returning anytime soon.

So, in 1998, using the emerging technology of the time, I started the Boxwell News Network. The Boxwell News was a series of semi-regular e-mails I sent out to every staff member whose e-mail address I could get my hands on. The Boxwell News was an early attempt at a Facebook-type of social network, trying to keep former staff members together. It included birthdays, general Scouting news, Boxwell camp stories, and everyone’s favorite section—Who’s Who, where I sent out unnamed photos of staff members with a little hint and people got to guess who the staff members were. The seeds of VirtualBoxwell were planted.

Fortunately, very fortunately, I was not the only person interested in Boxwell’s history. Indeed, in many ways, I was the novice to the project. Kerry Parker, Russell Parham, and other long time staff members were more interested in preserving the history than I was. So, with some coordination, a little capital, and the growing technological innovations of the late 1990s computer revolution, we pooled our resources and began the long process of capturing what we could of Boxwell’s history.

What did capturing this history involve? Well, many of you are aware of it as you have been a part of it! We began scanning every camp photo we could get our hands on. No one had digital cameras then, so we had to track down hard copy photos, some in very poor condition. Believe it or not, many photos were thrown away by the former Council Executive, Joe Long! We also began collecting stories. I had collected some through the Boxwell News, but we all soon realized we were losing the voices of real people and so we began conducting taped interviews—a process we are still continuing today, though often with digital recorders, another sign of the technology revolution.

The goal was to collect all of this information before it was lost forever. After all, by 2000, Boxwell at Old Hickory was already 40 years old and some of the most influential people at Boxwell, such as Q-ball, Ward Akers, Luke Gaffin, and Ernie Ragsdale, were all already gone. We felt like we really had to move quickly to capture this information before it was too late. We hoped to preserve this material and then somehow distribute it all so that it would never be lost.

But very quickly the question arose—how do we distribute all this information? We had quickly accumulated loads and loads of data. Several staff photos turned into hundreds of photos and those turned into thousands. An interview or two turned in tens of hours of conversations. We began worrying about gigabytes of information when the largest hard drives at the time were only 300 or 400 megabytes!

At the 1999 Reunion, there was talk of doing a physical Boxwell museum. The idea was to take the Pump House, which had not been used in 20 years since Laguardo Water came to the reservation, and make an actual display area. As a history graduate student and someone who had experience working in an archive, this was appealing to me. However, all of us involved in the project were concerned about putting original material in the Pump House—susceptible to the weather and to off-the-lake vandals. Surely, there was another option.

It was from here that the idea of a Virtual Museum arose. The internet was becoming more widely available and the World Wide Web was far more accessible than it had been just three years before. CD burners were becoming common as well. Perhaps there were several ways to distribute this information after all.

The most rudimentary option was just to put the information out there. This approach materialized into the Camp Multimedia CDs, which are still available on this website. The first was the 2001 Q-ball CD, a simple audio CD of digital versions of the tapes Q-ball made in 1985. This was followed by the Parnell CD, created in 2002. The Parnell Multimedia CD was more interactive and put out photos and interviews and was followed by the Stahman CD, the Craig CD, and finally the two-disc Boxwell CD. We made a Q-ball Multimedia CD in 2005 and finally our most popular audio CD, the Songs of Boxwell in 2006.

The more complex option was trying to create an actual history of Boxwell. This was what is today VirtualBoxwell.org. Former Stahlman staffer Chris Davis was recruited to build the website and a working version was put on the web. For various reasons, Chris couldn’t finish the project, so a non-Boxwell staff member, Michael Eades, was given the project and the second version of Virtual Boxwell went live in 2002.

This was first attempt to create something resembling a comprehensive history of Boxwell. It was by no means complete, but it told more of the story than any other one place had yet accomplished. It included current information on the camps, as well as historical information in the Virtual Museum section. Using the Staff News section, it also tried to maintain some of the roots of the Boxwell News network.

In some ways, it is ironic how much things have changed over the last 15 years. We started when Windows 98 didn't yet have a "Second Edition" and photos were all hard copies or negatives. A small, but growing, number of people had e-mail. At this writing, we have the opposite problem! Digital technology is available to everyone. Every summer hundreds of photos and dozens of videoes are taken on digital cameras and smart phones. When we get these--and they are wonderful to get--we have a mountain of unnamed and unlabeled material to sort through. Documenting Boxwell has become much easier; archiving, organizing, and making sense of it all has become much more difficult.

So, here we are in 2012, almost fifteen years after this project began, and we have Version 3 of VirtualBoxwell.org. While obviously a work in progress, this version promises to be even more comprehensive than the last version. We hope that the Special Exhibitions sections as well as the primer will help pull together long-forgotten pieces of Boxwell’s history. Someday the VirtualBoxwell team hopes to produce a book of some kind actually detailing the history of the reservation, but until then, this is the single best source there is.

We hope you like it. It’s been quite a journey and there’s still work to do, but we hope this new website gives you a fuller, more complete vision of what Boxwell has been like over the years. If you have stories, we encourage you to post them or to write us. In the meantime, we hope you spend some time exploring what has become a project of history in the making.

Welcome to VirtualBoxwell.org—version 3.

Grady Eades
Webmaster, VirtualBoxwell.org
XDE & Friends
May 2012