Prologue: Last week the Girl Scouts of America received a record donation of $84.5 million from Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. Among other uses, the grant is meant to “create more equitable membership opportunities in communities that have been under-engaged” and “foster meaningful program innovation informed by the current interests and needs of girls to prepare them for leadership, including an expanded focus on career readiness and mental wellness.”
Located just North of Howard Falls is the Hawthorne Ridge Camp of the Girl Scouts of Western Pa, which came to be due to a generous donation from a local Erie woman and her father – here is their story…
Over the years, as people settled near Howard Falls and the Falls Run Gorge, they invariably developed a deep appreciation for nature and the unique splendor of the area. Here we document the story of the Thompson-Wright family of Erie, culminating in their generous donation to the Girl Scouts of Erie in 1935.
The Thompson family found its way to Franklin Township with the efforts of Victory Marion Thompson (1829-1887). Victory’s story begins in Madison County, New York where he was born on August 7, 1829. He came to Erie County with his parents, Joseph S. and Rachel Thompson, in 1832, “settling in a log house at the northwest corner of Liberty and Eighteenth Streets, then in Millcreek Township.” Unfortunately, in 1837, his father, Joseph, died when Victory was eight years old. These “circumstances demanded that Victory work at an early age to help support the family,” and he began peddling Yankee notions. These items typically included pins, needles, hooks, scissors, combs, small hardware, buttons, thread, ribbon, nails, etc. Later while attending old Erie Academy, he manufactured and sold washboards. In 1848, when nineteen years of age, Victory sold his washboard business and bought a canal boat which, for three years, he sailed along the Erie Extension Canal. By 1855, his fleet consisted of sixteen canal boats, which ran on the “Thompson Line.” Along the way, he married Rebecca Glenn (1835-1886) and would later acquire “a handsome fortune” by becoming an oil dealer.
By 1876, the Thompsons also owned a 140-acre tract of timberland northeast of Howard Falls. While the 1880 census has Victory living at 605 West 8th Street in the city of Erie, his occupation was listed as “farmer” – he likely was working the land out in Franklin Township. This land had seldom changed hands, deeded only twice since settled in 1832 by James P. Silverthorn.
In looking after their timber interests, Victory’s son, Clarence Lloyd (C.L.) Thompson (1862-1936) began to acquire adjoining property, including a 94-acre piece just north of Howard Falls on the Falls Run gorge. Here he would establish a country home for his family called “Hillside,” and the Howard and Thompson families became well acquainted. In 1908, George Howard is mentioned in the Erie Daily Times newspaper as a social visitor to Hillside farm, “formerly a modern dairy and grape vineyard.” As he grew more acquainted with the neighboring area, C. L. became fascinated with Howard Falls and was on a mission to have it photographed. Thus in 1926, he journeyed one mile south from his summer home accompanied by Archie W. Mang (1885-1973), the ‘West Ninth’ photographer, and took what may be the first known professional image of Howard Falls. On October 20th, 1926, Howard Falls was the front page news of The Erie Daily Times.
Later that same year, C.L. Thompson and George Howard would play important roles in the dedication of a new bridge across Elk Creek, which we will discuss in a future blog post.
C.L. and his wife, Grace Nicholson, would have one child, Alice, born in 1911. Raised in close proximity with nature at their Hillside Camp aside the Falls Run Gorge, with the Elk Creek Gorge and Lake Erie both visible on the horizon, Alice took a deep interest in Girl Scouting. By 1934 she was Captain of the Troop at Church of the Covenant in Erie, and a nature counselor at nearby Scout camps in the summer months, stating “What an inspiration it was, to meet other leaders, exchange ideas, and learn more about scouting together.”
Alice also wrote:
“My summers have been spent at Hillside at our cottage…Earliest recollections of the guidance of my parents pointed to the enjoyment of beautiful things, especially the close association with the out-of-doors.”
It wasn’t long before the Thompson family realized that their Hillside summer home would make an ideal location for a new Girl Scout camp. And so, in 1935, the Thompson family donated their 94-acre Hillside to the Girl Scouts of Erie.
As C.L. described in a newspaper article featuring the donation, he stated: “Completely isolated from the main highway, here, the Scouts will enjoy to the fullest the opportunities for outdoor living. Trees, flowers, rare birds, and many natural advantages bring to the campers an opportunity for a valuable and constructive experience.” Not surprisingly, he goes on to mention that Howard Falls is just a mile south of the campsite, similarly situated at the origin of Falls Run gorge. Today that entire magnificent Gorge that C.L.Thompson described so eloquently is the Falls Run Gorge Natural Heritage Area of Pennsylvania, an area now shared by the Girl Scouts of Western PA and the Howard family’s Howard Falls Irrevocable Trust.
Epilogue: After the donation of the 94-acre Hillside, the Girl Scouts began to develop what would become the Hawthorne Ridge Camp of the Girl Scouts of Western PA (GSWPa). They acquired two additional parcels to the west of the original donation, totaling 56 acres within the Falls Run Gorge all the way to its confluence with Elk Creek to the north. In addition, they acquired another 56 acres to the south along the rim of the Gorge, contiguous with the holdings of the Howard Falls Trust (HFT). The GSWPa and the HFT holdings, with nearly 500 acres combined, protect about 75% of the Core Habitat of the Falls Run Gorge Natural Heritage area.
We are committed to working together to see that the exceptional natural treasure that Alice Thompson-Wright and her family experienced nearly a century before is protected into the future.