Mary Gwynn: Female Leader, Visionary, and Pioneer

In honor of Women’s history month, we want to share an article about our fearless leader, Miss Mary Gwynn, who founded Gwynn Valley as a single woman back in 1935. She was a pioneer on so many fronts. Her values and vision 85 years ago remain the foundation of our camp culture and program today. Miss Mary was a female entrepreneur during a social and economic climate when such action was rare for a single woman on her own. She was an early adopter of international staff exchange programs, bringing international staff to Gwynn Valley and celebrating their culture to create a global village here in the North Carolina mountains. The idea of a co-ed camp was a bit radical for the time, but Miss Mary’s vision was clear and her commitment to the core value of acceptance drove a culture of inclusion. The tradition of socioeconomic inclusion also started with Miss Mary and her practice of providing scholarships for campers of all socio-economic backgrounds. So much of what Miss Mary started makes us the camp that we are today. We celebrate her pioneering spirit today and do our best to uphold the values she instated back in the 1930s. 

Read on for the complete text of an article written by Rick Roghair, who serves as the Professional Development Manager of the Iowa Association for the Education of Young People (IAAEYC). Rick was a staff member here in the 1970s. Among other responsibilities here at camp, Rick served as one of our celebrated camp pianists before Debbie Deboard joined us nearly 40 summers ago. 


Written by Rick Roghair, Professional Development Manager of the Iowa Association for the Education of Young People (IAAEYC)

Mary Gwynn, founder of what became Gwynn Valley Camp, near Brevard, North Carolina, envisioned a special, nurturing environment where younger boys and girls could thrive at a noncompetitive camp that emphasized individual and group achievement. Gwynn Valley nurtured each child by building character and relationships in a community that fostered personal challenge, a connection to nature, and the simple joys of childhood. “Miss Mary” opened her ‘child’s world’ camp in 1935. She combined hiking and pioneering with fine arts, creative writing, and crafts to create something very unique. She fashioned the camp based on the values of simplicity, acceptance, non-competition, and an appreciation of the natural world.

From day one, Miss Mary established her philosophy using a different focus. She wanted to ensure that each child explored her or his sense of self by creating a noncompetitive program. One favorite expression for every child was, “Do something difficult every day.” She embraced a ‘challenge by choice’ philosophy – each child was exposed to a variety of new opportunities every morning, and every afternoon selected an activity to learn more or to build personal skills, surrounded by like-minded children. Each child was encouraged to try something challenging, no matter her or his skill level. Although competition has a value and place, her focus was cooperative skills by participating in group activities each night, followed by campfire, singing, and stories.

Simplicity allowed focus on the “simple joys of childhood,” including camping under the stars, canoeing, singing, swimming, dancing, hiking, archery, and much play. The result was making friends, talking through conflicts, experiential learning, and immersing one’s self in nature. Miss Mary celebrated diversity in all forms, which allowed each camper to fully enjoy being herself or himself. 

Miss Mary provided a nurturing environment to allow each camper to learn and to grow, and to conquer personal fears. No one was a loser and self-confidence soared. Secure and safe relationships with caring adults and other children were the hallmark of her philosophy. Each child developed leadership skills in a safe environment. Miss Mary employed staff from all over the nation and the world – often 12 countries or more. She registered both genders – not very common in the early years – in separate cabins, of course! Miss Mary encouraged children of color to register (one story says she was tarred-and-feathered for this). She provided scholarships for children of poverty. Over time, boys and girls of all ages played against girls and boys of all ages in soccer, other sports, and in other group activities. A child could select English style of horse riding (look that up to understand how it is different), Red Cross swimming instruction (in the lake or with the newts in the freezing cold creek-fed pool), or the arts (using only the best materials). Nature was important, and today, the camp raises 70% of the food consumed, and the ‘older’ side of camp is almost off-the-grid. Simplicity was the key, and to this day, technology is not allowed.

How do I know this? Miss Mary died five years before I became a cabin counselor and musician, and later, Fine Arts Director at Gwynn Valley. Her niece and husband owned and directed camp 31 years, and the current owners uphold her vision today. Miss Mary was a courageous forerunner and woman of vision regarding child development. She established a vision of developmentally appropriate practice. Miss Mary knew the ‘practice’ is about a child’s learning, provides individually appropriate activities, and that developmental practice is culturally important. Her work, begun 85 years ago, still aligns with the NAEYC 12 Principles of Child Development and Learning. Some things are just timeless.

Original Article can be found at