Nestled between the San Gabriel Mountains and San Rafael Hills in northwest Pasadena, Hahamongna Watershed Park represents one of the area’s last natural landscapes to remain unaltered by urbanization. The protected basin has not only fostered the development of several diverse ecologies, it also serves as home to the popular Tom Sawyer Camp, which this year is celebrating its 90th anniversary.
“It makes you feel good,” said Mike Horner, the longtime owner of Tom Sawyer Camp and chairman of its board. “You’re working with something that has tremendous staying power and obviously is doing something very good for your community. It’s been a good livelihood for our family. But really, it’s what we’ve done for kids.”
What Tom Sawyer Camp has done for nearly a century is provide countless children with a variety of outdoor activities in safe and inclusive environments. From horseback riding and archery to swimming and hiking, campers receive encouragement from a nurturing staff to seek adventure while disconnecting from an increasingly digital world.
The success of Tom Sawyer Camp is a testament to the philosophy of its founder, Bill Schleicher. A first-generation American whose father emigrated from Europe and settled on a homestead in Idaho, Schleicher spent his youth in a rural setting, trapping on the rivers and exploring all that nature had to offer. After the Schleichers moved to Southern California, Bill — with the help of his brother, Al — established an all-boys resident camp at Laguna Beach’s Bluebird Canyon in 1926. He named it Tom Sawyer Camp.
“They just loved the outdoors and thought that city kids didn’t get a chance as they had been given to get out in the natural outdoors and get dirty and get in the water and experience nature,” said Kim Schleicher, Bill’s son who later owned the camp and served as its director from 1959-1973.
In 1938, the Schleichers transferred the camp to Horseshoe Lake in Northern California. The rustic terrain of Shasta County provided Schleicher with a similar setting to his native Idaho, which he shared with campers such as Phil Swan.
“I can’t say enough good about the whole experience,” said Swan, now in his 80s. “I mean, it was a life-changing deal because I was going to get nothing like this from my family. They were not nice people or good parents. That was just not their deal. So Bill Schleicher took the place of my father in terms of someone I could really admire, look up to — and with a completely different agenda.”
But government-imposed fuel rationing during World War II made it difficult to keep trekking up there, and so Tom Sawyer Camp was relocated again to Pasadena’s Arroyo, where it transitioned into a day camp. Two years later, in 1946, the camp settled in its current location at Hahamongna — which, back then, was known as Oak Grove Park.
Mike Horner met Bill Schleicher in 1967 after moving across the country from Philadelphia to join a management consultant firm in Southern California. A friend introduced Horner to La Cañada Flintridge and suggested that he send his 6-year-old son, Tom, to nearby Tom Sawyer Camp. Horner soon became involved at the camp, using his professional experience to help sort out its finances and paperwork.
When Bill Schleicher suffered a fatal stroke in 1973, his son, Kim, decided to sell the camp but could not immediately find any buyers because of the organization’s deteriorating financial situation. It appeared that Tom Sawyer Camp was about to close its doors for good.
That’s when Horner jumped in and bought the camp, determined to turn its fortunes around.
“I also knew that it had a not-on-the-balance-sheet reputation akin to the Valley Hunt Club and the Rose Parade in Pasadena,” said Horner. “It was a real institution well into two generations at that point in time and maybe even starting into three generations.”
Although Horner had run businesses before and wanted to try his hand again, he never thought that his next venture would be a camp. His only camp experience had consisted of the one he attended on an isolated island in Lake Erie as a young boy.
“I hated it,” recalled Horner. “All we did was sing and walk.”
But Horner marched ahead and asked his wife, Sally, to manage the office during his second year as owner. Within a year, she assumed the role of executive director and held the position for the next 30 years — until she was succeeded by her daughter Sarah Horner Fish. Along the way, Sally Horner forged valuable partnerships with the American Camp Association and Western Association of Independent Camps.
“They are organizations that have helped us really become the best camps possible,” said Horner Fish, who like her mother several years ago, serves on the ACA’s National Standards Board while working as executive director of Tom Sawyer Camp. “They’ve helped us in everything from running great programs to running a business to personal development and keeping campers safe.”
Throughout the years, Tom Sawyer Camp has enhanced its summer program to include a wide range of options for both boys and girls — who were first able to enroll in the 1950s. Pre-Camp is meant to teach preschool-age children about sharing outdoor adventures without the restrictions of fences, noise levels or clean clothes.
“Camp is a very powerful tool in youth development. People have anecdotally known that for more than 150 years from when the first camps were started in New England. Today, as kids don’t go out into nature as much, camp is more important than ever to have that experience,” said Tom Horner, part owner of Tom Sawyer Camp, who has been involved in some capacity — either as a camper, counselor or director — every year since his father bought the camp from Schleicher in the early ’70s.
The popular Tom Sawyer-Becky Thatcher Day Camp program provides 1st- through 6th-graders with opportunities to ride horses, go for a swim and explore nature, among many alternative adventures. A senior counselor and junior counselor lead either an all-boys or all-girls group of 13, which has been divided by grade level.
For 6th- through 9th-graders, Outpost is Tom Sawyer Camp’s challenging adventure program designed to present a more rugged and varied approach. Outpost campers supplement the traditional day camp offerings with rock climbing, windsurfing and a ropes course taught by staff at local sites.
“In real estate, it’s location. With us, it’s our staff,” said Horner Fish. “A lot of our staff [has] grown up coming as campers, and they’re also a great tool for recruiting friends who they think would be good staff members at camp.”
Anna Wohl followed what has become known as the camper career path. She began as a member of Pre-Camp at age 3, then progressed through each stage of camp before becoming a junior counselor, assistant counselor and eventually a senior counselor.
“After being a camper for all those years and realizing the hugely profound impact that it had on me, that was a big reason why I wanted to be a counselor,” said Wohl, a former Polytechnic graduate who is currently a senior at Stanford University studying child development. “I think it definitely has that self-perpetuating aspect to it because of how deep the impact is.”
When the Horner family bought Tom Sawyer Camp in 1973, there were a little more than 100 campers and 10 vans on the books. Those numbers have since jumped to 500 campers per day, 45 vans, 130 paid staff members and 60 volunteers, as the local institution has not only survived but thrived.
“My wife and I both feel that we are so lucky,” said Mike Horner. “We have such a wonderful family. I mean, really, it’s kept us together, kept us with a common goal, common objectives and a sense of making a real contribution to the community.”
This family business model has also spearheaded the addition of several after-school programs that augment the traditional summer options. As Tom Sawyer Camp looks toward an even brighter future, those who have been so instrumental in maintaining its success can’t help but reflect on how far Schleicher’s original vision has come during the past 90 years.
“I like to think about how many generations of children’s lives we have impacted, how many kids have developed and grown skills because of their time at camp,” said Horner Fish.
“The word that comes back to me is ‘relevant,’” Tom Horner added. “Things last because they’re relevant. It was relevant in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, and it’s still relevant today.”