Camp Swain

The Valley’s Haven for Orphans Later Became
Hap Magee Ranch Park

 

Longtime residents of the San Ramon Valley remember the orphans’ camp in Alamo before World War II. At a meeting of the SRV Historical Society on Nov. 17, 1988, a program about this camp was given by former orphan Frank Schoenbein.

From 1911 to World War II the forty-acre Camp Swain was the site of the San Francisco Protestant Orphanage Asylum Society’s summer home for children. Mr. Schoebein and his sister Lue, who lost their mother in 1924, lived and thrived in the Asylum and at Camp Swain from 1924 to 1936.

The Orphanage Asylum, or the Home, was founded in 1853 in San Francisco and at times had as many as 250 boys and girls in its care. In the nineteenth century former orphan Isaak and his wife Ann Swain contributed funds for a warm summer camp location. Supported by wealthy San Franciscans, the children at the Asylum were educated, clothed, disciplined and loved by a cadre of matrons and caretakers whom Mr. Schoebein still recalls with fond memories and respect. When he and his sister were at the Home, it was located in San Francisco on Vincente and 28, 29 and 30th Streets. Today it is called the Edgewood Children’s Home for handicapped children.

Each summer after the last day of school, the orphans would pack their belongings and take public transit to the San Ramon Valley camp. He had slides of the buildings and the people who were part of the Camp. On what is today the east side of the I680 freeway, the main residence and a tall rotunda were positioned. The rotunda was used for larger gatherings, including Sunday services and dances.  The rotunda and pool were demolished when the freeway was built in the early 1960s.

Mr. Schoebein remembers those summer with relish. The boys (at least) had a morning inspection and, if they weren’t clean enough, they were not able to go to Walnut Creek for groceries. There is a picture of the boys outside of Fenton’s in Walnut Creek, “not far from the meat market.”

Many of the children had rabbits which they tended for the summer. Before they went home, they had a rabbit dinner, with the children carefully not eating their own rabbit.

Every Saturday night there was a camp fire with different age groups presenting the entertainment. They roasted marshmallows and sang. Often the evening would end with a dance in the rotunda.

Some of his pictures show their swimming pool and ball field. Water pictures show the ways they used creek water to cool off in the heat of the valley summer. Each fourth of July the Walnut Creek Lions Club gave prizes to the children for the swimming races in the pool: 25 and 35 cent prizes were seriously competed for, with lots of cheering from the sidelines.

Through the students’ hard work (which included bringing gravel up from San Ramon Creek on their backs) and many donations, the pool was built in the mid-thirties at a location now under I680.

He recalls going to McDonald’s Drug Store in Danville on “cone day” and can still sing this song.

 

We are from Camp Swain,

You hear so much about.

The people stop and stare at us

Whenever we go out.

 

We’re here to have a real good time,

So come and help us out.

Help us buy a swimming pool,

So we can swim about!

 

Some of his pictures show buildings currently on the site and he can point out which were the original ones. Swain was named after a Captain Swain who contributed the final $11,000 to finish the camp in 1913, according to the speaker. The entrance to the Camp and today’s Hap Magee Ranch Park are the same, though the area was rolling hills from the creek to the main residence before the freeway was built.

Frank Schoenbein belongs to an alumni group from the Home and several of them attended the Historical Society meeting as well. Their memories of Camp Swain are obviously fond ones. They would like to see the park named for Camp Swain.

 

By Beverly Lane  November, 1988