Camp Caribou in Maine has been around for 96 years. For 50 of them, the camp has been owned by the Lerman family.
Bill Lerman calls his wife, Martha, “the franchise.”
The words are stitched in red letters on a black fleece vest Martha wore during a recent interview inside her Wayland home. Stitched above those words is a small reindeer head -- the logo of Camp Caribou, the all-boys summer camp in Winslow, Maine, that the Lerman family has owned for 50 years.
It’s been quite a run for the Lermans in Winslow, a community of about 7,500 along the Kennebec River, near Waterville. The camp sits on a 200-acre peninsula in town.
Bill’s parents, Al and Evelyn, bought the camp in 1968, and Bill took it over a decade later after his father was about to sell it.
I’ll give it a whirl,”’ Bill remembers telling his dad, and over the years the camp has been fixed up with a lot of sweat labor, especially from Bill. From 80 campers 50 years ago, Caribou today enrolls 275, ages 7-15.
Mike Stern knows why Camp Caribou is a success. Stern, 45, first attended Caribou when he was 11, and spent nine summers there, including four as a counselor. Today, he’s an elementary school teacher in Newton, helps Caribou raise money to provide financial assistance to campers, and does it because of his affinity for Bill and Martha.
“Martha is genuine and has a gentle spirit, and Bill has an inexplicable enthusiasm for what he does,” Stern said. “It’s such a winning formula. There is nothing forced or fake about them.”
Bill, 66, is a big man with a ponytail and a gravelly voice that sounds like a mixture of Boston and the Bronx. He’s full of stories, and knows everything there is about New England summer camps, including who owned them, going back generations.
He’s had a number of jobs in his career, including a year of woodcutting in Maine. And his woodcutting days aren’t over, as Bill has a wood-splitting business. He picks up an axe and splits wood every day when Caribou isn’t in session. A big pile he recently split sat in his backyard, visible from the kitchen window.
Martha, 59, doesn’t split wood, but her warm personality, and equally keen knowledge of New England summer camps, was on display as she sat at her kitchen table with Bill, her daughter Lori, and Lori’s husband, Alex Rotman.
When Bill joined his parents and sister 50 years ago for the drive up to Maine in the middle of winter to look at five camps to see if one was worth buying, he remembers his father falling in love with Camp Caribou the minute he saw it.
Al and Evelyn Lerman are retired, and live in Sarasota, Florida. Bill and Martha have stepped away from the daily management of Caribou, leaving that to their son Bobby, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is in charge of recruiting new campers, while Lori and Alex handle just about everything else.
Bill and Martha’s other son, Jerry, lives in Austin, Texas, and works for Camp Leaders, a firm that recruits camp staff. Bill and Martha have a rule that their children have to work somewhere else before applying for a job at Caribou, and if they show the desire to join the family business, it’s Bill and Martha who do the interviewing. And it’s a tough interview, according to Lori, who was interviewed by Bill.
“It’s truly a family environment,” Sudbury teenager Brett Siegal said. Next summer will be Seigal’s eighth year at Camp Caribou, and he’ll work as a counselor after spending six as a camper and one as a counselor-in-training. “It’s a place where you make your best friends.”
It’s also a place to meet a future spouse -- at least that’s what happened to Lori and Alex.
Alex first attended Camp Caribou when he was 8 years old, returned for several summers, and met Lori during his last summer as a camper. They became great friends, and years later exchanged wedding vows at Camp Caribou.
Bill and Martha didn’t meet at Caribou, and it took some wooing by Bill to win her over.
“I thought he was kind of strange,” Martha said with a hearty laugh, reflecting on the first time they met. “He was wearing rose-colored glasses, his belt buckle was on the side of his waist, and he wore zip-up dress boots.”
A dinner date followed, and Bill didn’t hold back when he told Martha they were destined to get married.
“Martha had a boyfriend at the time, and I had to drive the guy away,” Bill said.
He did, and after more than 30 years of marriage, Bill has another pet name for Martha besides “the franchise.” It’s “the giver,” because, as Lori said, “My mom’s got so much love to give.”
Martha has a pet name for Bill. It’s “the teacher,” because Bill has many passions that he loves sharing with his family and Caribou campers. They include sports, construction, telling stories, a love of the outdoors and, of course, splitting wood.
As for Caribou’s future, Bill and Martha believe the traditional camp experience they offer will survive, even in these times of kids glued to their mobile phones and increased competition from an explosion of leisure options.
Martha said she’s noticed a trend in the last couple of years among the families who send their children to Caribou that they’re looking for a place where their children can make genuine friendships without technology. Caribou has a no-technology policy for campers.
Bill has a different take on why Caribou will survive. He said the playground used to be where kids learned to negotiate and settle differences, but now that kids don’t go to playgrounds, camp is where they can learn those skills.
The third generation of Lermans will determine Caribou’s future, and while Lori has thought about adding a camp for girls, she said she will never sell Camp Caribou.
“It’s my dream job. I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Lori said.