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YMCA boys and youth work records

Identifier: Y.USA.40


Administrative records, including reports, minutes, correspondence, publications, conference proceedings, subject files and other material of the YMCA's boys' work department, as well as records concerning the YMCA's major youth development programs, including camping, Hi-Y, Youth in Government, Y-Indian Guides, and NYPUM (National Youth Program Using Mini-Bikes).


  • Creation: 1833 - 2005
  • Creation: Majority of material found in 1910s-1970s


Conditions Governing Access

Open for use in the Elmer L. Andersen Library reading room.

Conditions Governing Use

This collection may be protected by the Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). It is the user's responsibility to verify copyright ownership and to obtain all necessary permissions prior to the reproduction, publication, or other use of any portion of these materials. Researchers may quote from the collection under the fair use provision of the copyright law.


While the YMCA, as the name suggests, was originally envisioned as an organization serving young men, by 1865, many Ys were reporting “regular and successful religious meetings for boys.” As Bible study brought more youth into contact with the Y, the staff identified needs beyond religious instruction, establishing “Boys Departments” to provide extracurricular activities that would meet their educational and physical needs. The first Boys Department was organized in Salem, MA in 1869, and by 1900 the national YMCA office hired Edgar Robinson to support the work at a national level. When he started, there were more than 30,000 boys benefiting from YMCA programming; twenty years later, that number had grown to 200,000. While there was initially some opposition based on the fear that the goal to serve young men would be obscured, it soon became clear that there was no sharp dividing line between boys and young men, and by the end of the 1920s, the emphasis on boys' work almost overshadowed the previously declared purpose. Another prime motivator for the YMCA to expand its work with youth was the deceptively simple insight that youth become adults.

YMCA-run camping excursions started as early as the 1860s and began to appear in national YMCA records by the 1880s. By 1905, the YMCA reported 187 camps with over 6,300 boys enrolled. Sumner Dudley began organizing regular summer camping trips in 1885, and the first permanent YMCA camping facility, Camp Dudley (originally called the Camp Baldhead and later the Boys Camp Society), was established near Westport, New York in 1908. While recreation was important and valued for its own sake, the YMCA placed heavy emphasis on the potential for such outings to be opportunities for education, character development, and Christian growth through such activities as outdoor religious services, reflection on nature as a divine creation, and interaction with adult leaders. In addition, time spent engaged in physical activities outdoors was thought to cultivate an ideal of healthy Christian manliness.

As YMCAs gained experience working with youth, they began to refine their programs, evolving their perspective towards one of inculcating civic responsibility. This is perhaps best captured in the promotional material claiming that “as goes the goes the nation.” Early boys work was directed primarily at “employed boys”; Association efforts centered on factories and other places where boys were employed. As individual states gradually increased the age of compulsory school attendance, there were fewer such boys. Work began to focus more on the schools and neighborhood gangs and and organize them into clubs, designed to “make them [the boys] real worthwhile citizens.” By the 1920s these clubs, dubbed “Hi-Y,” had become the premier YMCA program of the time, followed later by complementary programs for grade-school (Gra-Y) and junior high school boys (Jr. Hi-Y) and for girls (Tri-Hi-Y). These clubs were described as having “a definite Christian program of character discussions, hikes, debating, clean living campaigns, and leadership and service tasks.” The Youth and Government program, first instituted by the State YMCA of New York in 1936, gave high school students the opportunity to serve in model governments, where they could learn and put into practice the principles of democratic society.

At the same time, associations began to increasingly shift their emphasis from the disadvantaged boy laborer to the boy in the broad middle class. Among the programs most symbolic of that interest was the father-and-son movement that the YMCA created. In 1909 B. M. Russell, a boys work secretary in Providence, Rhode Island, arranged a father-and-son banquet for 300 participants. Following the great success of that event, the idea spread quickly, with over 3 million having participated in such banquets by the mid-1920s. The Y Indian Guides program, first established in 1925, adopted romanticized interpretations of Native American lore, crafts, rituals, and other folkways with similar father-son bonding as its goal. Created by a Canadian Ojibwa named Joe Friday and Harold Keltner, the St. Louis YMCA general secretary who hired him to teach camping and woodcraft, the program became immensely popular, with thousands of “tribes” established across the United States by the 1950s. It eventually spawned similar programs for fathers and daughters (Y Indian Princesses), mothers and daughters (Y Indian Maidens), and mothers and sons (Y Indian Braves). As awareness of the cultural insensitivity and appropriation inherent in these programs grew, the YMCA faced increasing pressure to change or eliminate them. It was not until 2002, however, that Y Indian Guides was officially replaced by the Y Adventure Guides program, and some local YMCAs continued to persist with the original name and format.

While women were involved with and played various key roles in the YMCA from its earliest days, it was not until after the First World War (during which over 5,000 women served with the YMCA), that the National Board addressed work with girls on any formal basis. A commission was appointed and recommended that YMCAs collaborate with the YWCA to serve women and girls. However, girls participated directly in YMCA programs in many cities. Although work with girls was by then widespread, only in 1957 did the National Council finally approve the creation of a National Committee on Women’s and Girls’ Work, with Winifred J. Colton as its first secretary. As Colton noted in 1963, it was clear that given the trend toward total family involvement and the expectations of the communities to which the Y was looking for continuing financial support, the future of the YMCA would be “as a movement serving both sexes.” YMCA youth development during the second half of the 20th century shifted to focus more on changing family and social dynamics. As more middle class families became dual income families, the Y saw a need for and began to offer childcare. Youth Soccer, which was developed in the late 1960s, created a venue for young children to learn teamwork and sportsmanship, and for parents to develop the coaching skills of encouraging children. The National Youth Program using Minibikes (NYPUM) was designed in the 1970s to appeal to youth who were not attracted to traditional programs.

(Information taken from various sources, including, “Women in the YMCA,” by Jean E Bedger; Breaking Ground, Building Strong Lives: 140 Years of Youth Work with the Minneapolis YMCA, by Paul Hilmer; The History of the YMCA in North America by C. Howard Hopkins; and YMCA Camping: An Abbreviated History, by Eugene A. Turner.)

Key Events in the History of YMCA Boys and Youth Work

First mention of work for boys in the membership qualifications of the Baltimore YMCA Annual Report.
Work for boys was first reported at the Fifth International Convention held in Charleston, West Virginia.
First boys' prayer meeting led by William H. Whipple in the Salem, Massachusetts YMCA.
The first boys' work department established in the Salem, Massachusetts YMCA under the volunteer leadership of with William H. Whipple.
The first high school YMCA is organized at Ionia Michigan (disbanded three years later).
First boys' work statistics reported in the annual YMCA year book.
Buffalo YMCA organizes the first YMCA night class for boys, teaching spelling, geography, arithmetic, and grammar.
The first State Committee on Boys' Work is formed in New York.
Sumner F. Dudley establishes the first organized YMCA camp for boys, later known as Camp Dudley.
Ellen Brown becomes the first employed boys' work secretary, a post she holds at the Buffalo YMCA until 1903.
The first older boys' conference held in Massachusetts.
Sumner Dudley is named the first State Boys' Secretary on a part-time basis.
Edgar M. Robinson becomes the first International Committee secretary for boys' work.
The national YMCA begins publishing Association Boys, a journal devoted to programming and administrationof YMCA work with boys and teens.
National boys' work secretary Edgar Robinson works with two Englishmen, Ernest Thompson Seton and General Baden Powell, to found the Boy Scouts, with headquarters at the International Y office.
The "Father and Son" movement is originated in the Providence, Rhode Island YMCA.
The first Hi-Y Club is formed in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Thomas Caldwell, boys' work secretary in Oakland, California, develops an award system using bandannas to promote character at a Y camp. The system is widely adopted under the name Rag and Raggers.
National General Secretary John Mott delivers a famous speech, "The Most Remarkable Generation of Boys the World Has Ever Known," in which he advocates for the expansion of boys work in response to the wanton destruction and killing in World War I.
The first Hi-Y Club for girls, Tri-Hi-Y, is organized by the Holyoke, Massachusetts YMCA.
The first Gra-Y program for grade school students is formed in New Haven, Connecticut.
Y Indian Guides is established in St. Louis, Missouri by Joe Friday and Harold Keltner.
The first Youth and Government program, giving high school students political role-playing opportunities, is instituted by the State YMCA of New York.
Youth and Government participants meet President Kennedy at the first National Conference of Youth Governors in Washington D.C.
Fred Hoshiyama of the Pacific Region YMCAs launches the National Youth Project Using Mini-Bikes (NYPUM) as a delinquency prevention program for teens.
Leo Marsh starts the Black Achievers program to recognize adult role models and encourage leadership among African American youth.
An environnmental symposium sponsored by the Seattle YMCA for 250 high school youth leads to the creation of Earth Corps (later Earth Service Corps). The Corps promotes environmental education and volunteer work among teens.
In response to the growing understanding among YMCA leaders of how the program was perceived by many Native Americans as appropriative and offensive, the Y Indian Guides is officially replaced with Y Adventure Guides. (However, individual YMCAs could not be forced to make the change.)


61.3 Cubic Feet (62 boxes)

Language of Materials



Administrative records, including reports, minutes, correspondence, publications, conference proceedings, subject files, and other material of the YMCA's boys' work department, as well as records concerning the YMCA's major youth development programs, including camping, Hi-Y, Youth in Government, Y-Indian Guides, and NYPUM (National Youth Program Using Mini-Bikes).

Processing Information

Catalog Record ID number: 9975895408901701

The collection was partially processed by a University of Minnesota student, Megan Niemuth.

An Inventory of Records
March 2018
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Collecting Area Details

Contact The Kautz Family YMCA Archives Collecting Area