Ernest “Bill” Robes, class of 1935, returned to Kimball Union after World War II as the Director of the Outing Club, a ski coach, an advisor to the Junior Guides, (a program he introduced to KUA), and as advisor to Handicrafts (1945-1952). Ross McKenney, who was during the same time the Woodcraft advisor to the Dartmouth College Outing Club, is quoted in the book, The Woodsmen’s Weekend, saying that following the war some Northern New England colleges and schools were hiring veterans “whose earlier lives were largely in an environment where they had been primarily judged by their individual outdoor skills,” with the idea of passing these skills on to their students.
Robes and McKenney were friends and in the spring of 1946, brought their two outing clubs together for a contest. The 1946 Concordia reported that the KUA Outing Club had taken part in “a contest with the Dartmouth Outing Club in fly and plug casting, speed in campfire building, and cooking.” The following year, the unique idea came to them that Dartmouth should hold a Woodsmen’s Weekend with competitions in outdoor skills and invite outing clubs from other schools. But more than just a contest, McKenny wrote that in laying down the rules, they wanted “to keep them on a sportsmanship basis, so that any contestant should get more fun out of complying with the rules than by cutting a corner just to win.” A perfect score for all combined events was 1,600 points. The team with the best time or distance in each student receives 100 points. “Other times or distances will receive points inversely proportional to the best time or directly proportional to the best distance.”
Each team consisted of six men who competed in canoeing, canoe tilting, axemanship, fly and plug casting, cooking, firebuilding and similar outdoor activities. The results were Dartmouth A Team first, KUA, Williams College followed by Dartmouth B. Team. KUA’s first team included “Hap” Person and Nate Whiteside (both of whom helped compile the book, The Woodsmen’s Weekend), and also Harry Montague, Bob Pease, and Robbie Robertson. The Boston Herald,
reported that, because there were no facilities at Storrs Pond where the events took place, part of the weekend had consisted in the teams setting up their own camps, cooking and providing their own supplies.
In 1948 KUA finished second overall behind Dartmouth who led with 1432.9 points. KUA had 1220.9 points, edging out an experienced team from the University of Maine by 66.1 points. Nate Whiteside and Dick Smith, both then at
Middlebury College, came down for the 1949 weekend and formed a “vets” team. They camped out with Robes and his KUA boys and, although their scores didn’t count, they were the “real victors” as they won six of 11 events. KUA finished
second in both days’ events, just behind Dartmouth. They beat out Williams, Maine, McGill, and Norwich. The contests included tree felling, log skidding, cross-cut sawing, buck sawing, pulp throwing, splitting, chopping, fire building, pack-board race, one and two-man canoe races, Woodsman-Naturalist Test, and Fly and Bait Casting for Accuracy and Distance.
In 1951, Field and Stream magazine covered the weekend that now included nine colleges. The yearbook reported that KUA took fourth place and that it was a good finish as they were the only non-college team and added that many of
their own competitors were now at Middlebury and Dartmouth competing against them! In 1952, Woodsmen’s Weekend was held at Middlebury College and in 1953 at the University of Maine where 13 teams competed. By 1953 Robes had moved on from KUA to pursue his own custom pine furniture business in Etna, NH.
Parker Jones ’37 and Guy Moulton became the Outing Club advisors and in the spring of 1955, the KUA Outing Club hosted the ninth annual Woodsmen Weekend with six college teams, Dartmouth, Maine, Paul Smith, Colby, McGill, UVM,
attending. The canoe events were held at Storrs Pond in Hanover with all other events held on KUA’s athletic fields.
Continuing the tradition of camping out, the teams pitched their tents near Porter’s Cabin on French’s Ledges. The Kimball Union newspaper reported, “The Outing Club will prepare an outdoor banquet, followed by a campfire and songfest, Saturday evening. … Hunters’ Stew, cooked in McKenney’s huge cauldron (which reputedly inspired the witch scene in Macbeth,” was served along with “coffee … served McKenney-style: boiled, with two smashed eggs in each pot.”
Hap Person class of 1947 wrote many years later of the coaches “inspired structuring of the Woodsmen’s Weekend competition” and how they knew “it was a unique and rare opportunity, offered as another part of our many options in a
liberal arts education.” Of Robes, he said, “Bill was the center of his students’ attention as he showed the basic techniques of camping in and enjoying the surrounding northern forests. When he showed how to boil water in
a birch bark container over a flaming campfire, or how to form and sew up a new pair of leather moccasins, it was an unforgettable skill that always drew our attention …. At graduation, of course, we didn’t actually obtain a degree in
wood’s craft, but we all are still enjoying our memorable lessons from those two talented gentlemen.”
Although Dartmouth is credited with founding Woodsmen’s Weekend in 1947 and is one of the many colleges across the country and in Canada who have continued the annual tradition, we know that KUA’s own Outing Club and its early advisor, Bill Robes, were there from the start and played an influential role in the early success of the program.