“Celebrating Our Past, Creating Our Future.”


Patapsco Valley State Park
Home of Besley Family Campsite
The Cradle of Outdoor Recreation in Maryland

Text of the Besley Camp Plaque dedicated on October 10, 2006

On Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2006 members of the State Forest and Parks Centennial Committee were joined by many of the volunteer Friends of Patapsco Valley State Park, DNR State Parks and Forest Service staff, and interested citizens, including descendents of Maryland's first State Forester, Fred W. Besley, to dedicate a Centennial Plaque on the site of the Besley Demonstration Campsite, where outdoor recreation on Maryland State Forests and Parks originated. Helen Besley Overton, the granddaughter of Maryland’s first state forester, Fred W. Besley, was an honored guest.

Photograph of DNR staff and Besley family members at the newly dedicated Besley Family Campsite plaque

Pictured at the Besley Family Campsite Plaque Dedication are (standing left to right): Francis Zumbrun in 1930's Forest Warden uniform, Maryland Park Service Superintendent Col. Rick Barton, Kirk P. Rodgers, Fred W. Besley's grandson, Mary Rotz, Peggy Weller, Jane Wright, and John Overington, children of Helen Besley Overington, and Maryland State Forester Steven W. Koehn. Seated is Helen Besley Overington, youngest daughter of Fred W. Besley.

Camp Cascade - The Besley Camp - July 1922, photo by Fred W. Besley
        Camp Cascade - The Besley Camp - July 1922

This photo was taken by Fred W Besley in July 1922 (as shown on the back of the photo). It has the number 662 and the title "Camp Cascade Photo, by F.W.B." In the photo, beginning on the right in the back row are Fred Besley's wife, Bertha Besley, and his daughters, Jean Besley and Helen Besley. In the front row on the left is Lowell Besley, his son, and an unknown gentlemam smoking a pipe. This original photo is of very high photographic quality.

Most importantly it will help solve the mystery of the location of this famous campsite which was much discussed at the dedication ceremony held at the Patapsco State Park on October 10, 2006. The relevant plaque which was dedicated on this occasion is shown above.

Dedication of the Plaque Honoring the Besley Campsite
Patapsco State Park October 10, 2006
Kirk P. Rodgers

Marylanders have had a long love affair with the beautiful out of doors of their state and have long been intrigued by the mystique of wilderness. At the beginning of the last century our urban peoples began more and more to look for opportunities to be close to nature, perhaps recalling the happy memories of times when they or their parents lived in rural areas. But their interactions in living close to nature by camping out were a bit awkward at first. Some people thought of camping in tents as something only done by the Army or by people in dire economic circumstances. They needed convincing. Others didn’t quite know how to go about it.

Initially some tried to make camping as much as possible like living at home. According to a July/August 2006 article in the magazine Maryland Life: “Photographs depict Patapsco State Park campers in 1915 pitching their canvas tents alongside their pianos and tending to camp fires dressed in suits and ties”. The Baltimore Sun on October 29, 1916 described camping in Patapsco in the fall as follows: “They were enjoying watching the change of foliage from week to week, taking dips in the Patapsco River in spite of the frost, getting up at 4:00 AM to watch the daybreak, walking 8 miles to church in the morning, and chopping wood, preparing meals, washing dishes and taking trips throughout the forest reserve during the day.” Some described this as “roughing it pleasantly”.

Maryland’s first State Forester had observed this camping enthusiasm here at the Patapsco and wanted to encourage it. By 1912 he had developed a small recreation area along the river and by the middle of the decade people were flocking out of Baltimore to picnic, swim and camp in the park. Camp sites were open to anyone in the state, provided that they respected “reasonable regulations” (Report of the Maryland State Board of Forestry 1914/1915). Besley wanted to make it possible for Marylanders who could not afford to go to Maine or Canada for the summer to find an outdoor experience closer to home. The Patapsco provided that opportunity.

Camp at Vineyard - Patapsco Forest Reserve, photo by Fred W. Besley The Baltimore Evening Sun of January 21, 1921 noted: “State Forester Besley is pushing the Patapsco Forest Reserve as a recreation and camping ground for Baltimore people … to get as close to Mother Nature as in the wild and unexplored regions of the North.” The Sun article waxed poetic about Patapsco camping and I quote: “On the slopes rising up from the river in thick virgin forest, traversed by springs and streams, ideal camp sites have been staked out. Some derive their beauty from the view, others from the proximity to the river and some because they are built right on the edge of a leaping mountain cascade.” Indeed it was this latter site that Fred Besley chose as the campsite for his own family and why we are here today. The Sun article noted: “Besley his wife, and two of their children were spending a month in a camp overlooking the uppermost rocky basin of one of these lovely cascades.” He added: ” To be entertained at the Besley camp is a pleasure to long be remembered. Not 10 feet away from the open air dining tent the water rushes over the rocks of the Upper Falls. One goes to bed in the big Army tent, with its double decker cot in the middle and its needle couches on the side, to the sound of the music of the water and wakes up with it again in the morning.”

Clearly the reporter enjoyed camping with the Besley family. One would wish that he was with us today, but we are even more privileged to have with us a member of the Besley family who had him as their guest. At my side is Helen Besley Overington, youngest daughter of Fred Besley. She was 16 years old at the time. She was 99 on her recent birthday in July. Her life has spanned the entire century that we celebrate.

A few weeks ago Aunt Holly shared with me some of her memories of camping here when she was a teenager. If I make a mistake in what I say now, she is here to correct me. Holly particularly remembers the steep climb up the hill to the campsite which she often made while carrying large quantities of groceries and supplies for family and the frequent hungry visitors. She commented that the food supplies seemed heavier with each step. She also shared with me her memories of helping here mother up the hill. She said: “Mother was a good sport about going places despite her arthritis, but she was worried about this climb. I said I will push you and she said OK.” After this ceremony some of you will make that same climb. Don’t be embarrassed if you need to give each other a push or a hand up.

Fred W. Besley and his wife, with three of their four children.What is the significance of this campsite that we honor today. Holly put her finger on it last year. She said: “My father was very much in favor of making recreational use one of the big things that forest reserves offered.” He shared the view of then Maryland Governor Ritchie who said: ‘’The closer you get to the people the better it is.” This event today is about people and their love of the out of doors. And it is about the vision of a man who believed that in promoting recreational use of forests he would give impetus to his efforts to conserve forests. And he wanted to demonstrate recreational use in a very practical way, by camping out with his own family and making his demonstration campsite open to the public. He was building a constituency. And today more than ever we realize how powerful that constituency has become. We can honestly say that recreational use of forest lands in Maryland began here at Patapsco. This is a very special place in our history and worthy of our celebration this day.

Let me conclude with another quote from the July article in Maryland Life. “Fred Besley, Maryland’s first State Forester helped to save our forests by promoting the recreational aspects within. The next time you’re sitting next to a campfire with your family, raise a smore in his honor.” And raise one to Aunt Holly too!

- Kirk P. Rodgers

Family members gather after hiking the Cascades trail to the site of the original Besley Family Demonstration Campsite in Patapsco Valley State Park's Orange Grove area.

Family members gather after hiking the Cascades trail to the site of the original Besley Family Demonstration Campsite in Patapsco Valley State Park's Orange Grove area. Left to right: John Overington, Peggy Weller, Brian Rodgers, Cathy Rodgers, Kim Rodgers, Mary Rotz, Kirk P. Rodgers and Jane Wright.  Photo courtesy of Francis Zumbrun.

Maryland Was the Third State in America
to Establish a Statewide Forestry Program

Maryland's state parks grew out of the state's early efforts at forest conservation. While at first glance conservation of natural resources and promotion of outdoor recreation may appear to be different objectives, they in fact go hand-in-hand.

As a direct result of the Garrett brothers generous and farsighted gift of 2,000 acres of forest land as a State Forest if the State of Maryland would agree to take care of it, the legislature passed Maryland's first forestry law. Maryland became the third state in the union, preceded by Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, to establish a statewide forestry program when Governor Edwin Warfield signed this law on April 5, 1906.

The original 1906 Forestry Act authorized the State Board of Forestry to accept donations of land and “to direct the protection and improvement of (1) state parks and (2) forest reserves.”  Acting upon the board’s recommendation, Governor Warfield appointed an able young forester working for the U.S. Forest Service, Fred W. Besley, who would serve as Maryland’s first State Forester from 1906 until 1942. A Yale School of Forestry trained protégé of Gifford Pinchot, first U.S. Forester, Besley proved to be an able and energetic choice.

Besley Advocated Recreation on State Forest Lands

Patapsco River from Orange Grove area of the ParkWe can make a strong case that Fred W. Besley was an early advocate for outdoor recreation on State forest lands. Maryland’s first State Forester, observed that he could gain more public support for forest conservation by encouraging people to camp in Maryland’s State Forest Reserves. Besley deserves great credit for establishing both statewide forest conservation along with a system of parks.

Besley realized almost immediately that one good way to promote the forestry agenda was to encourage the public to use forest reserves for recreational purposes. In 1907, John Glenn, a resident of Catonsville, donated the beginnings of a second forest reserve along the Patapsco River near Baltimore. Almost immediately, Besley saw the opportunity to entice Baltimore area residents to come recreate in the great out-of-doors, and by 1910 he was informally referring to the Patapsco Forest Reserve  as “Patapsco Park.”

Maryland's First "State Park"

Besley subsequently developed a small recreation area along the river on the Patapsco Forest Reserve dedicated specifically for public recreational use. Campers, picnickers and swimmers flocked out of Baltimore to rusticate alongside the Patapsco River. Thus, the first state-owned campsites and nature trails were established in the Patapsco Valley in Baltimore County. By 1920s, thousands of people, mostly from Baltimore, were visiting the Patapsco Forest Reserve anywhere from a day’s visit, to a six-month stay.

CCC at Patapsco State Park

During the Depression years of the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) planted trees and built trails, picnic areas, campsites and handsome cut-stone pavilions to improve what had by then become "Patapsco State Park".

Companies 336 and 356 of the Civilian Conservation Corps were encamped near Lost Lake at Camp Tydings in the Avalon Area. The CCC built the stone picnic shelters in Orange Grove and Glen Artney (not visible from the river). The CCC was also responsible for planting trees in the river valley to advance the reforestation efforts and reclaim the over-used and abused land.

This Civilian Conservation Corps Camp (Camp SP 2) was operational between 1933 and 1942. Following the start of World War II, the CCC Camp was converted to the nation's first Conscientious Objector Camp.

1941 - Maryland Department of State Forests and Parks Emerges

As the years passed, Americans acquired more disposable income and the automobile provided easier access to the farthest corners of not only Maryland, but also the nation.  Besley was still State Forester in 1941 when the Department left the University of Maryland and became the Maryland Department of State Forests and Parks. Surely, Mr. Besley supported the adding of “parks” to the agency’s name.

To accommodate people with increased income and better access to transportation, the Maryland Department of Forests and Parks, later named the Department of Natural Resources, expanded the amount of forest and park land — not only to provide recreation, but also to protect the natural environment. 

Starting in the post war, late 1940s and on into the 1950s, the demand for outdoor recreation grew at an astronomical rate, and the Avalon Area of Patapsco State Park was surveyed as the most densely used recreation site in Maryland. Now a 14,000 acre, 32-mile-long stretch of public land, Patapsco Valley State Park hosts over a half million visitors a year.

While it is hard assess the economic impact of these first picnickers and campers, we know that they pioneered outdoor recreation on Maryland public lands, and laid the foundation for those who enjoy Maryland’s public lands in this centennial year of our state's forest and park lands.

Maryland State Parks Today

Today, Maryland State Parks attract over 11.5 million visitors a year, including over 735,000 campers.   These visitors engage in a wide variety of activities including hiking, biking, hunting and fishing to name a few.  Many of these groups play an active role (as volunteers) in maintaining and preserving the natural environment on Maryland public lands by helping to patrol and maintain trails.

More importantly, over a million of these visitors attend interpretive programs, such as the Junior Ranger Program.  Like the first picnickers and campers a century ago, park visitors learn first-hand the value of environmental conservation.  Maryland State Parks generate $15 million in revenue a year, but more importantly, Maryland’s 2,545 State Park campsites generate $168.8 million in economic activity and generate over 2,200 jobs a year. 

For a century now, Maryland State Forests and Parks have played a key role in protecting the environment, providing the public with outdoor recreation opportunities, and adding to the economic prosperity of the State of Maryland.


The editor of this article acknowledges the contributions of Ross Kimmel and Robert Bailey, as well as other anonymous authors who have contributed to the historical account of the Department of Natural Resources over the years.  Where errors may occur, this editor and Maryland DNR would sincerely appreciate any corrections, clarification or additional comments from historians, former staff, and family and friends of DNR who may have a more accurate factual record or photographs to contribute to this Centennial Note project.