The Legend of Camp Waldemar

Story and Photos by Paula Stone Gilbert

Connie Douglas Reeves started riding at the tender age of five. Many children did, since horses were about the only form of transportation available in far west Texas, in 1907. Yes, that date is correct. Connie is one hundred years old, and she has been riding for 95 of those years.

We sat visiting on the shed porch of the tack room, at the prestigious Camp Waldemar. Established in 1926 it is one of the oldest continuously operated girls camps in the nation and surely one of the most beautiful. Deep in the Texas hill country it lies along the banks of the Guadalupe River and seems the very definition of paradise. "This is my 67th year at the camp," she said. "I haven't been teaching for 4 or 5 years, I'm hard of hearing and don't see too well. I supervise, ride with the classes and give pointers if they need any help. I can't quit it, it's in my blood."

Below us, 20 or so first and second graders were getting on their horses. When everyone was ready, the horses dutifully followed the leader out of the saddling area gate, headed to the serene countryside. All except one very pretty Arabian mare who thought she could just casually amble back toward the barn. Connie never misses a trick. She stepped down off the porch and caught the mare by the bridle. "Sara, you know better than that" she said as she turned the mare around. Connie gave a hands-on neck reining demonstration to the young camper, patted the mare on the rump and Sara plodded off with her little rider.

Connie is a legend at Camp Waldemar, and beyond. In those 67 years, she has taught more than 30,000 campers to ride, an outstanding achievement that is commemorated on the camp's grounds with a bronze likeness of her. She is the oldest living inductee into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, in Fort Worth, Texas, where she shares the honor with such notables as Anne Oakley, Dale Evans and Sandra Day O'Connor. She reminisced about one of the Arabian horses that contributed to her legacy.

"Macho", the memory of him made her smile, "He was a gorgeous animal! A group of us were gathering horses and the pasture fence had originally been a barbed wire. They had redone the fence and had rolled these coils of barbed wire up and thrown them over into a thicket to where it looked like a bunch of spare tires. We were driving about 140 head of horses down this right of way, to pen them. I was behind on Macho, one of the horses broke out to the left of the fence, and was going to get away. I cantered up to turn him back and my eyesight was not very good even then, I was headed right into that coiled barbed wire and going pretty fast, almost a run. He (Macho) went straight up on his hind feet, couldn't stop, he was going so fast, so he went straight up and whirled off to the left, when he did, of course I slipped down off of him - saved both of our lives. It was a miracle, I thought. It was quick thinking on his part. I don't know whether any other type of horse would have been so responsive. I always gave him credit for it."

Of her current mount, Msabu, she says he is very alert and friendly, not to mention, quite handsome. Of Arabian horses in general, she says, "I have learned to respect them because we have raised so many colts here and they are so easy to gentle. They are just no problem. "

Over the years, Connie has given lots of tips that apply not just to riding, such as "Hold your head high and sit up straight, hold on with your legs and smile". Her saying, "Always saddle your own horse" is an unofficial motto for the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. Perhaps the key to her longevity and influence is her outlook on life, reveled by her comment, "I've been blessed - I can still ride."

NOTE: Connie Douglas Reeves (September 26, 1901 - August 16, 2003) was the oldest member of the National Cowgirl Museum.

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