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50 Years of Band Camp


It was during this week in 1956 that the International High School Music Camp began, making this year their 50th anniversary! In fact, the camp has just registered its 110,000th participant.

As you may recall from a previous Datebook on Dr. Merton Utgaard, the camp’s founder, the camp had humble beginnings. “The first year, the student housing stood in a field of dirt that quickly became mud on opening day,” says his daughter, Karen. “Everyone took off their shoes and socks and trudged through the rain to the dorms. Only, the water wasn’t working, so we had to wash our muddy feet in the toilets. It took a couple of days before there was HOT water, and it rained almost all week.”

Fortunately Dr. Utgaard wasn’t ready to give up his dream – which can be traced to a day in 1932 (July 14 to be exact). It was a year of drought and depression, but more than 50,000 people converged in the beautiful Turtle Mountains to dedicate a simple fieldstone cairn with the inscription, “As long as men shall live we will not take up arms against one another.” It was the founding of the International Peace Gardens, and Merton Utgaard – a young Eagle Scout – was there to witness it.

Now jump forward to the summer of 1955 – Dr. Utgaard is employed at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. He’s gotten this idea in his head to start a band camp, but he can’t settle on the right location. After months of searching and “researching,” Utgaard suddenly remembers that day on the US/Canadian border and asks his graduate assistant, Marvin Fjeld, “What happened to the International Peace Garden?”

What indeed? Well, the Civilian Conservation Corps started putting up rustic buildings in 1934. When Utgaard brought his idea to the Peace Gardens Board, it was decided some of these could be reformatted to suit the camp’s need for barracks, rehearsal areas, and kitchen/dining space. From there, the idea took off. By early 1956, the newly formed “International High School Music Camp” was preparing to open, but Utgaard realized they had no money for promotion, postage or stationary. Figuring they’d need $1,000 to launch the program, Utgaard and Marvin Fjeld each borrowed $500 from their families and a local banker, and the plans moved forward.

The first session offered programs for band and baton twirling; 113 students enrolled, and the Camp Band gave four performances for an International audience of nearly 10,000 spectators that week. Participation is now between 2,500 and 3,000 students per year, and the offerings have since grown to include concert band; jazz band; chorus; drum majoring; flags, rifles & dance team; show choir; vocal jazz; orchestra; old-time fiddling; piano & organ; total percussion; marimba & vibes; university preparatory program; guitar; electronic music; ballet, modern & jazz dance; cheerleading & extreme dance; handbells; visual arts; creative writing; drama; director’s workshops; internships; and an adult camp in the areas of band, choir, orchestra, brass band, and barbershop chorus.

The camp is now one of the largest summer schools of fine arts in the world. Students have come from all 50 states, every Canadian province, and from 70 other nations. The summer staff of nearly 250 includes some of the finest conductors and artist-teachers in the world.

Utgaard’s daughter says, “Dad was one of those people who felt if you wanted to do something, you just did it.” We say thank goodness for people with Utgaard’s level of vision. From those of us at Prairie Public, congratulations and – bravo!

Source: Dwight Vaught, IMC Director of Operations. Minot, ND. 2005

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm