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home : columnists : columnists August 21, 2017

The sweet life at Acorn Farm

By Paula Dunn
From Time to Thyme

I think I first heard about Herb and Dee Sweet from Betty Gerrard (Betsy Birdwhistle.) Betty became friends with the Sweet's daughter, Judee Sweet, when they worked together at Conner Prairie.

Judee eventually left the museum and went on to create the character of Hoosier pioneer woodswoman, "Buckeye." As half of the duo of "Buckeye and Molly," and later "Buckeye and Hollow Bones," she's performed at school, corporate and social gatherings all over Indiana, as well as at the Pioneer Village at the State Fair.

You could say Judee spent a lifetime developing "Buckeye," because much of her knowledge of pioneer and outdoor life came from growing up with her father, Herb.

Herb Sweet is something of a legend when it comes to camping and the outdoors. In 1933 he established what is believed to have been the first day camp in the country.

Before Herb organized his camp, camping had been reserved for children over 12 and was generally a competitive, overnight affair. Herb wanted to expose younger children to the wonders of the outdoor world and offer them a chance to simply have "creative fun" with nature.

During the first year of operations he picked up his campers (all Indianapolis boys) in a red station wagon nicknamed the "Cherry-It" (get it?) and took them to various places for a day of hiking, games, nature study, wood craft, and swimming, then brought them back home again.

"Due to the urgent demand of sisters left at home," girls were included the following summer, and were placed under the supervision of Herb's soon-to-be wife, Dee.

For two years the Sweets' undertaking, dubbed "Little Acorn Camp," (as in the camp's motto, "Mighty Oaks from Little Acorns Grow") had no physical home. Then in 1935, the Sweets bought 40 acres of woods and open fields along Cool Creek between Carmel and Westfield.

(According to granddaughter Becky Bowles, Herb was responsible the camp's road being named "Oak Road.")

Between 1933 and 1977 over 15,000 children attended Acorn Camps, enjoying crafts, games, swimming, hiking and other outdoor activities, as well as field trips to places like Forest Park and Lynnwood Farm.

During the off-season, Herb took groups of boys on expeditions as far away as Florida and the Smoky Mountains. (A 1939 trek to Florida included Shortridge High School student and future author, Kurt Vonnegut!)

Besides running the camp, Herb wrote and illustrated a nationally syndicated column, "Try It," which provided youngsters with ideas for simple activities and crafts, such as making a button and macaroni necklace or a sand castle.

In 1950 the "Try It" column became a television program of the same name on Channel 6, which was then WFBM-TV. The show made Herb one of central Indiana's first local television personalities.

Dee became a television personality in her own right a year later when she hosted WFBM's "Sweet Talk," one of the first live local shows for women. She later moved to WISH-TV, Channel 8, and had two programs, "Sweet Time" and "The Dee Sweet Show."

The pair were also extremely knowledgable about antiques and sold them at Acorn Farm Antiques, located near the campgrounds.

Herb and Dee have both passed away, but their other daughter, Jill Sweet Mead, and her husband, Mic, continue to sell antiques at the old shop, renamed the Acorn Farm Country Store.

If you'd like to read more about the Sweets and Acorn Farm Camp, Herb and Dee's granddaughter, Becky Bowles, has written a great book, "Mighty Oaks From Little Acorns Grow."

Notable Nineties Update: Lisa Hayner has added Martha Pickett of Noblesville to the Notable Nineties list. Congratulations!

Paula Dunn's From Time to Thyme column appears each Friday in The Times. Contact her at younggardenerfriend@gmail.com

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