The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In 1979, area Girl Scouts fought to save one of their favorite camps

Girl Scouts explore a stream on the grounds of Rockwood, a Montgomery County estate left to the national Scouting organization in 1936 by its owner, Carolyn Caughey. Local Girl Scouts protested when the sale of Rockwood to developers was announced in 1978. The size of the development was scaled back and some buildings left for public use. (Friends of Rockwood) (Friends of Rockwood)

Camping is an integral part of Girl Scouting, a way to learn independence and self-sufficiency. Taking part in a class-action lawsuit can teach a lesson, too. It was the prospect of losing a beloved Montgomery County Girl Scout camp that mobilized a group of green jumper-clad Scouts to stride into the Rockville courthouse on a January day in 1979.

They were there to support nine plaintiffs who were suing the Girl Scouts of the USA: seven adults and two of their Girl Scout peers. The field trip to the courthouse would count toward their Active Citizenship badge.

That’s one of the details in a new book from Ann Robertson called “Rescue Rockwood: How a Group of Determined Girl Scouts Rallied to Save a Beloved National Camp.” It’s a messy tale from the Carter/Reagan years that still rankles some in the Girl Scout community.

Robertson is the volunteer historian of the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital, the group that oversees local troops. It was local Girl Scouts who were most upset about losing Rockwood, a 92-acre site off MacArthur Boulevard near Great Falls, when the national Girl Scouts announced they were selling it to a developer.

The national group had been bequeathed the property after the 1936 death of its owner, eccentric society dame Carolyn Gangwer Caughey. Carolyn may have pronounced her last name “coy” but there was nothing coy about her.

“She was really a character,” said Robertson. “She could twist arms and get almost anything out of anybody.”

Caughey was born in 1864. She was married to John Caughey, son of a Pittsburgh industrialist, though she had her own income from savvy speculation in Washington real estate. Well, she probably had her own income. In 1915, John sued Carolyn, claiming he provided the funds for various properties that were in her name.

He later dropped the case and, oddly, they didn’t get divorced. They did live pretty much separate lives after that, Carolyn at Rockwood, her country house.

The Caugheys had no children and as Carolyn grew older she had decisions to make about her estate. She liked plucky women, being one herself, and she was moved by the story of Helen Hopkins, a survivor of the Knickerbocker Theatre disaster of 1922.

Hopkins, 26, was among theatergoers who were trapped when the snow-covered roof collapsed. She was a Girl Scout leader and her calm demeanor and the way she helped other victims made her a heroine of the disaster, which killed 98. Caughey was a friend of Hopkins’s mother and in her last will — she wrote several — she left Rockwood to the national Girl Scouts for use as a “character building center.” Wouldn’t it be nice to have more Helen Hopkinses?

After some internal discussion, the Girl Scouts accepted the property. Scouts camped there. They explored the property, hiking its trails, fording the stream that ran through it. The mansion Caughey had lived in hosted programs for adult Scout leaders. Troops came from around the country, using Rockwood as base camp for trips into Washington.

Almost from the start there was a certain tension.

“The locals thought, yes, it’s a national camp, but it’s a little more ours than anybody else’s,” said Robertson.

Why hadn’t Caughey just left Rockwood to the local council?

“I think the reason she went to the national organization is that by being national instead of local, the camp would be integrated,” said Robertson. The local Girl Scout council wasn’t integrated until 1955.

A property like Rockwood is expensive to maintain. Girl Scouts of the USA had another camp — Macy, in Westchester County, N.Y. — that served a similar purpose. It didn’t need both. In 1978, the national group announced Rockwood was being sold to developers Berger/Berman, which hoped to build nearly 200 homes on it.

Some Washingtonians wondered why they were being asked to buy Thin Mints and Samoas when the Girl Scouts were getting $4 million for Rockwood. The public didn’t understand the difference between the local troops and the national umbrella organization, Robertson said.

The class-action lawsuit was filed by individuals, not the Washington council. They raised money with bake sales and garage sales. They were buoyed when Maryland’s attorney general, Stephen Sachs, joined the suit, making Maryland a plaintiff. Sachs said the state had an interest in making sure the terms of charitable trusts were maintained.

But in 1981, before Maryland et al. v. GSUSA went to trial, a resolution was reached. Part of the camp, including its two main buildings, would be given to the Montgomery County parks department for public use. And the national Scouting group would pay the legal fees of the plaintiffs.

The now-smaller housing development went through. Its name — Woodrock — infuriated boosters of the camp.

Today, Caughey’s mansion and a cottage remain. Both are rented out for events, including weddings. Robertson said some brides give a nod to Rockwood’s history by offering Girl Scout cookies at the reception.