Behind the Scenes: Summer Day Camps at Tryon Palace

(The following blog was written by Rachel Metcalf, a marketing and communications intern for Tryon Palace, and Golden Leaf Scholar from UNC-Chapel Hill.)

Interning at Tryon Palace is starting to feel less like work and more like play. At the beginning of the month, I played dress-up as a Palace volunteer, sporting my best 18th-century style for the N.C. Symphony concert on the South Lawn. Recently, I was sent from the office again, this time not in costume, and joined some of the Palace’s youngest historians as they played, crafted, and learned during Tryon Palace’s History Summer Day Camp, “Girls of Ages Past.”

Tryon Palace’s summer day camps are held annually for girls and boys (space is still available for the boys’  July 21-25 camp, Sailor and Soldiers) in grades 3-5.

During these weeklong sessions, campers learn what life was like for young men and ladies living in 18th century North Carolina, spending each day with games, crafts, costumes, and more. I’m sadly too old to be a camper myself, but I was lucky enough to join the campers and crew of “Girls of Ages Past” for a day of history and fun at the Palace. 

A Day of Work and Play … Mostly Play

My official assignment was to take pictures of the day camp’s activities, which included hat-making and a tea party, but throughout the day I became more and more like a camper as I played games and learned history along with everyone else.

The campers were spending their second day of camp at the Commission House, across the street from the Palace gates. I showed up to the house with camera in hand, ready to snap some pictures of the fun going on inside. Sarah Risty-Davis, Tryon Palace Visitor Program Manager and one of the girls’ camp leaders, opened the front door and invited me into the house’s large foyer, where I immediately heard the chatter of little campers drifting in from a side room. I followed the noises and found the girls busy with their first craft of the day: hat-making.

Ribbons and flowers were strewn across the table where campers were designing their fashionable ladies’ hats. Some hats had a lot of ribbon, some had a lot of flowers, and some had a lot of both, but they all looked stylish. This activity, besides being creative and entertaining, taught campers about the job of a milliner, or a hat-maker. The straw hats campers decorated were consistent with the colonial style, each having flat crowns with large brims. Seeing their finished festive hats, I can vouch that they all would have made excellent 18th century milliners. 
Hats were left in the craft room for safekeeping as the campers were led out into the Commission House garden to play games.

While the campers played outside, I remained inside to explore the large rooms of the 19th century house and to speak with Sarah about the camp activities planned for the week. Since it was only the second day of camp, there were plenty of fun projects still ahead, including creating their own makeup, painting teacups, and going on scavenger hunts. My interest in the camp must have shown on my face, because Sarah invited me to partake in the camp’s tea party. I happily accepted the invitation. If you ask me, the best parties are tea parties.

Tea Time or Joke Time? How About Both?

When I was little and had tea parties, it definitely required a lot of imagination on my part. Plastic cups were treated like fine china, and “tea and cakes” were actually Pepsi and crackers. My guests of honor were usually stuffed animals, some Barbie dolls, and occasionally my grandma, who supplied me with the drinks and snacks. But for this tea party, I wouldn’t have to play pretend. The leaders had worked to make the experience as authentic as possible.

Campers, leaders, and a tag-along intern sat down for some delicious tea and snacks. Peach tea was served with strudel cakes, cookies, and strawberries. Tea was poured from a fancy silver teapot into our porcelain teacups with matching saucers, and there was even a pot of sugar cubes. I watched some girls sneak a few extra lumps into their cups. The peach tea was a hit, and campers were quickly asking for seconds. As tasty as the tea was, it was also part of a history lesson. The peach tea represented colony-made fruit teas that were popular during the Revolutionary era as a substitute for the English imported, and taxed, black tea.

I noticed throughout the day that the camp leaders incorporated history into each activity, and it was obvious that the campers had learned a few things about history, too. On the first day of camp, they had taken a tour of the Palace and grounds. During tea time, I asked them about their favorite parts of the tour. The answers ranged from the Kitchen Office to Governor Tryon’s bedroom, and the campers then began quizzing each other about the different rooms and their inhabitants. If they weren’t talking about history, the campers were telling their funniest jokes. My favorites were: “What do cows use to do math? Cowculators” and “Why can’t you tell secrets in a corn field? Too many ears.”

When the peach tea ran dry and everyone had their fill of snacks, the campers hopped back into the craft room for the second craft of the day: painting a teacup and saucer. In the 18th century, painting teacups was an elegant activity for ladies. The campers, who had already created fashionable hats, designed their teacups with no less enthusiasm and style. There were cups of bright yellow, shimmery pinks and blues, and silver accents. 

All Fun and Games

While the teacups were left to dry, the campers paraded from the house to the front lawn of the Palace, wearing their handmade hat creations. On the lawn, the colonial games were brought out. The campers played games like Graces, a game that uses a set of sticks to throw a wooden ring back and forth between two players. There were flowery hats scattered throughout the lawn as the campers chased a rolling wooden hoop, tossed rings, and played single-person cup and ball toss games. I tried my hand at a few of the games that looked relatively easy, but I quickly learned that it took a little more practice than I had originally thought. The campers were definitely more skilled than I was, and I’m sure that all those girls became pros at colonial games by the last day of camp.

It was then nearly half past noon, time for the camp day to end. Games were cleaned up and put away, and questions about the next day’s activities were already beginning. I followed the campers through the Wilderness Garden and down to the Metcalf Street gate, where the group headed towards the North Carolina History Center to wait for their ride home. I said one last goodbye to my tea party friends before turning back toward the Palace.

Although I’m a bit outside of the age limit, I was glad to have spent the day with the “Girls of Ages Past” campers and crew. I wish that I had been signed up for this camp when I was younger. I loved indulging my inner tea party loving self with the campers, and I hope to sneak out of the office again to see what the boys’ camp, “Sailors and Soldiers: New Bern’s Boys” campers have planned in July. 

If you know a child who loves hands-on activities, fun games, and exploring things old and new, give them a summer experience they’ll remember by signing them up for Tryon Palace’s History Summer Day Camp. Advance registration is necessary, and a discount is offered for Tryon Palace Foundation Members. 

For more information about summer camps or kid-friendly Palace events, call 252-639-3500 or visit