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The History of OUR CHALET - Die Geschichte von «Our Chalet»

erzählt von Ida von Herrenschwand v/o Falk

Ida von Herrenschwand


Ida von Herrenschwand v/o Falk 





OUR CHALET is fortunate to have had its formation and early history recorded in 1952 by the Centre's first Guider-in-Charge, Fraulein Ida Von Herrenschwand, known to everyone as Falk. Any telling of the Chalet tale would be incomplete without her words, which follow.

To write the history of OUR CHALET is to tell a fairy story. The beginning of this fairy tale begins in 1929 when the World Committee met in Holland. There a definite desire was expressed to have a world meeting centre. The desire was hardly pronounced when Mrs Storrow said, "I would like to give that house!"

Mrs Storrow added a few conditions to her offer, the most important being that the centre should be in Switzerland. Rumours of this marvellous possibility spread fast, but the first I heard of it was on Thinking Day, 1930 when the Swiss Chief Scout invited me to meet Dame Katharine Furse, then Director of the World Bureau. I was so enthusiastic about the project that I promised to help find a site. I could hardly wait to start out on my new job and very soon contracted something like a Chalet-complex.

Mrs Storrow had promised her visit for June, 1930 and by that time I had a respectable list. I awaited Mrs Storrow's arrival with indescribable excitement mingled with some apprehension, for how was I to meet a Fairy Godmother, and treat such a fair lady, having never met one before?

All my fears melted at first sight. Mrs Storrow's kind smile, her charm and enthusiastic welcome were most encouraging and I felt privileged to have been chosen to work for her and with her.


Looking for a site

We decided to start the next day on our sightseeing tour. Mr von Bonstetten, who accompanied us, was very anxious to make everything easy for Mrs Storrow. When we were stopped by a fence he dashed off to find a suitable passage to get through. But Mrs Storrow, in her enthusiasm, could not wait and had usually climbed over the fence long before he came back.

I cannot remember how many places we visited and discarded straight away. One perfect day we drove out to Aeschi; on one side we had the view of the Bernese Alps, on the other cornfields. Mrs Storrow immediately took a great fancy to it. Certainly the place came up to many of the conditions and its beauty was unquestionable, but still I was not quite happy. It seemed to me to lie too far away from the real mountains; would the relatively low altitude provide winter sports?

The more enthusiastic Mrs Storrow got, the more doubtful I grew. This she must have felt, for she asked me: "Don't you like this heavenly place? It comes up to all my expectations, here you can find peace for the soul." True enough, but I remembered very well that at 17 or 18 I wanted adventure and mountain climbing and skiing. I told her this, adding that I suspected modern youth was no more concerned with peace of the soul than I had been.

Mrs Storrow agreed, but maintained that she would like to suggest this place to the World Conference at Foxlease, where the final decision would be taken. I begged Mrs Storrow not to ask me for advice at the Conference, because I would have to speak against her. I got to know Mrs Storrow's boundless generosity when she simply said: "If I ask you to give your advice, you jolly well say what you think!"

The day before leaving for the Conference, I met Mrs Storrow in town. She stopped me and said, "When and how are you going to England?" "Tomorrow by train and boat". "Oh no", said Mrs Storrow, "come along and fly with me." In 1930 the flight from Basel to London took seven to eight hours while today it takes two hours. I rushed home to get my belongings.


The World Conference

The Conference promised to be very exciting. Having joined Guiding only in 1929, I had never had the opportunity of meeting Guiders or Commissioners of other countries. I was surprised to see so many young, middle-aged and elderly ladies ornamented with silver and golden cords and cocked hats. Would I really have to speak before this select audience?

The next morning, with beating heart, I put before the Conference the project. Mrs Storrow had guaranteed to cover the expenses of the first three years, but what would happen afterwards? A suggestion that each delegate should pay a shilling towards a fund was immediately accepted. A few minutes later a cable arrived from Duchess Brady of the USA saying that she was giving $5,000 for a running fund. Then Canada offered another £100. The fairy story went its way.

Then came the nightmare of the place to be chosen. Photographs were handed round and my heart sank at the admiring exclamations. I prayed that Mrs Storrow would leave me entirely out, but the crucial moment came when she asked for my advice. I had to confess about not caring for peace of my soul when I was young.

But then came the marvellous incident, which I shall never forget, when the Chief Scout (Lord Robert Baden-Powell) fished me out of my difficulties. With an encouraging twinkle in his eye he said, "Falk, if you are going to make trouble about this place, you will have to find another one".

The World Committee made a list of conditions for the future site:

It must be near a main line but away from tourists. There must be hotels in the neighbourhood, but it must not be fashionable. It must be high enough for climbing and skiing, but must not be too high for people 'with hearts'. It must have ground around and pleasant neighbours. 



I was overjoyed to be given the chance to hunt again. However, what made the deepest impression on me was Mrs Storrow's attitude. She had seen a spot "where I want to stay all the rest of my life" and immediately gave up her own idea because it did not entirely fit the purpose. This was a great stimulus to redouble my efforts and do my best to satisfy her.

I started again, this time towards the village of Adelboden. I liked the place very much but there were some draw-backs. I had another look around and spotted across the valley a little golden tree (by this time it was September) amidst the pines. When I got to the place which overlooks the spot where the Chalet stands now, I was struck with its beauty. Glowing evening sun shed its light on the mountain tops, cow-bells rang in the distance. I felt that there one could find 'peace for the soul' combined with all the other advantages!

I was convinced that I had found the right place and rushed back to the architect's of office bursting with the latest news: "I've found the perfect spot." This announcement was met with a sceptical smile as apparently I had made this statement 20 times before. "Come and see," was my argument.

We stood there in the evening light feeling that we could find nothing better. We cabled to Mrs Storrow, "We have found the place, shall we get it?" Again we found deep understanding, for a few hours later we had the answer: "Hurrah! Go ahead". We knew that it was not going to be easy to get the peasants to sell their ground. A mountain guide came to our help and took up the preliminary discussions. When the owners were willing to sell, the Swiss Chalet Committee signed the contract in December 1930.

Letters and plans flew hither and thither from Switzerland to America. Mrs Storrow had called the World Committee for June in Adelboden to inspect the site. We could hardly wait, though at the back of my thoughts was the nagging idea that perhaps the place might not come up to expectations. But it did. With great impatience we climbed up the hill while Mr von Sinner, the architect, rushed up with a long pole on his shoulder, much to Mrs Storrow's astonishment. Great was her surprise when she was greeted by an American flag waving from where the Chalet now stands.

A tea party with the World Committee inaugurated 'our ground'. Looking down the hill, I thought I was having visions of the future, because I clearly saw two English Guides walking towards us. They were on holiday in the neighbourhood and had heard about the Chalet.

After my trip to the States in 1931, my first step was to visit the Chalet. I could hardly believe my eyes. A solid concrete block stood ready for the wooden part to be built on top. The timber was ready to be brought up to and be fitted in.

What should the new home be called? Various suggestions were made but very soon the question settled itself. Every single Girl Guide would have the impression that it was her home and would call it, 'Our', 'Unser', 'Notre', Chalet - according to her language.

On December 21st, 1931 the roof was set. There is an old custom in Switzerland to give a fete to the workmen on this occasion. The carpenters decorate the top with a fir-tree trimmed with coloured ribbons, and in former times they used to sing special songs accompanied by rhythmic hammering. Unfortunately these songs are not known by the younger generation.

Dinner was in the village inn. One of the workmen took out his accordion, a man asked me for a dance. There was one snag: we were only two ladies and we had work ahead of us dancing with them all. They wore heavily nailed boots and occasionally stepped on our toes so I suggested that they should all dance in stockinged feet. From that evening dates our friendship with the village and with our neighbours.

At last, Mrs Storrow visited the Chalet. It was like living in a trance to show her the house and all the gifts which had been sent: the old Swiss cupboard bought by some Americans, the lovely rug sent by the Swedes, the arm-chairs from Holland, the American Room and the library furnished with old Swiss furniture given by British Commissioners, the cutlery from England and France, the china from the Swiss Guides, the Polish beds...


Chalet Opens

The official opening of the Chalet was set for July 31st, 1932. One evening, Mrs Storrow decided that she would like to have a house of her own. The architect had to produce plans so that the little chalet would be ready for the opening day!

The summer of 1932 was stormy. Thick mists floated through the valleys and around the Chalet, where we were very busy. The planning of the opening ceremony took a good deal of time. Invitations had gone out all over the world. Swiss Guides prepared to camp in the valley behind the Chalet and we knew that all the village would be present. We ordered hundreds of cakes for tea. I was afraid we should be in for stale cakes for some time.

On the morning of the opening, we woke up to a cloudless sky. I knew God had created a new day for the sake of our house. I welcomed the guests with an opening speech. Then it was the turn of the architect, the Swiss National Commissioner, the Boy Scouts' delegate and the Mayor of Adelboden who welcomed the World Association into his community.

The World Chief Guide thanked Mrs Storrow for the marvellous gift which was to be such a tremendous encouragement in fostering international friendship within the Guide Movement. Together they mounted the step leading up to the balcony, where the Chief Guide cut the ribbon. The World Chalet had come into being.

The Chalet song was sung for the first time to introduce the Chief Scout's speech. He challenged the Chalet to become a school of goodwill and understanding among the future women of the world, so that they should go forth to spread the idea of comradeship with others. Thus the Chief Scout set the programme of the Chalet.

During the years that followed OUR CHALET became the accepted meeting place for Guides from all over the world. The original idea was that it would open for the summer holiday months and for a short winter sports' season, but there was soon an all year round demand.

The winter seasons brought many sports-loving guests and even when weather conditions caused accidents the victims were not discouraged. One Guider who broke her leg and had to stay three extra weeks said she had never had a lovelier time.


The War Years

Then came August 24th, 1939, the black day for OUR CHALET. By 2 a.m. the next day all the guests had left. We had seen them off at Basel station and coming back to the deserted Chalet one realized that a happy period had come to an end.

We put the Chalet in order as quickly as possible to be ready for service if we were needed. How great was our surprise when a few days later two Swedish Guides arrived. When we learnt that they had travelled the whole of Germany and had never realized that it was at war we were astounded. It was with great difficulty that we managed to get them back to Sweden.

OUR CHALET was used several times during the war for skiing trainings and for camps for the Swiss. Refugees streamed into our country and we tried to trace any Guides among them. My greatest wish was to invite them to OUR CHALET, but owing to military regulations this was impossible. However, we managed to help them in other ways. The Chalet address must have gone around the world for many wrote to ask to be put in touch with lost friends. I can think of no greater joy then when we succeeded in linking up some of these people.



When the World Chief Guide arrived on V-Day her presence made us realize that a new and hopeful time was beginning. It is hard to describe our joy when the first foreign Guiders arrived. Though it was difficult to get visas for travel, applications to visit the Chalet showered in on us. Our number rapidly climbed to 64 as some tender-hearted secretary could not bear to refuse extra guests.

In the summer of 1946 the first post-war Juliette Low group arrived, the forerunner of annual gatherings. The activities ran on the lines of the original meetings, with excursions, discussions and cooking days. Once again OUR CHALET was as full as ever with Guides from other countries.

I once visited an exhibition of old Persian rugs. Admiring the colours and designs, it occurred to me that the work of OUR CHALET showed great similarity. There is a background on which the design is worked, but all the different figures, patterns and colourings are made by the various people who pass through the house. Each brings something towards the fulfilment of the work, and each brings a different colour, or adds to the design, which finally forms the whole pattern. I am sure that this unconscious co-operation is the reason that people are happy in our home.


Our Chalet's Story continues

In 1952, over 1,000 guests came to celebrate Our Chalet's 20th birthday and Falk's retirement. Penelope Wood-Hill (Pen), the first Guider-in-Charge at Our Ark, became the new Guider-in-Charge at OUR CHALET. Under Pen's leadership, Falk's spirit lived on and the Centre grew. In 1956, to give more space in the house, a small chalet called Stockli was built. In the Canton of Bern this is the name given to the small house where parents retire when they hand over responsibility to the next generation.

Our Chalet's 30th birthday celebrations in 1962 were marked by the gift of a Neuchatel clock given by the village of Adelboden. The day was beautifully clear and blue and hundreds of people gathered to listen to the Chief Guide speak on how much the Chalet meant to all who had visited it. In the evening, after a day of celebrations, a campfire was lit, two huge birthday cakes were brought out and guests gathered round the fire to reminisce about three decades of OUR CHALET.

Up until 1968, Juliette Low sessions had always been held annually at OUR CHALET. After this date they rotated among the four World Centres. The Juliette Low girls have always had a special place at OUR CHALET. The first session was held in the year of the opening, and was attended by girls representing nine different countries. Despite the death of several members, this group still reunites at every major anniversary of the Centre, sharing fond memories of those early years.

During the early sixties and into the seventies, much of OUR CHALET was modernized. The kitchen was heated, bathrooms were updated, and the camp shed and squirrel house were repaired. In the OUR CHALET book, Yvonne Cuenod (Cigogne), member of staff from 1932 to 1953, recounts how Squirrel House first got its name.

"When it was moved from the village side to be built on our grounds, squirrels were the first to peep in through the open windows. Also, each year, Aunt Helen (Storrow) sent a bag of pecan nuts and there were always some on the window sill. The squirrels came early in the morning, hammering them. For us, it was the signal to get up."

Pen left the Chalet in 1968 and over 100 people attended her farewell party, including a special male patrol of husbands and sons. A Danish woman, Inge Lyck, took over from Pen and during her seven years of service added higher levels of skiing and hiking to the OUR CHALET programme to challenge the most physically able visitors. By the time Our Chalet's fortieth anniversary had come round about 33,700 people had stayed in the house.

In 1982, the old traditional copper and stone roof was replaced with tile for better insulation. Despite this alteration the design and appearance of OUR CHALET remains that of a traditional Bernese Chalet - except that it is much bigger! In 1986, OUR CHALET organized a Helen Storrow session, focusing on international education, in memory of the founder of the Swiss World Centre.


The Diamond Jubilee

In his diary entry for 1932, Lord Baden-Powell wrote: "The whole family went to Switzerland for the opening of the Chalet. Olave is very busy... with the World Committee each day, but is otherwise taking it easy and making a holiday of it. The youngsters (his children) are thoroughly enjoying life here".

By 1992, OUR CHALET had opened its doors to thousands of girls over 60 years, and all of them, like Baden-Powell' s children, had benefitted from their stays. Once again a large celebration which took place on the 31st of July - a sunny, clear day - marked the event. There were many guests, including the Hon Mrs Gervas (Betty Baden-Powell) Clay, who had been present at the opening in 1932. The original Juliette Low group, who had also been present at the opening, took the opportunity to have yet another reunion on Our Chalet's grounds.

After a magnificent buffet lunch the opening ceremonies began. Among the many speakers, Herr Müller of Adelboden thanked OUR CHALET for his life: in the early days, Falk had been the only person in the area with a car. When he was desperately ill she had driven him to the hospital in another town.

For eight days prior to the opening, 34 girls from 18 countries worked together to prepare a pageant of Our Chalet's history. Based on the theme of "The Past, a present for the future", the girls sang, danced and acted their way through the Chalet story. Between each scene they placed a large slice of cake on the stage to represent the passing of the decades. This presentation was performed three times in all, once on the 31st of July and twice on the 1st of August when friends from around the world gathered for a second day of celebration.

In her speech, Jessica Blooman, Treasurer of WAGGGS, told the guests: "As you know 60 years is a diamond anniversary. Diamonds do not just happen. They are the result of a lot of hard work. They are hewn out of the earth, fashioned, cut and polished before they emerge as a precious stone, valued and valuable, shining brightly and reflecting light back. So it has been with Girl Guiding and Girl Scouting over its many years, and so especially has it been with OUR CHALET."

This version is abridged. The complete Falk story appears in Our Chalet 1932-1992 produced by OUR CHALET, 1992.

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