As I sent my son, Andy, off to camp this week, I was reflecting on my own summer camp experience. For for ten summers, from 1964 to 1974, I attended church camp in beautiful southern Ohio. My parents said I could go to summer camp as soon as I was old enough which was the summer after my second grade year. Our church, the Greenfield Church of Christ, was affiliated with Butler Springs Christian Assembly (now Camp), located in the foothills of Appalachia in southern Highland County, Ohio. I was very familiar with the area since we lived close by. As a family we often visited Fort Hill, a state park and ancient Indian earthwork down the road. My grandmother’s family had a family reunion every year at a roadside park in the same area. I watched the older kids in my church return from camp week with glowing faces. I was so excited when I finally was old enough to go to camp. A whole week with my friends, no parents, no siblings. Hooray!
My camp experience had a rocky start. The weekend before my first camp experience I came down with an inner ear infection. I wasn’t able to start camp on Sunday with my peers, instead checking in on Monday. A lot happens in the first hours of camp as regards to friendships and team building and I had missed it. Camp had a beautiful swimming pool and I had to skip that all week. I remember the camp dean, a local minister, made a remark about me being afraid of the water as I sat and watched a baseball game while my teammates were swimming. I broke down in tears because I had REALLY looked forward to swimming in that pool. He felt so bad when he found out why I wasn’t swimming that he gave me a hug and a soft drink. I am happy to report that was my ONLY bad experience at Butler Springs. This is not a story of how bad camp was. I loved it!
Every subsequent year only got better and better. I loved the routine of camp. Morning prayers around the flagpole followed by breakfast. Bible classes and crafts in the morning. Sports and activities in the afternoon. Chapel in the evening. It was such a beautiful, peaceful place. I loved our dorm “moms.” Our team leaders were usually older teens or young adults and we thought they were so cool. We always had a missionary representative to tell us of their work in the world. I made so many good friends there from outside my small town. I became such good friends with one girl over the years that I asked her to be one of my bridesmaids. Camp really opened the world to me.
Back then, Butler Springs was primitive in many ways. The “springs” were sulfur water, which smelled of rotten eggs. In times past, people went there to “take the waters” for the sulfur spring water was considered to bring good health. Until my last couple of camp years when they hooked into a fresh water supply, sulfur water was all there was. We showered and washed our hair in it. We washed dishes in it. The cafeteria staff even made Kool-Aid with it! We learned to hold our nose while drinking. The dorms were wood structures with concrete floors. The bunks were three high. (My husband said they had the same bunks at his boy scout camp and he believes they were Army surplus.) The top bunks were coveted spots because you could store your stuff in the rafters. They were kept in good repair and only swayed a little. I do remember one time when a girl fell out of a top bunk - she broke her arm. You would think that would scare the rest of us or our parents would be up in arms but it didn’t and they weren’t. We had a shower room but still had pit toilets. My last two years of camp were spent in a brand new dormitory - the bunks were only 2-high and we had our own bathroom with flush toilets! I missed the three-high bunks.
Us girls worked hard to keep our cabins clean, as the “Clean Cabin” award was coveted and brought privileges such as first in line for meals and no dishwashing. Of course, it was rare that a boy’s cabin would win that prize! There were lots of other daily and weekly prizes for sports and Bible studies. In sports, I was able to help my team win prizes in swimming competitions. I was a good swimmer and also had the advantage of coming from one of the only schools in the area with a swimming pool. However, I was terrible in softball and begged to be put on the shuffle board team instead!
The dining hall was huge and the food was good, cooked from scratch by local ladies. At lunchtime it was always exciting if you got mail. Then the dean would get up to make general announcements and … do you remember the song?
Announcements, announcements, a-nowwwwwww-ncments! A terrible way to die, a terrible way to die, a terrible death to talk to death, a terrible way to die! Announcements, announcements, a-nowwwwwww-ncments!
Just when he thought we were done and start to talk, of course the song would start again! You had to have a good sense of humor to be a dean at church camp. I wonder if they still sing that song? After lunch we had a free period and if you had a little money you could shop in the commissary for candy, pencils, paper, books. Tootsie Rolls and Sugar Daddys were popular since they were cheap and didn’t melt like other chocolate treats. You could make a Sugar Daddy last for days! After lunch break was a nice time to gossip with friends or take a little nap.
The weeks of camp were set up by age group. Third through sixth grades, seventh and eight grades, freshman week, high school weeks. All weeks were co-ed. I always checked with my friends before signing up to make sure we ended up there the same week. Some deans were popular and we would try to get their week. Counselors had followers too. Crushes were common. Like most co-ed camps, boy/girl pairings were common. I met some nice boys there myself but I never took one home!
I never wanted to go home at the end of the week. Friday nights and Saturday mornings were very emotional - we would all be crying because we were leaving some of our good friends for another year. We did not have cell phones or Facebook. Calling someone long distance was reserved for emergencies. Most of us were too young to drive or did not have a car. We had to communicate in a more “primitive” way, using the US Postal Service. Some letter writing commenced after camp but as we drifted back into our “real” lives it usually stopped. Until planning for next summer’s camp began.
Butler Springs Christian Camp and Retreat Center is a very different place today. In many ways, it is so much better, with more activities and modern facilities to accommodate a broader range of campers, children and adults. But their mission remains the same, and I hope today’s kids are having as much fun and making great friends there as I did during my youth.