A Brief History of Camp Whitley
Making Memories for a lifetime!
Camp Whitley began as a dream for a man named Walter Stephenson. He wanted to provide an overnight experience for the youth of Whitley County (originally only including the males from the area). His first session of Camp took place during the summer of 1928. The first group of campers, slept in Army tents on the ground. They were instructed on riflery, archery, nature identification, fire building, and other outdoor survival techniques and skills by Mr. Stephenson. For many years, the Camp was run as an independent entity, providing a reprieve for the young males of Whitley County during the Depression years. In 1934, the owner of the land sold the property and subsequently the Camp to the local school system. Again, for many years, the Camp thrived and was a very rich and integral part in the lives of hundreds of Whitley County children.
By the 1950's the camp was providing a residential camp for the young girls of the area, too. There were 12 permanent cabins built to house the children and the lodge was erected to provide a large gathering place for the campers. During their stay the children participated in many of the same activities as experienced by campers today. Throughout her history, Camp Whitley has even seen the incorporation of horses and go-carts into the daily activities. Originally, all meals were prepared for the campers from the supply of food they would bring with them to Camp. It is recorded that a week at Camp Whitley had cost $3 and a bag of whatever food the family could afford to send with their child. Many times there were bags full of vegetables and fruit from the family gardens and bags upon bags of canned foods. The cook would take whatever the children had brought, and create their meals. Campers never knew what to expect when they entered the mess hall for meals!
For almost 60 years the local school system (since named Whitley County Consolidated Schools) would oversee the summer operations of the Camp. Many of the Camp Directors were involved in the school system as teachers or administrators. The staff often was composed of teenagers who had themselves been campers at Camp in their younger years. During the 1970's and the 1980's the enrollment for Camp had soared so quickly that every available space was utilized to provide housing for the campers, including the loft on the lodge (usually reserved for the counselors). The camper numbers were as high as 125 per week, which made for very tight quarters in some of the original cabins!
The early 1990's marked a dry period for Camp Whitley enrollment The prosperity of sports camps, day camps, and other summer activities for youth created competition for the Camp in enrolling campers. At the end of the summer of 1993, the Whitley County Consolidated School Board decided to maintain the Camp grounds for school purposes only. There would be no residential camp offered. Essentially, Camp Whitley was ceasing to exist!
During the summer of 1994, Camp Whitley and her grounds were utilized by the local YMCA for a day camp and by the school corporation for the summer biology class rooms. It seemed that the last Friday night bonfire had burned out permanently at the end of the previous summer. Many in the community were upset with the closing of a Whitley County institute, but six individuals combined efforts to form a Task force to ensure the reopening of Camp Whitley for the summer of 1995. The original six Task Force members, Dick Cira, Carrie Gates, Jeff Harker, Randy Plew, Devon Schuman, and Reisa Snyder set out to find community members to "back" the reopening of the Camp and to solicit the local School Board to provide for the reopening. Camp Whitley officially opened her doors (or gates) to campers for a residential camp again in the summer of 1995!
From 1995 until March of 1998, the Camp was theoretically governed by the Whitley County Consolidated School Board, although the actual management of the residential camp was controlled by the Camp Whitley Task Force. The Camp was in serious need of repairs and improvements to make the leap into the new millennium. It appeared to be too costly for the school to maintain and upkeep Camp Whitley for the small amount of usage by the school. Camp Whitley was purchased in March 1998 by the Task Force members and is now run as a not-for-profit organization. The Task Force became the Board of Directors and still over see the management of the Camp. The Whitley County YMCA had even been given permission in the past to use the lakefront for boating and swimming for the "Y" day camp program, and Camp saw her first coed camp sessions when the Whitley County Soil and Conservation Camp chose Camp Whitley and her staff to run their Conservation Camp."
The staff of Camp Whitley continues to provide an updated program that incorporates many of the old-fashioned ideals established by Mr. Stephenson, 90 years ago. Although the facilities are crowded at times, many in this area are pleased that Camp Whitley is still "alive and kicking" and providing memories that last a lifetime for her campers. The spirit of Camp Whitley reawakens each summer to the joyful peal of children's laughter resonating through the woods as they experience her magic and the traditions passed on through generations of campers. Hail to dear, Camp Whitley, our hearts are ever true to thee!