Western Illinois Youth Camp turns 75

By Kyla Hurt

Western Illinois Youth Camp is celebrating 75 years this year!

The camp will be kicking things off with a Jacksonville Area Chamber of Commerce After Hours event on Thursday, Sept. 21 from 4:30-6:30 p.m.

An open house celebration will also take place on Sunday, Sept. 24 from 2-5 p.m. at the camp and all are welcome to come — the public, former campers or staff, and anyone interested in joining in on the fun! There will be tours, games, s’mores, ropes course, crafts, archery, fishing and more! Or sit around and reminisce in nature.

Western Illinois Youth Camp Board President Ed Anderson explains that when he joined the board in 2010, part of what he really liked is that the mission is to provide outdoor experiences for youth. He adds, “That’s what they do … it’s an outdoor experience for them. … It concerns me personally, you know … I’m a believer that if you don’t experience something [camp], you can’t miss it. … I’ve seen that with fewer kids having those outdoor experiences, so they don’t miss it when it’s paved over and gone. It disappears and we lose, to me, a vital component.”

Clearly, the camp is important to him. Anderson shares, “Bob Large and I … on Wednesdays … go out to the camp and do whatever needs doing that (he laughs) we think we can do.”

Debbie Sterett is the camp’s historian. She shares that as she was a 4-Her herself, she became familiar will the different camps. Her first formal association with this camp as waterfront director in 1981. She stayed on for many years and became a board member in 1994; she served as interim director several times as well. All of this aided with her ability to act as camp historian. Sterett compiled information to create a document, “History of Western Illinois Youth Camp & Retreat Center.” Information from the document by Sterett will be shared within this article going forward and was used to create a visual timeline.

“Western Illinois Youth Camp & Retreat Center originally began as Western Illinois 4-H Camp on July 16, 1948, through the efforts of several individuals in the University of Illinois Extension Service and other like-minded individuals from several counties in the Jacksonville region of Illinois. [The mission at the time stated it] was ‘to provide grounds, housing, facilities, and accommodations for 4-H Clubs and Rural Youth camps, meetings, shows and activities, and for meetings, camps and activities of agricultural, home economics, civic and other organizations, to promote and advance cultural, horticultural, conservation and civic interests of Western Illinois.’

“The original camp region was comprised of 23 counties: Morgan, Sangamon, Adams, Knox, Peoria, Warren, Henderson, Mercer, Greene, Scott, Cass, Macoupin, Mason, Pike, Jersey, Madison, Brown, Schuyler, Calhoun, Fulton, Hancock, McDonough and Menard. It was run by the University of IL Extension up until the mid-1990s when the Extension went through its reorganization of offices and camps throughout the state. They would hire individuals to be program staff as well as a director (someone within the Extension or not) for the camping season of late May/early June to mid-August, and a team of three cooks — all of these were seasonal hires. A full-time caretaker was hired who took care of the grounds/buildings maintenance during the camping season and non-camping season — that person lived in what is presently the Director’s house.

“The Director oversaw Program Staff which included Arts/Crafts, Recreation, Waterfront, Nature and Nurse (all college or older) along with the CSTs (camp staff trainees, 15-17 yr olds who hopefully would return to become Program Staff in future). The camp was reorganized in September 2001 to become Western Illinois Youth Camp & Retreat Center as the U of IL Extension Service phased out its involvement. In its heyday, this camp accommodated 150-200 campers per week!! All the camps during those years were overnight camps — campers arrived on Sunday afternoons and left Friday mornings. The grounds for camp have been rented from the City of Jacksonville, Illinois from its inception through the present.

“Campers originally camped out in tents until one by one, cabins as well as other buildings were built with the help of volunteers on ‘work days.’ The various buildings around camp have were built as follows: Canteen, 1952 — revamped as the Registration Cabin; South Campus (Boys) cabins — 3 built in 1952 and rest in 1965; South Campus Showerhouse, 1965; North Campus (Girls) cabins, 1952; North Campus Showerhouse, 1952; Cooks’ Cabin/staff lounge, 1952-renovated into the Krell Cabin for rent or used during weddings; Nature Cabin, 1952 — now used as the Maintenance Shed; Dining Hall, 1950; Recreation Hall, 1952; Craft Hall, 1965; Director’s House, 1952 w/ addition of fireplace room/garage in 1975; Waterplant, 1952-torn down/replaced w/ county water in 2007; Beach Shed,1980 — torn down/ replaced in 2012; cement retaining wall w/ cement platform along waterfront, 1986.

“[Groups of campers] were assigned to ‘Wagon Wheels,’ named Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, etc. for the week. They would be in these groups the whole week which were used to rotate to the various activity areas around camp. The ‘Wagon Wheels’ were found on the way to Inspiration Point on each side, near the lake as well as along the lake in front of the Dining Hall and campers would meet there daily to go over the day’s activities and make their choices. The wheels have since been pulled out, hopefully, to be replaced by a couple of new ones in future for historical value in similar locations around camp.” These wheels were actual, metal wheels; they were used up until the early 2000s.

“Numerous trails may be found in the North Campus which has mostly deciduous trees and there were primitive camp sites in the past. The former Rifle Range (it used to be behind the North Campus Shower house) was used until the early 1990s with the BB-guns having been donated by Daisy Corp. There also used to be a Rope Bridge leading from the North Campus cabins to the north trails as a shortcut to get them and another bridge has replaced it. Just south of the Showerhouse in North Campus, there used to be a maintenance shed that was torn down 40+ years ago but some of its remains may still be found.

“The trails in South Campus run through the Pine Forest and along the lake as well as through the deciduous trees found in that part of camp and around the swimming/boat cove. Remains of an old Challenge Course may be found among the deciduous trees of that area. A road goes through the North Campus as needed for mowing/emergencies for there is a firebreak between the deciduous trees and the Pine Forest in South Campus. South Council Range is located along the South Campus Trails — its benches and firepit were replaced/renovated in 2012 thanks to a local Boy Scout Eagle Project. The Low Ropes Challenge Course located in the Pine Forest has been an integral part of camp since its seven ‘pods’ were installed through a grant in 2003. It promotes ‘team building’ for all youth during various camps, and adults who utilize it as well, when it has been rented by outside organizations.

“The camp bell near the back entrance to the Dining Hall has played an important role at camp through the years. It would be rung to announce when to move to the next activity since it could be heard all about camp, as well as to let ‘trotters’ know when to come to the Dining Hall to set up the tables for meals with silverware, glasses, and pitchers of ‘bug juice’ aka some type of Kool-Aid or lemonade, and it was rung for to indicate meal times. It has also been used to warn everyone around camp of weather issues, i.e., severe thunderstorms or tornadoes so that campers could all be moved to Wentz Hall for safety. Sadly, this bell is no longer used.

“The Red Bridge was another part of camp that was much loved and utilized as a shortcut across the cove from the South Campus/trails/Pine Forest/South Council Range to the rest of camp. It was a great place to fish from early in the morning or at dusk. It was all wood and painted barn red so it was easily seen by all but has been torn down due to just falling apart and no longer able to be repaired. It has been replaced in recent years with another bridge in the same area as the original one.

“The Archery Range has been a favorite area of camp through the years and renovated in 2010 thanks to another Boy Scout Eagle Project. No more soggy bales of hay or straw to deal with at the end of each camping season which had been used as the backdrop for the arrows!

“Inspiration Point at the west end of camp is a lovely spot for it has room enough for seating many individuals for a wedding. It used to have wooden benches for the campers to use during the years of Red Eagle Indian ceremonies and Evensong, but, the benches are gone due to weather deterioration. It faces the main part of the lake and at one time, for many years, had a firepit for use during camp activities. Various ceremonies besides Red Eagle have been held at the Point such as Morning Watch (a Sunday morning service during Family Camp), Evensong, and several weddings, including those of two past camp directors!

“The Recreation aka Rec Field is between Craft Hall and the Recreation Hall. Games of all sorts have been played there including softball, kickball, volleyball and Silly Olympics. Up until recent years, there was even a backstop to prevent foul balls from heading toward the Recreation Hall aka Rec Hall or other nearby buildings. The camp Totem Pole was resurrected from storage and placed back out on the Rec Field near the flag pole for campers to enjoy.

“The Waterfront is probably the most favorite area in summer. Campers may swim, canoe (and rowboat in the past), swamp canoes in the cove, fish or do numerous other water-related activities such as going after a greased watermelon (eaten later by campers) during heady completion. Log-rolling also used to be a favorite activity to do in the evenings in the shallow area part of the dock.

“Campers under 16 must take a swim test per Illinois state law if they wish to swim between the ropes of the deep area and use the floating dock or to swamp canoes. Others who do not pass the swim test and those considered non-swimmers may still have fun in the shallow area between the U-shaped stationary dock playing water games, diving for clam shells, using water toys, and so on.

“For many years, Stewardship Week was held at camp, usually the end of September or the first of October. The Department of Natural Resources and the University of IL Extension Service provided exhibits and speakers, holding mini-clinics, for schools in the surrounding region from Greene County to Schuyler County, on conservation, ecology, fishing, flora and fauna of Illinois, geology and water. Grades 3-6 would enjoy a day at camp learning how to be more aware of their environment and how to preserve it as well as enjoy the great outdoors!

“Diabetic Camp out of Peoria, IL sponsored by the hospitals and American Diabetic Association in that area was a camp which used WIYCRC when it was still known as Western Illinois 4-H Camp up through the mid-1990s. They would provide all their own staff including many doctors, nurses, dieticians, except for Waterfront and the cooks, as well as camp program staff would stay to assist at mealtimes and to help out wherever they were needed while this camp was in residence. Clinics would be held for the campers ranging in age from 6 through high school, on how to cope with diabetes, teaching them calorie counts, snacks, giving themselves shots, wound care, etc. along down time for the campers to have fun and explore the grounds. Another local organization who used camp for many years was Winchester High School band. They would hold ‘band camp’ for a week in August each summer working on half-time marching band routines with breaks to swim or just relax in the cabins. Camp Care-A-Lot, a camp in July for underprivileged youth from various counties in the region, used the ground/facilities for many years in the past and provided all their own staff except for Waterfront.

“Other rental camps who have utilized WIYCRC [include]: Camp Courage, who’ve been coming to camp for decades the last full week of July for its physically and mentally challenged campers to enjoy a week of camping fun; Performing Arts Camp in the past, for youth to enjoy not only camp, but to perform a show at the end of the week which they worked on while at camp, for their families/friends; and Family Camp, people from many of the original families who helped in organizing the inception of this camp back in 1948, who came for a weekend in the middle of summer with their families and brought along other families/friends from not only this part of Illinois but out of state, for a weekend of fun, food, activities and just renewing old ties of friendship.

“Adventure Camp for ages 8-12 and Teen Camp for ages 12-16 were the original camps years ago when campers would stay for a week at a time per assigned counties for the week. All the camps during the summer were for the younger campers except for one week of Teen Camp. In more recent years, the camp program has transitioned to fit the needs of the community, still having one or two overnight camps, but primarily providing day camp throughout the summer for younger school age youth. Several organizations still rent the grounds/facilities for weddings, family reunions, retreats, individual parties, and so on as camp has the facilities to meet the needs for such events from April through October, upon request.”

The mission statement of Western Illinois Youth Camp reads, “The Western Illinois Youth Camp dedicates its efforts and resources to providing services and programs in a healthy environment that will successfully impact the education, physical, mental, social, and emotional growth of all program participants. This mission can promote healthy lifestyles and further the goal of total community wellness.”

Sterett says, “I think [the camp is] important because it gets the kids away from their electronics. They form friendships and bonds that may last a lifetime.”

Both the Chamber After Hours event from 4:30-6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 21 and the organized 75-year open house celebration from 2-5 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 24 will be held at Western Illinois Youth Camp, 2244 4-H Club Lane.

Visit wiyc.net to learn about camping options or more in general.

Congratulations on 75 years!

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