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Short Stories: Camp Chautauqua, Miamisburg, Ohio

youth camp

Back in my younger days, youth Camp was one big event most Independent Fundamentalist Baptist(IFB) teens looked forward to every year. Campwas a week-long event dedicated to daily devotions, praying, and listening to preaching two or more times a day. Every summer countless teenagers would go to camp, returning home a week later with their spiritual batteries recharged and their notebook filled with sermon notes mailing addresses of cute boys or girls.

I went to camp in the 1970s for three years — eighth through tenth grades.

As an eighth-grader, I attended Camp Patmos, a General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) youth camp. Camp Patmos is located on Kelley’s Island in Lake Erie. I don’t remember much about my week at Camp Patmos. One thing that stands out is that one of the older boys in my cabin took the camera of another boy while he was away from the cabin and took pictures of his genitals. I can only imagine the horror of the boy’s parents when they saw the developed pictures.

I attended Camp Chautauqua in Miamisburg, Ohio the summers of 1972 and 1973. The camp is owned and operated by the Baptist Bible Fellowship (BBF). The church I attended at the time, Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay Ohio, is a BBF affiliated church. Numerous BBF churches from Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, brought their teenagers to Camp Chautauqua for a week of spiritual challenge, with a little bit of fun thrown in to keep campers happy.

I have many fond memories of the two summers I spent at Camp Chautauqua. The spiritual emphasis was intense and played an instrumental part in my call to the ministry. A number of the big-gun Baptist preachers preached at the evening chapel services. I can still remember Peter Ruckman’s sermons, complete with his famous chalk drawings. I also remember John Rawlings, then pastor of Landmark Baptist Temple (now Landmark Church) in Cincinnati, preaching one night, and during his sermon he shared an illustration about cleaning shit out of the barn when he was young. He actually said the word SHIT!! Needless to say, I was stunned. Later in life, I learned that some Christians didn’t think shit was a curse word, especially when used to describe animal manure.

Camp brought upwards of a thousand youth together for one week. Camp Chautauqua had a lot of real estate for meandering teens to get lost in.  Follow me for a moment . . . It’s the 70s. A thousand teenagers, ninth through twelfth grade. Lots of real estate in which hormone-raging teens could get lost. Well, use your imagination. The highlight of youth camp for me was the girls. Forget the home church girls for a week. I traded addresses with several girls. Sadly, as of today. I am still waiting for that cute, dark-haired girl from Elyria to write back. 🙂

The first year I went to Camp Chautauqua, Gene Milioni, the pastor of Trinity Baptist, was our cabin counselor. He was pretty easy to outwit. The next year, the youth pastor, Bruce Turner, was the cabin counselor, (please see Dear Bruce Turner) and he proved to be every bit our match. He was not so far removed from his own youth that he had forgotten the dangers of putting a bunch of teenage boys and girls in proximity to one another.

Practical jokes were an everyday occurrence. The jokes were fun to pull on others, but payback could be brutal. From stolen bedding and purloined light bulbs to shaving cream in sleeping bags, practical jokes were a part of what made camp a great experience. And besides, I was a pretty good joke perpetrator.

The music was another highlight of camp. Most of the churches that brought their teens to camp were mid-size to large churches, so the musical talent level was superb. Wonderful music. To this day, I think some of the best singing I have ever heard was at Camp Chautauqua.

If I had a negative experience at camp, I don’t remember it. Perhaps this is the wistful remembering of an old man trying to recall what happened fifty years ago during the glory days of his youth. Perhaps my fond memories are a reflection of the fact that camp, for me and for many others, was a respite from our Fundamentalist churches and family dysfunction. Camp was the one week out the year that I got to hang out with my friends and meet new people without having adults watching my every move.

Camp Chautauqua went into foreclosure in 2013. It was purchased by Jason Harmeyer, and based on the pictures I have seen, the Camp is no longer a Fundamentalist Baptist institution (though it still is quite Evangelical).

Here’s an excerpt from a Dayton Daily News article about the camp:

Miamisburg’s Camp Chautauqua, “The Camp by the River,” which sprawls throughout Montgomery and Warren counties, was on the verge of foreclosure when Jason Harmeyer, son of the longtime caretaker, stepped up to save the camp where he grew up. Purchased less than a year ago, the grounds and community center are again being put to use.

“I was 4 when we moved here,” says Harmeyer, an expert on the camp’s 100-plus year history.

The American Chautauqua Movement saw camps sprout up throughout the country to bring entertainment and culture to rural areas from the late 1800s to the 1920s. After the movement died out, campgrounds served other purposes, and many disappeared.

In its heyday, the Miamisburg Chautauqua hosted such notables as Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Eleanor Roosevelt and baseball player-turned-evangelist Billy Sunday.

“It’s seen a little bit of everything, from famous orators and thinkers to entertainers such as Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn; then it was a religious entity, and back and forth,” said Harmeyer.

“My dad took the caretaker’s job in 1977, and called me two years ago to say it was going into foreclosure. I moved back, set up the Chautauqua Foundation Inc., a 501C3 with a board of advisors, and we purchased the camp last August.

“Now, we hope to re-introduce Chautauqua back to the regional community.”

Although Harmeyer has long-term plans for the camp, which includes 59 buildings on 45 acres, activities in the community center have already begun.

How about you? Did you attend camp as a teenager? Do you have a camp story to share?

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    I never went. My douchebag older brother did & his money was stolen while he was there, so that soured our mother on the whole camp thing; my youthful life revolved around whatever my brother did when he was that age; rarely did I have a say in anything.
    Not going to those camps never bothered me; I was invisible to the opposite sex here, so I knew I would fare no better there; a thin, ugly glasses spectacled nerd was completely out of place there, like I was everywhere else, except in my comic books. I did go to camp once when I was a scout & I was 10, that was kinda cool & fun

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    Higher Ground Baptist Bible Camp was where I went for several summers. I loved the time I spent there. I was 8, or so, and it was nice to meet different kids.

    I could never figure out why several of the male and female counsellors spent so much time together. So many unexplained mysteries for a young fellow.

    Thanks for bringing back some fond memories.

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    I attended Camp Holiday each summer from ages 10 to 14 and at 15 I was a counselor in training. Camp Holiday was an Episcopal camp in Ortonville, Michigan. I loved it! Each session was 2 weeks and during the middle weekend, the Epsiscopal bishop would come and perform the Sunday service in the chapel in the woods. Lots of pine trees.

    One year, my cabin had the honor of the bishop eating breakfast with us. We really didn’t expect it because we had already changed the sugar and salt to prank our counselor. We watched in horror as the bishop put what he thought was sugar in his coffee…and by this time the counselor had also “salted” her coffee. The bishop sipped his coffee..made a slight frown..put his coffee down..and continued the conversation. He never mentioned it! Lol. The counselor did however, mention it later on that day after the bishop left. Lol. The 8 of us paid the price! 😀

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    I’m not telling the real good stuff…..! Muskoka Baptist Conference was the place and those overnights after lights-out, the sneaking out to meet the world’s best neckers and roll-arounders, all the while with the preacher bosses running around with flashlights fruitlessly seeking escapees. It was glory and mystery, the cold, northern nights with heavy dew and heavier breathing, glory and mystery that part of it but then there were the evangelical anal searches of my spirit and the fucking faggot service where you had to get up and say the say or draw attention to yourself. And the emotional overload of all this spiked by dawn exercise with the counsellors and preaching preaching preaching. I don’t think there is a better proof of a loving gawd than summer camp.

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      Hmm? Curiosity. Muskoka Baptist Conference eh? Never been, oh wait that might be not true. I think Biker Dude, myself and the kids went there for church once. We were vacationing nearby and can’t miss church you know. 🙂

      My church camping experiences were on this side of Lake Erie. You know, the good side. 😉

      Up and until my last year of camping I loved camp. The last year, the church went full-on evangelical and so it is there that they put the fear of hell in my heart for good. Changed my life but it is my opinion now that it did not change it for good.

      That year was a co-ed camp. We use to sneak out to watch the camp counsellors pair up and neck. Word has it a bit of that happened on the beach too.

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        Greetings Zoe, MBC is now renamed but it was near Huntsville, Ontario, on Mary Lake. In that part of Ontario you are getting into Canadian Shield, huge rock with ‘northern’ lakes, something that has always pleased my eyes to no end. It was about two plus hours drive north from Lake Ontario. In the sixties, that was real country, barely serviced with rough cabins. The best building was? Yep, the church, the place where God lived all alone and unseen. Odd we are, we bipeds, reserving such design for an imaginary fella and letting the rest of the world go pop-pop.

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    Mike Smith

    Three of the best summers of my life I spent at the Bill Rice Ranch as a Ranch Hand. After High School I was offered to come on the Staff Counselor Staff and the opportunity to take the Camp Counselor/Administration course. Sadly, I got a job making (hang on to your hats…) 4 dollars an hour in a book warehouse. I often wonder what would have happened if I had taken advantage of that opportunity…

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    Brian Vanderlip

    Thanks for bringing this one back, Bruce! Tina was her name…. Never forgot her holy smoke breath in the chill dawn air! And the pies we’d snatch after gaining entry to the kitchen after lights-out. Wonderful times…. No wonder I believed! After about 70 years on the wobbling sphere, I do wonder if it was all (the camp experience) an unconscious construct to make use of the natural, the human tendencies, the hormones, to corral and train us up with whatever proved handy to invest us in conviction of our sin! I mean, its just plain natural for teens to seek one another day and night; its a guarantee! Only the dullest of duds would truly believe that this would not happen when curfew came. So they knew, those preacher cops/guards and they played the screwed up game with us preparing us as youngsters for the great denials to come in Christian adulthood, Christian church membership.
    For me, camp days remain a solid proof of the human glory of adaptation-as-required! We played the game and we believed it but we did not abandon humanity. Saved by hormones! Praise the night stars and Tina’s hot breath on my neck. I think MBC was the first time a girl ever nibbled my ear lobe. Jesus is real, baby! Holy shiver me timbers, Batman! I believe!

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    Our church took us kids to Hillcrest in Tennessee a few times. I think I was in the 8-12 age range, before we were really into the boy-girl thing. There was horseback riding, a pool, lots of games, and of course, lots of Jesus. When we were older the youth group went on trips to Florida instead of camp. I am pretty sure we girls weren’t allowed to wear 2 piece bathing suits, but I was pretty body-conscious and didn’t feel comfortable in a 2 piece anyway (damn, I was ridiculous – I looked good then but had no idea). I definitely remember a lot of crying and re-education to Jesus on those trips. And when we returned there would be a whole group of youth going down front at the altar call so the group leaders could show off how fruitful the trip had been. Ugh.

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