Camp Whitley began as a dream for a man named Walter Stephenson. Walt, a Columbia City school shop teacher, established an annual “appreciation outing” for students who helped him clean up at the end of the school year. In 1927, he decided to make a permanent “home” for the outing and inquired about land on Troy Cedar Lake. He wanted to provide an overnight experience for the youth of Whitley County (originally only including the males from the area). In 1928, his first session of Whitley County Boys and Girls Camp took place on Troy Cedar Lake, but was owned by Clarence Eisaman. There were three, one-week sessions. 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 skiffs 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 1929, Mr. Stephenson purchased the land for $1 and gave Whitley County Boys and Girls Camp a permanent home. Stephenson got support from Columbia City School Trustees for financial assistance.
In 1937, the Columbia City Schools Trustees purchased the land known as Whitley County Boys and Girls Camp for $1 from Walt Stephenson, and purchased additional land (now known as the Pointe) for $1 from Harry Clark, who assumes managerial and financial control over the Whitley County Boys and Girls Camp.
In 1938, Stephenson held a local contest to rename the camp. “Camp Whitley” was the chosen winner.
In 1940, Walter Stephenson sells what is known as Tinkham's Woods (purchased from A.A. Harker in the same year) to Columbia City School Trustees for $1 and ends his 15 year tenure with Camp Whitley. Art Lloyd succeeds him as the new Director. Columbia City Schools Trustees maintain ownership and financial and managerial control over Camp Whitley.
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 in 1990) 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 all 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 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 fall of 1994. 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 again 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 schooI 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. Camp Whitley, Tinham’s Woods, and the Pointe were sold to the Task Force for $1 and two conditions: WCCS was allowed two appointed Directors on the Board of Directors, and should Camp Whitley, Inc cease to function as a summer residential camp, ownership of the grounds and programming would revert back to WCCS to utilize as they see fit.
The Task Force became the Board of Directors and oversaw 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 “Soil Camp."
In 2000, additional land on both sides of the drive coming through Camp Whitley was purchased by Camp Whitley, Inc. from LeRoy Waugh through generous grants from Dekko Foundation and Whitley County Community Foundation, making the total acreage at 85.
The staff of Camp Whitley continues to provide an updated program that incorporates many of the old-fashioned ideals established by Mr. Stephenson, 80 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!
Dee Conn, Tim Johnson, Heather Bruce, Shannon Clark, Pat Zickgraf, Morgan Wood, Julie Copeland, Carlee & Hunter LaRue, Pam & Shannon Cherry, Ken Wyant, Dave Strader, Chett Kittle, Bruce VandeZande, Tim & Denise Hearld, Brian Bills, Tony & Jennifer Romano, Richard Buchanon, Jason Bales, Tara Brandon, Shawn Lickey, Dick Cira, Carrie Gates, Jeff Harker, Randy Plew, Devon Schuman, Trent Anglin, Doug Fahl, DeeDee Maggard, Dan Rex, Michelle Slavicek, Chad Whetstone, Reisa Snyder, Bob Thomas, Dan Mullett, Paula Langeloh, Marcia McNagny PLUS MANY MORE
Hannah Walters (2020-present), Gabby Anglin (2018-2019), Morgan von Seggern (2017), Casey Riley (2015-2016), Lauren Strandlund (2014), Joshua Wall (2013), Mark Parker (2010-2012), Tara Brandon (1997-2009), Jeff Harker (1996), Reisa Snyder (1995), Mark Parker (1986-1993), Dan Mullett (1982-1985), Dan Curless (1981-1985), Bill Duffy (1979-1980), Lowell Longenbaugh (1976-1978), Dick Cira (1973-1975), Leonard Barnum (1967-1972), Jerl Kniss (1962-1966), Herb Fry (1960-1963), Don Lloyd (1933-1959), Walter Stevenson (1928-1932)
Do you have memories as a camper or counselor? Tens of thousands of campers have experienced the joys of Camp Whitley. We would love to hear some of your memories and stay connected!