Camp Ligonier turns 100 this year

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 Celebrating its 100th year, Ligonier Camp and Conference Center is one of the oldest continually operating Christian camps in the country, according to Patrick Myers, resident executive director of the camp in Ligonier Township.

“Even during the world wars, we still had camp,” Mr. Myers said.

The camp, which sprawls across 500 acres in the Laurel Highlands, served 1,900 campers ages 6-16 from 19 states during its adventure education program last year.

The camp traces its beginnings to 1914 and an outreach by First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh to the city’s children.

“First Presbyterian Church had a vibrant boys and girls club. It was a huge outreach. It was vibrant all the way through the 1970s, and the camp primarily drew kids out of this club. Although these kids would invite others, it was still very much a Pittsburgh-Western Pennsylvania camp,” Mr. Myers said.

For 75 years, the camp was known as First Presbyterian Church Camp and was owned and operated by the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh

Its mission — to provide people with reflective and recreational opportunities that will build faith in Christ, self-esteem and supportive relationships — hasn’t changed since the camp first welcomed youngsters in 1914.

Initially located on Indian Creek near Seven Springs, the camp was damaged by flooding in 1936 and relocated to the upper Youghiogheny River on a 141-acre farm near what used to be the town of Somerfield. It relocated again in 1942 to Ligonier Township property formerly known as the Harry Denny Estate.

Jim Hall, 81, who grew up in Dormont, spent more than a decade as a camper and a counselor, starting in 1939. “They couldn’t get rid of me,” he said. His father, DeWitt Hall, a member of First Presbyterian Church, was on the committee that purchased the property in the township. The camping tradition continued with Mr. Hall’s children and grandchildren.

Friendships from his years at camp endured through adulthood. When Mr. Hall and a few of his fellow campers retired in the early 1990s, they looked for ways to serve at the camp. Four of them were nicknamed the “four amigos”: Mr. Hall; Paul McCann, 80, originally from Beechview; Chuck Bradley, 79, originally from Beltzhoover; and Lewis Crilley, 83, originally from Hazelwood. They helped build the existing cabins and did other handy work as needed. Mr. Hall and Mr. McCann continue to return to the camp twice each summer, before and after the camping season, to help with light repairs, grass cutting and the camp’s newsletter.

Mr. McCann, who now lives in Bradenton, Fla., met his wife Paula at camp. “In those days, the camp was separated. The boys went the first few weeks of summer and then the girls. There was one week of teenage camp at the end of the summer called 'conference.' We all went to different high schools, but it was primarily all Pittsburgh kids there. The boys’ camp was strictly athletic competition.” Mr. McCann recalled. Sundays were the exception: campers had a church service and a cookout.

Mrs. McCann said her camp director Elsie Steinhilper, or Mrs. S, “always wore a white dress and white shoes and she had a lanyard with a whistle. After she passed away, we enclosed a replica of [the whistle] in glass, and it’s on a shelf at the camp. She was wonderful with the girls.”

Mr. Crilley, who now lives in Whitehall, attended camp from ages 10 to 19. “I enlisted in the Navy and on my first leave after boot camp, I went up to camp as a counselor. The adult counselors who worked with the kids, they were men of God. I still remember a lot of their names.” He went on to be the director of the boys club at First Presbyterian Church for 32 years.

While continuing to offer sports competition, the camp has transitioned over the years from an all-sports format. During the 1970s when adventure education became popular, the camp began to shift to activities such as ropes courses, whitewater rafting, caving and climbing, Mr. Myers said.

In 1981, the camp’s name was changed to Ligonier Camp and Conference Center and it became a separate nonprofit, although it is still owned by First Presbyterian Church. The church uses the facility as its interdenominational outreach ministry, Mr. Myers said.

“It really became a regional camp in the 1990s, drawing from Virginia, New Jersey and New York," Mr. Myers said.

Mr. Myers was first drawn to the camp as a student at Geneva College. Starting as a summer camp counselor, he eventually became the assistant summer camp director. He met his wife, Sandy, at the camp in 1995 when both were on staff. She was a camper in the 1980s, and her mother, Judy Crawford, was a camper in 1954. The couple has five children.

“I fell in love with the adventure education experience. Things like mountain boarding and ropes courses used not as amusement rides but as discipleship tools. I saw a pretty neat tool that was being used to show the Gospel to kids,” Mr. Myers said.

Callie Christner, formerly Callie Henry, 80, of Peters, lived in Brookline as a child and her father, Oliver, and brother Bill began attending First Presbyterian Church for the boys club. Her father first served as a counselor at the camp in 1938 and then as assistant director at the boys camp and athletic director for the girls.

“The campers called him ‘Jollie Ollie.’ He loved the church and was actively involved in the boys and girls clubs," she recalled. She attended camp for 11 years, three of those as a counselor.

The dining hall at the Somerfield location was just 2 years old when the area was flooded to create a lake as part of a flood control project. The camp was taken apart piece by piece and moved to the Ligonier location.

A 2007 capital campaign provided for a new dining hall in 2009, along with some significant renovations, including a new boys bath house, an updated pool and a new sewage pump station.

After a feasibility study found it would be too costly to build a lake on the property, nearby land that contained a 26-acre lake was purchased, with $5 million raised in the capital campaign. The lake, where staff take campers tubing, is about 2 miles from the main camp and has a beach,a laser tag field and sport courts.

“We have great facilities and activities, but I think the strength of our program is we hire great staff. They are incredibly mature, committed to Christ and because of that, through example and through teaching, they talk to these kids about what it means to live a God-honoring life. I think that’s the impact,” Mr. Myers said.

Plans for the future are in motion. “We’ve always been a great ministry to kids and now we’ve made a step toward providing great programming for parents, as well. We started our first family camp session last summer. Eventually, we plan to build a new lodge so that our summer youth programs can move out of our existing lodge into the new building and we can run family camps throughout the whole summer in the existing building,” Mr. Myers said.

Other possibilities for the future include a water slide, bathhouse and pavilions at the lake and historical and education-based services, he said.

Mrs. Christner went back to visit the camp a couple of years ago. She remembered how she took a train from Pittsburgh to Latrobe and then switched to an open-air trolley known as a “doodlebug” on the Ligonier Valley Railroad that traveled through Idlewild Park to Ligonier. When she started, campers slept in tents.

“It was a special time during the 1940s and '50s," she said. "They are wonderful memories — athletic games, swimming, Sunday night cookouts when my dad and Jim Hall would cook. It’s set up different today, but it’s still camp.”

Information: www.ligoniercamp.org.


Jill Thurston, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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