‘Everyone was kind’ Woodcrest celebrates 50 years of summer camp

By on July 31, 2019

In 1969, when he was seven years old, Barry Herman was given a gift he would cherish all his life — day camp at the Woodcrest Retreat in the wooded hills outside Ephrata.

Now 56, Herman said what he remembers most about the camp is that it was such a loving environment.

As a boy living in Ephrata, Herman was one of the young campers to attend the first summer day camp of the Ephrata Mennonite Church held at Woodcrest Retreat.

In June, a celebration was held in the Indian Rock Center of Woodcrest to mark 50 years of the popular camp, with about 300 people attending. This year also marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of Woodcrest Retreat.

As one of the campers from that first summer, Herman attended the celebration to tell folks about his experience and also to express his gratitude.

“We were poor,” Herman said. “We didn’t have a car, so we couldn’t go anywhere, but at Woodcrest, we felt welcome and we had a great time.”
Herman was fortunate enough to go to the day camp every summer until he turned 14, the kids’ cut-off age.

Campers settle down and unpack their hobo lunches, a longstanding Woodcrest tradition, in this 1998 photo. Submitted photos.

 

Counselors plan unique entertainment each year. The 1998 show was a holiday luau.

 

Woodcrest Retreat Campers wait for a turn on the waterslide in this 1993 photo.

‘Pops’ led by example

Everyone was kind at Woodcrest, Herman said, because they were following the example of the founder and director of the day camp back then, J. Elvin Martin, known affectionately as “Pops.”

“We were all young kids, full of energy, but Pops kept us under control with a gentle rein,” Herman said. “What a great example of a dad he was to us, and the way he introduced Christianity to us was a great thing. We wanted to listen to him because we wanted him to be proud of us. We could feel he cared for us.”

J. Elvin Martin served as director of the camp from 1969 to 1983, and was one of the featured speakers at the anniversary event.

“My first word would be ‘wow,’” Martin said. “We never thought when we started the day camp that it would last 50 years.”

Beginning on 19 acres, the Woodcrest Retreat complex now covers 109 acres, including an RV site, swimming pool, cabins, and a new, spacious, fully-appointed dining hall that seats 300 and is available to rent to groups.

Getting started

Back in the early 1960s, church members wanted to provide a ministry to children, to bring the Gospel to youngsters who might not have had any teaching of Christianity.

“We thought of different things, but nothing seemed to be right,” Martin said. “Someone suggested a day camp, so the next question was… how do you start a day camp?

“We’d need camp counselors, activities people, crafters, Bible teachers, food and someone to serve — and what about the cost?” Martin asked.

Despite logistics problems, the people of the church decided to pursue a Christian-based camp for kids, at no cost to their families.
Martin asked a social service agency in Ephrata for the names, addresses and phone numbers of families whose children might benefit from such a camp.

He was given the names of 35 families, and Martin started knocking on doors, bringing his own children as back-up. That first year, Martin was able to register 30 children for the camping experience.

Women of the church would be providing the lunches, and the Mennonite Mission Board provided four counselors. With everything set, the bus set off for the mountains in June of 1969.

“When they got out of the bus, I had never seen such an excited bunch of children,” Martin said. “When they had classes, it was amazing how attentive they were, because many didn’t know the songs and stories.”

Peter’s vision

The Christian camp that became a reality through Ephrata Mennonite Church began with an idea by member Peter Rutt, who was the visionary behind the dream, said Cliff Martin, current executive director of Woodcrest Retreat.

In the late 1950s, Rutt and other members of the church bought 19 acres and put up a pavilion to be used by the church.

Welcoming guests the night of the 50th celebration, Cliff Martin talked about the beginnings of the day camp.

“God gave the vision to Peter Rutt in the mid-1950s and he (Rutt) talked to men of the church,” Cliff Martin said. “To accomplish that vision, it takes God’s people coming together to serve a common goal: to introduce children to Jesus Christ and do it all in a wooded setting.”

Changing lives

Donna Garman Esbenshade and Sheree Wolf, both of Ephrata, were also campers during that first summer and they shared their experiences with the audience.

“I am a life that was changed by the camp and I am so glad you gave us that memory,” Esbenshade said. “At that time in our lives, we were facing a lot of problems, so Woodcrest was a welcome break…we didn’t have a church back then and this camp planted the seed. Woodcrest is forever a part of my testimony.”

“My life is changed, too, because of everything you’ve done,” Herman told J. Elvin Martin.
The upshot from that first makeshift, but loving, summer camp is that many more children got to enjoy the experience of camp at Woodcrest over the next half-century.

Esbenshade said she and her husband have sent all four of their children to Woodcrest’s day camp.

Esbenshade was eight years old when a member of the Ephrata Mennonite Church invited her to come to Sunday School, and soon after, to the day camp.

“I have such fond memories,” Esbenshade said. “One is the little ‘hobo’ lunches we were given. They’d wrap our lunch in a handkerchief and tie it to a stick and then we’d go on a little hike; it was so much fun,” Esbenshade said. “I remember Elvin being a kind and gentle man, so that, even as an eight-year-old, you were not intimidated.”

Wolf, now a member of Peace United Church of Christ, recalled afternoons of baseball, horseback riding, making crafts, and turtle races. The turtles were returned to the forest after the race, Wolf said.

“A lot of friendships were formed and we did a lot of singing,” Wolf said.

She also remembered the Bible stories taught on a flannel board by Laverne Martin, Elvin’s wife.

“She was captivating; she made those stories so interesting,” Wolf said. “The camp started my journey toward becoming a Christian.”

“When it first started, Pops and Laverne would come pick us up in their cars until they got a bus to take us to camp,” Wolf said. “We never paid for it; the camp was for kids like us to have something to do.

“My mom was raising four of us and I just remember being picked up and taken to this place where everybody was kind,” Wolf said. “Coming from where I did, I was afraid of men; I thought men were mean. But the men here were Christians and that helped me lose my fear of men.”

Growth

While the Ephrata Mennonite Church began their first Woodcrest day camp in 1969, Woodcrest, a separate entity, began a day camp in 1993, and in 1995, added overnight camping.
In his 28 years of association with Woodcrest, Cliff Martin said he has seen many changes, with lots of growth and many more activities available to campers.

“We were basically a church picnic, family reunion type of place,” Martin said.

Woodcrest Retreat now has four full-time staff, more that 50 employees, and this year, will welcome 1,450 campers, Cliff Martin said.

But the vision has remained the same, Martin said; to share the Gospel.

Marylouise Sholly is a freelance feature writer for The Ephrata Review. She welcomes your comments and questions at weezsholly@verizon.net. 

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