FAYETTE — It’s still there: Vesper Hill, an outdoor cathedral atop a knoll at 4-H Camp Palmer.
Nearly 300,000 people have spent time at the camp since the nestled-in-the-woods wonder opened 66 years ago.
Mostly, it’s been decades of good times: touching turtles, telling stories around campfires, swimming, hiking, team building, fishing, rope making, basket weaving, studying wetlands and streams, cooking outdoors, identifying plants, canoeing.
Sure, not every camping adventure is postcard perfect. A nurse’s station is there for a reason: Cuts, scrapes, and bruises can happen when people embrace the outdoors.
Dedicated in July 1947, this isn’t the camp many of us recall with fond, if dimming, memories. The pool? Wasn’t it much larger? The mosquitoes? Weren’t they much smaller? The cabins? Well, those rustic cabins smell pretty much the same.
But look around. Changes abound. New things to see; new things to do.
More updates are planned, said executive director Bill Goodson, who delights in showing off features that draw an increasing number of campers — 4-H clubs, high school bands, students for outdoor education classes, corporate groups — to the 157-acre, year-round facility near Fayette in Fulton County. The camp is privately owned by 4-H members in 11 northwest Ohio counties.
On this recent afternoon, a chorus from cardinals flashing red against a background of green was no match for Eastwood High School marching band members rehearsing must-memorize music.
“Eastwood has been coming for band camp 20-plus years here,” said Goodson, camp director since May 2008, the same year a main office and welcoming area opened.
One recent improvement gets regular use: A paved path curls along popular camp activity areas. It provides youths, including those who use wheelchairs, a smooth route.
“We want to be more inclusive,” Goodson said.
Megan Verhoff, 19, of Ottawa, the camp’s inclusion coordinator, said her 17-year-old sister Jennifer, who has cerebral palsy, gained confidence during camp experiences such as taking part in challenging, hands-on activities.
“What we like to do here is bring groups together. Campers learn so much from each other. They learn patience. They see others overcoming challenges,” Goodson said.
Brian Myers, 38, Eastwood band director, said the camp strikes the right note for several reasons, including that it is a week away from home for the students, a time to focus on music and marching with no distractions such as doctor appointments or ball practice.
“It is a great time for them to bond,” he said, and that, in turn, makes a better, stronger band.
As Rogers High School students arrived for their band camp, musicians scrambled to haul in must-haves: instruments, sleeping bags, pillows, bug spray, and room freshener for stinky shoes.
Freshman Allyssa Zwiefel, 14, unpacked in a snap and perched on the edge of a bunk bed, eager for the perfect pitch week to get rolling. “I have been waiting to come to band camp since I was in the fifth grade,” she said.
Camp facilities include a dining hall and kitchen the Erie Sauder Recreation Hall; the Woodland Lodge that sleeps up to 60 people in dorm-style rooms; camper cabins, sports fields, outdoor classrooms, and a team-building course.
Rob’s Cabin, which opened in 2012, sleeps up to 24 and includes a conference-meeting room. The cabin is named in honor of Rob Sonnenberg, of Wauseon, who was an active 4-H member. Born with a congenital heart defect, he died in 1993 at age 14.
Even with changes, traditions continue, including Vesper Hill, where some campers go twice a day; other groups do not include it in their itineraries.
The camp’s 1950s-era swimming pool is a plunge from the past. A campaign has raised half the $400,000 for a new pool, complete with a water slide, campers’ most requested feature. The new pool could make a splash by summer, 2015.
Other popular additions include shooting classes. This year, the camp-improvement fund includes $6,000 for an additional shooting range. Chuck Wurth, full-time program manager at the camp since 1977, said shooting is the fastest growing 4-H activity. Members learn to shoot rifles and shotguns. Archery is growing in popularity as well, he said. Keeping boys interested in 4-H attracts the interest of girls who want to be involved too, Wurth said.
And now … what is that wooden, octagon-shaped pit in a central area of camp? Good guess, but it’s not a goat pen. It’s a popular place where kids — not the goat variety — play a kinder, gentler, faster-paced dodgeball sort of game called gaga ball.
And, yes indeedy, children have been going gaga (there, we said it) over the game, not only here but at camps across the country.
Too, Camp Palmer has set up a competition area for nine-square. Remember the old-fashioned school playground game of four-square? In the updated version, additional squares multiply the challenges and the fun. And at Camp Palmer, it’s hip to be square. It’s hip to be there.