Camp Friedenswald History
Nearly two centuries ago a tribe of Potowattomi Indians enjoyed the peaceful woods and lakes around Camp Friedenswald. They were led by Chief Pokagon and his sons. He was converted to Christianity by Catholic missionaries and became a pacifist. When the white men came to take their land, he told his tribe, "Find other happy hunting grounds." (Records can be found in the Elkhart Historical Library, written on birch bark.)
Chief Shavehead (in earlier writings, "Shavenhead") was the leader under Pokagon in the region around what is now known as Lake Shavehead. He was a friendly chief until he was rudely taken advantage of by a group of traders traveling from Chicago to Detroit on the Old Saulk Trail, now Highway 12. They offered him "firewater" (whiskey), got him drunk, and took all his furs and grain for practically nothing. After that episode he was determined to get revenge and gained the dubious reputation for being one of the few Indians ever to raid and burn the village of Chicago.[1829 Map of Cass County]
In the 1920s and 1930s the General Conference Mennonites in the Midwest began to look for ways in which youth could be taught the Christian faith and be given opportunities to renew or make new commitments to the faith. As a result, the Mennonites began to send the youth to "camp" for a week. These camp opportunities were a special treat away from the day-to-day chores on the farm (for most Mennonite youth) and were eagerly anticipated and attended by those fortunate enough to be able to get away.
By the late 1940s the conference had expanded the program to include Junior High as well as High School students for several weeks each summer. As a result of the vision people in the conference had for camping, a movement aimed at purchasing and operating a camp within the Central District gained momentum.
Thus in 1949, forty acres were purchased on Shavehead Lake. In 1950 the first cabins were built (Cabin 8 still holds the first cornerstone inscribed "Dedicated to the Glory of God - 1950"). That year 12 cabins and two bathhouses were built. In June of 1951 the first summer camp was held at Friedenswald. The camp looked a little different back then as Cabin 7 served as the dining hall and kitchen. Campers ate under a tarp off of Cabin 7 and when it rained they lifted their feet to allow the water to run down the hill.
In 1953, the Dining Hall was built and was used as a dining hall, kitchen and offices. In 1957 a ten-unit staff house was built to house the summer workers. In 1959 a chapel or shelterhouse (as it was then called) was built to allow for activities to take place out of the rain.
In 1959 a building, known then as Tubby's Store, was purchased a mile west of camp. It provided living space for the Director and a lodge for winter campers. This purchase opened up new opportunities for year-round camping at Friedenswald. In 1981, this building was sold and a year later it burned to the ground as a result of a chimney fire. That same year the land owner donated the property back to camp.
The decade of the '60s was a time of growth and expansion. New land was purchased along Union Road. The Staffhouse (now the Guesthouse) was enlarged to provide housing for the Director and a staff meeting room for summer staff. The Dining Hall received an addition which provided for dorm space, laundry rooms and a maintenance area.
The camp program also expanded. New programs included family camps, outpost camps in tree houses, trip camps, winter retreats for high school youth, and parent/child retreats. The program expansion also included reaching out to the surrounding community. A community camp was started which was aimed at working with local low-income persons (it was known as the Martin Luther King Camp). The camp also was used by local elementary schools for outdoor education programs.
The 1970s were marked with the purchase of adjoining woodlands to enlarge the camp's land area. The area where the old red oak forest is located (then known as Eby's woods) was purchased in 1974. At that time the Camp had no idea that Eby's woods would later be declared by the Nature Conservancy of Michigan to be one of the top ten old growth red oak forests in the State of Michigan.
Also during this decade, land adjoining the camp, owned and operated by a public campground, came up for sale. Camp Friedenswald purchased the land and renovated the large A-frame building. Thus in 1979 the old Fireside Campground property became part of Camp Friedenswald, soon to become the most rented facility on the grounds, the Friedenswald Retreat Center.
The 1980s began with a struggle as camper numbers began to diminish, facilities needed renovation and land payments were draining operating funds. As a result, special attention was given to increasing Conference ownership in the camp, to upgrading the buildings, and to the retirement of debts.
Thus the 1980s became rebuilding, consolidating and growing years. The $100,000 debt for land acquisition and Retreat Center renovation was paid off. In 1984, as a result of the Luella Miller Estate, a camp residence was built and named the Friedenhaus. The Bathhouses were renovated in 1983 and 1984. Fifteen acres surrounding Shavehead Hollow and the entry lane to the camp were purchased in 1985. The Guesthouse was renovated in 1986 and 1987. The Retreat Center received an interior and exterior face-lift in 1987. Enrollment for both summer and winter programs increased throughout the decade. New programs included a Men's Retreat, a Senior Retreat, and a Single Parent Family Camp. In 1989, with growing numbers of Senior Adults and families using the Camp, a new building was completed, called the Tamarack Lodge, which overlooks the Tamarack Forest across the fen. In 1989, after years of negotiating with Ed Lowe, the founder of Kitty Litter, Friedenswald purchased 52 acres of property that adjoined the camp on the east side. This property contains a natural spring and adds over 2,000 feet of shoreline to the camp.
The early 1990's continued to be years of growth in the camp's programs and facilities. In 1990 the tennis court was constructed (a memorial to Dale Derstine), the wheelchair accessible walkway to the chapel was put in, and the Triplex was constructed to provide housing for a growing staff. Through the generous support of Women's Retreat participants, the Nature Plaza/Amphitheater was developed and dedicated in 1991. This has become a popular site for concerts and weddings. In 1992, the largest number of participants in Friedenswald programs since 1972 was recorded--over 1650 children, youth and adults. The Barriers and Bridges High Ropes program was developed in 1992 to provide new challenges for campers and guests. The Sycamore Lodge, which serves as summer staff housing and a guest facility, was completed in 1994. In November, 1994, the Fenwood Cottage (formerly known as the Sol Rassi Cabin) was purchased and renovated into a permanent staff residence.
The year 1994 also saw the kick-off of the Extending the Table project. Because of the continued growth in Camp usage, more stringent regulations by the health department, and a desire to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, renovation of the Dining Hall became a top priority. In addition, a Nature Center (dedicated to the memory of Roy Henry) was built in order to enhance the Outdoor Education and Nature programs of Camp. The old office was renovated into a much needed Health Center. Construction began in September, 1995 and the project was completed in mid-1996.
The tremendous support for this project from persons throughout the Central District Conference and beyond demonstrates the commitment to and belief in the importance of the Camp Friedenswald ministry.
Property additions continued in the latter half of the ‘90s. Eleven and one half acres of property bordering North Peninsula Drive was donated to Camp by David and Nancy Smith of Bristol, Indiana in November, 1995. Primarily wetland and containing a small pond, this property enhances the already diverse and unique natural habitats at Friedenswald. In October, 1997, the camp was able to purchase the 12-acre plot known as the Peacock property. This land is along North Peninsula Drive, in the Turtle Hill area, adjoining the Triplex property. And in December, 1998, Camp purchased a ¾ acre plot with a house included that is located across from the boys cabin area. This land includes lake access adjacent to the main beach.
Truly the Lord has worked in the ministry of Friedenswald during its rich 50-year history. When a camper was asked by a staff member in the early 1980s why he knew God existed, that camper turned and said, "I know God exists because I see him in you and in the lives of other staff members." The mission of being a place where faith memories can be built and lives touched by God goes on today.