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Happy Trails and Many Tales

4-H camp: Highlight of summer for many of Appalachia’s youths

March 5, 2011
By Shannon Bennett Campbell

As a proud Appalachian, I stood firm in my previous column to say we, as a people, have much to offer. But I would be amiss if I failed to mention that quite a number of metro city dwellers have come here to live because they, too, appreciate our lifestyle. The slower, more ordered pace appeals to them. Also, back-to-nature enthusiasts thrive here. I am sure they are not unlike I was when I came east to Randolph County from a couple mountains nearly 35 years ago. They have purchased history books to learn about their new home, and often end up knowing as much about a place as those who have been longtime residents. Some will call them "foreigners." I rather think of them as "joiners." To those who felt they had no place in this column last month, read on, for the stories about to come will also speak to you.

Having been on the Harmony Grove (Taylor County) farm for four years, my stay there was about to end. The well-managed home and daily routines my mother had so thoughtfully crafted (including nap time after lunch) would give way to a new town life. Fewer Sundays would be spent journeying to Willow Beach (Harrison County), so my dad could pitch baseball for Swaney Coal Co. As in many West Virginia areas, coal company sponsored sports events helped relieve the stressful rigors of mining and provided weekend recreation.

There was never much to do in rural Appalachian communities. Pool halls and beer gardens were abundant, but other social gathering places limited. "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" was the first song I remember mastering. Mom taught it to me when we were driving to see dad play. And what an influence it was, as all forms of competitive games attracted my attention throughout life. As we look around our Mountain State today, we see remnants of these origins. Sports remain a dominant theme, and almost everyone has their favorite team.

Article Photos

A rare, but stunning view of the State 4-H Camp’s Council Circle — ‘No Light, But the Great Light’ — is taken with no flash attachment to fulfill Native American Indian tradition. Campers from all four tribes encircled the large campfire to tell stories, sing, reflect upon good events of the day and unite in spirit. (Photo courtesy of Shannon Bennett Campbell)

Dad let me help him plant the family's garden, but I would never get to taste the little onions. A new job awaited him in Weston and we were moving to town. Taking turns staying with both grandmothers, we looked for our own house. Mom went to work to help save money. I was about to enroll in a private kindergarten class and life was very different. My first dealings with death came when a rabid fox bit my little dog, Sammy, at the farm where dad had sent him. I cried and cried, but I got over it. I knew he went to Heaven.

Life's activity increased because of schools, church and recreational play with Weston's big athletic field close by. As with many West Virginia communities, public construction programs were supported by the federal government after the Great Depression, and the building of the football field bleachers near my home ensured that Weston had one of the best sports facilities in the region. Tennis courts, baseball fields, a track and football games were a 10-minute walk away. Many summers were spent bicycling back and forth to the athletic field.

But the summer's highlight was always 4-H Camp at Jackson's Mill, a short drive from town. In order to participate, we had to complete projects. They always provided "something to do," whether learning to cook, sew or chart our futures. My brother built birdhouses, hunted bugs and did the outdoors-related activities. Whatever it took, we had the work done, because going to camp for a week at the Mill was a yearlong wish.

Harrison County children always got to attend Mill camps, too, even though most of the weeks were hosted for state 4-H groups.

"West Virginia: The Mountain State," by Charles H. Ambler and Festus Summers (1940) explains:

"William H. Kendrick, through contacts with the International Sunday School Association, conceived the ideal that their program (boys and girls agricultural clubs) could and should include more than improvement in farm and home practices. He therefore proposed a four-fold life program dealing with its mental, social, spiritual and physical phases - with head, hand, heart and health. As emblematic of these, the four-leaf clover, with an 'H' on each leaf, was adopted, and the groups were therefore called '4-H' clubs. In l951, there were l,548 '4-H' clubs in the state, with a total membership of 31,478, including 4,880 negro youth in 211 clubs.

"Like the four-fold life program, the camping feature of the youth movement also had its origin in West Virginia. First demonstrated in July l915, by J. Versus Shipman, county agricultural agent of Randolph County. ... In l920, a five-acre tract, embracing the boyhood home of Stonewall Jackson at Jackson's Mill in Lewis County was presented to the state for that purpose. The Legislature accepted the gift, and in l921 established a state 4-H camp. By subsequent purchases, the total acreage was increased to 523.

"Thirteen counties erected cottages, and by l951, 52 state counties owned 4-H camp sites. ... In August of 1940 along U. S. Route 219, a few miles south of Elkins, the former Camp Good Luck site was marked as the first organized 4-H camp in the United States."

4-H camp was a huge summer event. My second year at camp found Lewis County with more than 450 youth and leaders, and local folks out searching for more beds to sleep everyone. As much as anything, being on the beautiful grounds at the Mill made one think that open space invited discovery, and at every turn, someone or something was new. Friendliness was a constant, competition was keen, meditation and reflection ever present, and the ability to achieve what seemed impossible always within grasp.

What a marvelous gift was given by all those volunteer leaders who demonstrated peace instead of war, love instead of hate, care instead of sarcasm. They had seen their brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, killed in world wars and wanted this generation to end conflict. And, "Let There Be Peace on Earth" was our battlesong, and "Let the Lower Lights Be Burning" our call to rescue. And when we sang the Omaha Tribal Prayer, "Wakonda Dhe-dhu," meaning "Father, a needy one stands before thee; I that sing am He," there was no quibble about where we stood in the sphere of life. All eyes looked to the Heavens at someone much greater than themselves, and we knew the world did not rotate around us.

Jackson's Mill's value as a training ground for youth has been invaluable. It has extended its reach and West Virginia University has used it often for year-round instruction. The Cooperative Extension Service has a new name, WVU Extension Service, and regularly plans camping weekends, prominent speakers and summer events to this day.

The Mill staff members are involving communities in open buffet dinners at the Mount Vernon Dining Hall, where area residents can attend and enjoy a array of foods and desserts. Upcoming meals include a Spring Buffet on March l8 from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.; a Tax Day Corn Bread and Bean Dinner on April l5 from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.; and a Sunday Baked Steak Mother's Day Dinner on May 8 from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

All meals are reasonably priced with discounts for children, and Dining Hall seating invites the entire family to dine at large tables together. The building seats more than 450.

Additionally, Jackson's Mill's picnic pavilion and All-Faiths Chapel are open to families, school reunions and weddings, respectively, as well as swimming when the pool is open, or just walking the grounds when camps are not in session. And who can forget while passing by the Assembly Hall the singing that resounded on the nearest hill while someone beautifully played the piano's ivory? Those harmonies have been a Jackson's Mill hallmark.

One also remembers the taps (played at evening Vesper Services with everyone standing reverently facing west) echoing through the valley not unlike that of a military burial. Campers were ever reminded of their ancestral sacrifices.

Old-fashioned Christmas events take place with dinners and lighted lamps, as well as Labor Day weekend's Stonewall Jackson Jubilee, which always offers wonderful crafts and foods. The livestock barns continue to be a dominant feature of the Mill. Many statewide youth and adult competitions take place there for a variety of organizations. This was my first glimpse of Greenbrier County, as they have always figured prominently in cattle contests. This provides a portend to April's first-Saturday edition.

Sometimes during my travels, I think we lose track of our roots and supplication. Carl Sandburg once wrote, "When a society or a civilization perishes, one condition can always be found. They forgot where they came from." This is not to say I think we are at risk, but it is to say it should never be too difficult to look back and find a pathway's origin while trying to determine whether one has strayed from the direction they were headed and why. This should be "no problem" for people who conquered the Appalachians. We must only begin to review what has made us great. And, we cannot just think about "me"; we must also include the words "we" and "thee." My husband tells me this all the time.



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