The following brief history of Owasippe was compiled and written by Joe Sener in 2013. It was given as a Staff Week presentation to the incoming Owasippe Staff.
“There are many legends regarding the lands, rivers and lakes of this area, but none more interesting than the legend surrounding the man whose name we have adopted for our camp.” If you have ever been to Owasippe before and to at least one opening campfire, then you have heard these words. They are the opening to what we use today as The Owasippe Legend. I have been asked, in a few short paragraphs, to distill the history of our great camp to this date.
Owasippe was a Chief of the Potawatomi tribe, a tribe known as the “keepers of the fire.” His descendants are now the Ottawa Nation. The local leadership is the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians (www.lrboi-nsn.gov), and we have received the gracious blessing of their Ogema (Chief) and their priestess, Blue Turtle Woman, in the honorable and respectful use of their ancestor’s name and legend.
The area where Owasippe Scout Reservation is located was once an inland sea, and the remains of that great ocean can be seen in the sand that makes up much of our camp. While this sand helps the drainage so the camp can absorb large amounts of rainfall during the summer, you will also be finding it in your clothes and belongings for years to come. This area was also scrubbed by large blocks of ice during the last ice age, and some of the terrain features of the area are clear indications of this. If you travel West on Holton-Whitehall Road from Russell Road you will pass a long meadow on the south side of the road. Seen from the air at low altitude, this meadow is straight as an arrow for over a mile and, we believe, is a melt line run-off trench from a large block of ice left behind as the glaciers receded.
In 1910, a small group of adults and youth from the fledgling Boy Scouts of America in Chicago visited the area searching for an acceptable site for their summer camp. They found the area around Crystal Lake (we came to call it Owasippe Lake or the Lower Lake) suitable. The Whitehall City Council donated 40 acres with the committee agreeing to purchase an additional 80 acres. In 1911, a group of Scouts and Scouters returned to clear the area and founded the A. Stamford White – Owasippe Scout Camp. Owasippe’s early facilities included a handicraft lodge, nature center, camp office, woodworking shop, and a photo studio. These facilities were quite unique for the Scouting movement.
There are differing reports as to the founder of the camp, but we believe it to have been A. Stamford White, President of the Chicago Board of Trade. While there was also a noted architect of the time by the same name, they are not the same person and the Chicago Board of Trade was a great supporter of the early Scouting movement. The first camp was renamed Camp Dan Beard after Daniel Carter Beard, an early pioneer of Scouting, whose portrait now hangs in the Owasippe Museum. As a young Scout and staff person in the 1960s and ’70s I can remember a sign that hung in the dining hall made of timber lashings that read “Camp Dan Beard, Built 1910, Chicago Board of Trade.”
This renaming occurred in 1921 when the second camp was opened and named Camp McDonald after L.L. McDonald, the first president of the Chicago Area Council. At about the same time a third camp, Camp James E. West, was opened and founded by Carroll A. Edson. He had just come from the national headquarters and named it after his former boss, the first Scout Executive. Carroll Edson was also the co-founder of the Order of the Arrow. In 1935, Camp McDonald was renamed after J. Robert Stuart, the president of the most popular cereal company in the country at the time – Quaker Oats. He later became U.S. Ambassador to Canada. The Stuart family was to be a major contributor to Owasippe through the mid-1970s. We believe it is at this time that the camps together became known simply as Owasippe. The property would later to grow over 12,000 acres.
These individual section camps were predominantly associated with individual districts within the Chicago Area Council, and the Scouts would form their troops in the city and board a steamer vessel in Chicago for the adventure across Lake Michigan. In these first years, the Scouts would arrive at the pier in Whitehall, load their gear on trucks, and hike the 4 miles from town to Owasippe. If you have a chance to visit the White Lake Lighthouse, check out the exhibit about the S.S. Carolina. It was one of the boats bringing Scouts to Owasippe. In later years, the Scouts would travel by train around the lake and disembark at what was called “Scout Station.” This was just a spot on the Pere Marquette railroad where they would stop and drop off the Scouts and their gear.
In 1926, the Scouts of the West Side district finally had enough troops coming to camp to support their own camp, and so Camp Blackhawk was opened on Big Blue. The dining hall was located about 1000 yards east of the current location, but more on that later.
In accordance with the custom of the time, the Boy Scouts adhered to the now-dismissed rule of separate but equal, and Camp Belnap was opened for Scouts of the Douglas Division for African-American Scouts. That camp, contrary to common belief, was not located on Big Blue until the great depression when camps were consolidated due to cost. Until that time, Belnap was actually located between two lakes, Lake John Adams and Lake Ojibwa, at the intersection of White Lake Drive and Blue Lake Drive, some distance southeast of our current reservation. In 1948, segregation in Scouting was ended and Belnap, then sharing Hiawatha Beach, was closed.
During the passage of time, several lone-troop camps were opened where Troops would bring their own leadership and staff and maintain a complete program of their own. These were camps like Bass Lake, located east of the current Reneker Family Camp; Camp Hiawatha Beach (Hi-Beach) located northwest of Blackhawk on Big Blue Lake; and Camp Checaugau, roughly located on the hills where current-day Blackhawk sits; and Camp Frontier located on Wolverine lake. Camp Wilderness was opened as a small, more rustic camp located west of the original Camp Blackhawk. Camps Checaugau and Blackhawk closed during the depression and the Camp Checaugau dining hall burned to the ground in 1936. When campers returned to the Blackhawk site in 1937 through 1948 it was called Camp Pioneer. A new Camp Blackhawk was reopened in 1949.
Scout camping in the Chicago Area Council remained virtually unchanged until the early 1960s when the Scout Executive and Board of Directors decided it was time to revitalize the over-used camping properties. Alden Barber, the Scout Executive, led a major capital drive which resulted in the opening of Camps Wolverine North and Wolverine South, along with a new Family Camp and the Administration Center and its facilities in 1964. The original Family Camp was opened in 1917, but the camp as it appears now was built at this time. Several years after the 1964 revitalization, Family Camp was renamed Reneker Family Camp after Bob and Betty Reneker, President of Esmark, Inc. and owners of a line of sporting goods stores in northern Indiana. Alden Barber became the 5th Chief Scout Executive, serving from 1967 to 1976.
In 1969 a camp on Wolverine Lake was opened and named for the small catch basin lake in its back campsites, Sauger Lake. Its first Camp Director was Gordy Zion. It was later renamed after the Council President, Ray Carlen. Ray was president of Inland Steel Corp. As you drive the roads of Owasippe, you find porous gravel that looks out of place. This is zinc slag from the Inland Steel mills, and it makes outstanding road fill. In 1970 a couple of staffmen were wasting time at Ad-Center during shoes-off time and the Reservation Director came out of his office and offered the keys to his shiny new jeep to drive “John” around the camp. When they were done showing off, Judge John Crown (Arie Crown Theater, Material Service Corporation) walked in and wrote a check to finish the camp named for his brother, Camp Robert Crown. It opened in 1970 and its first Camp Director was Charlie Largent. Camp Carlen and Crown were closed as full service camps in 1989, but they were used off and on for a couple of years and Carlen re-opened as a Webelos resident camp in 2009. Both Carlen and Crown have been used by other youth groups over the years and as the High Adventure base.
Camp West closed in 1965. After the 1968 camping season the Beard dining hall was torn down (before it fell into the lake), and after the 1970 camp season the camp was closed. In 1977, the Ranger staff asked the Owasippe Staff Association to bear the burden of clearing out the Stuart dining hall as we closed the camp.
In 1973, a small group of us were taken to the ruins of the Camp Wilderness lodge by the Assistant Scout Executive, Dick Wilson. He told us this was where we were going to build the new Camp Blackhawk. My reaction was “This isn’t Blackhawk, Blackhawk is down there.” Apparently, the Stuart family had just given the Chicago Area Council a considerable sum to rebuild Camp Blackhawk on this new site, and the camp now also includes what was Camp Pioneer, Camp Checaugau, and Camp Wilderness, the names of the three hills on which Camp Blackhawk is currently situated.
In 1981, the spring fix-it project for the Owasippe Staff Association was to put the roof planks on the Blackhawk dining hall and shingle it. The current dining hall was opened and the water lines and electrical lines were being completed as Scouts showed up for first period! Earlier that year, as we were walking the lakeshore and had just determined the location of the new camp fire bowl, one of the oldest Scouters in the Chicago Area Council, Sheridan Nunn, walked me to the shore and turned to me and said, “On this site in 1922, I was standing with Dr. Goodman as he wrote the Owasippe Hymn.” I was just smart enough to recognize: “Holy Cow, this is cool!” Sheridan Nunn was a 1922 Ordeal member of the OA, and a 1929 Vigil Honor member. E. Urner Goodman was founder of the OA and Chicago Scout Executive 1927 – 1931.
In 2011 Owasippe marked its 100th anniversary.
So, you are embarking on the next evolution of Owasippe – the Next 100 Years. The history from here on is being written by you, the current staff person. Hopefully, this has given you some background of our great camp. May you hold her dear in your heart. The friends you make here are like none other!
Board Member, Chicago Area Council
Owasippe Camper: Beard 1964 – 1966; Stuart 1967
Owasippe Staff: Beard 1968; Stuart 1969; Beard 1970; Stuart 1971 & 1972; Wolverine South 1973
Volunteer Staff: 1974 – Present