By Lisa Schmelz | Photo courtesy Norman B. Barr Camp
When Nancy Samuelson and her husband eloped in 1952, her parents took the news of their secret nuptials remarkably well. But her father did take her new husband aside for a brief tête-à-tête:
“He said to him ‘You’ve got to promise me just one thing, and that is you will bring her to camp every summer.’ So Sam did that,” recalls Samuelson. “It was not Sam’s camp, but he grew to love that place.”
That place is Norman B. Barr Camp. The 112-year-old slice of Americana is a nonprofit, six-acre camp that sports 190 feet of Geneva Lake shoreline in Williams Bay and has an operating model like no other.
Its members feature families who’ve been coming to “camp” for generations. In the early 1900s, they stayed in tents. Over the years, humble cottages were added. However, families at Barr Camp don’t own their cottages. Instead, their nominal seasonal fees support a faith- based mission: To provide a free, week- long camp experience to deserving children. In addition to continuing a family tradition, these “cottagers,” as they call themselves, also provide hundreds of volunteer hours to keep the camp running.
Samuelson’s parents, Stephen and Pearle (Bladle) Poyten, were among the first children campers here, coming from an immigrant neighborhood in Chicago. Nancy is 89 today, widowed by her beloved Winfield, who everyone called Sam, and has outlived two of her three sons. Still, she rattles off the history of her family’s ties to this storied spot with a heartfelt and matter-of-fact ease.
“My parents brought me to camp when I was 6 months old and they’re original camp people. They came through Olivet church in Chicago, through Dr. Norman Barr. Camp was not like it is now … My dad came when he was 9 and that meant my mother was also 9. They were with the children being served there. They were neighborhood kids and Dr. Barr brought the kids up to camp. He wanted them out of the city for the summer.”
IMPROVING CHICAGO FAMILIES’ LIVES
Dr. Norman B. Barr was born in Mount Palatine, Illinois, on January 27, 1868, the son of Lawrence Clay and Harriet Amanda (Ferry) Barr. After earning a bachelor’s degree in 1893 from the University of Nebraska, he entered the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Chicago. Ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church in 1897, he assumed pastoral duties at Olivet Presbyterian Church on Chicago’s near north side and remained until his retirement in 1937.
From the start, Barr had an eye on improving local lives. His congregation was in a neighborhood known as “Little Hell” or “Hell’s Kitchen,” depending on who you talked to. Its name, says Barr Camp board member Chuck Erickson, came from a nearby factory that covered the area in soot. Layer the soot with poverty and crime and you had what many new European immigrants were facing. Instead of finding streets of gold in America, they found crowded cities and squalid tenements.
“The neighborhood where the Olivet Institute (a social services program run by the Olivet Church) was located was a rough neighborhood, but the churches there worked to change that. Norman Barr was a person in the mold of Jane Addams,” says Erickson.
Nancy Brown, who oversees children’s programming at Barr Camp, adds that the conditions Barr’s parishioners were living in steered his ministry. “Norman B. Barr, at the turn of century in Chi- cago, hung out with all the Progressives in that area, who were thinking about how [they] could provide some recre- ation and respite from the effects of the industrialization that was happening in Chicago,” she says. Brown of Darien, Illinois, still spends summers in the cottage her parents, Hank and Pat French, brought her to when she was a child.
As the story goes, Barr was familiar with Geneva Lake and was a speaker in 1908 at a conference at what was then the YMCA camp and is now George Williams College of Aurora University. He took a walk west on the shore path and happened on the Vralia Heights Metaphysical School. It’s possible he knew its owner, Dr. Alice B. Stockham, needed to sell quickly. The fifth licensed woman medical doctor in America, Stockham — who was also a prolific author and suffragist — founded Vralia Heights as a venue for those embracing new ways of thinking. For eight years under the Vralia banner, lectures and seminars here focused on “nature, the esotericism of Beethoven … and sex,” according to the book “Lake Geneva: Newport of the West.” But when Stockham, was found guilty of indecency for sending her books on sex and reproduction through U.S. mail, she was forced to close her successful publishing company and liquidate her assets.
A NEW GENEVA LAKE CAMP EMERGES
Stockham’s need to sell Vralia quickly meant Barr was able to purchase the property for a reported $9,000, renaming it Olivet Institute Camp. The only building that came with the sale was near the lakeshore and it eventually became the camp dining hall and office. Today, the camp also includes a chapel for weekly services, children’s dorm, camp store and a rec room.
Samuelson recalls hearing that it was the boys of Hell’s Kitchen who were shuttled up to camp first in 1909. How long they stayed, she does not know. She does know her mother also made it up here in that inaugural wave of children. Early camp lodging consisted of tents on platforms. Water was transported from a spring at nearby Holiday Home Camp.
When Samuelson’s parents married, they continued coming to camp each summer, eventually bringing their own daughters.
Most everyone who summers here has a similar story. Deedy Payne, whose sister is Nancy Brown, says they first came to camp in the early ‘60s. Her parents were East Coast natives, living in the Chicago area, and her father made inquiries after they arrived on where folks went for the summer.
“One of his work colleagues said, ‘Well, we go to this camp on Lake Geneva. It’s a Christian camp, a church camp, and you are more than welcome to go up and use our cottage for a week.’ So we went up there, we kids, myself, my sister and my brother and my parents, and we fell in love with it and begged our parents to not go home,” says Payne.
Instantly, the family was hooked on Barr Camp. “We would leave the day after school got out and not go back until the day before school started,” Payne says.
Payne and Brown both continued the tradition with their own husbands, children and now grandchildren. Times change, but summer doesn’t.
“What do you need in summer when you’re a kid?” asks Brown. “All we needed was to throw some shorts on and a tee shirt and run outside. We were outside all the time. It’s still the same.”
A TIMELESS MISSION
Also still the same is the camp’s mission. Summer after summer, kids from various Chicago-area nonprofits, churches and schools make their way to Geneva Lake’s shores. For the week they are here, they, too, are family, enjoying everything the lake has to offer. Asked to explain a typical day, Brown says it’s a lot like a vacation Bible school only with dorms.
“The kids come on Monday morning and we have a full program and activities all day and all evening. They have great camp food,” says Brown. “Because we are faith-based, we do have a devotional they participate in, in the morning. There is hiking, swimming, a lot of swimming, kayaking, fishing. We have vespers on Tuesday night, and that’s been forever that we have had that, and the whole camp comes together. We have a talent show and a movie night, where they bring their sleeping bags down to the lake and watch a movie outside.”
Mixed in are other opportunities Barr Camp arranges like art or drumming classes, magic shows, or even kite festivals. In some cases, child campers later become camp counselors. The camp also serves adults with developmental disabilities.
“It’s a playground,” Brown says of the camp’s draw. “It’s a dream place for a kid, really … and it’s a dream place for my grandkids and the other kids that come here.”
It’s also a dream place for “kids” entering their ninth decade of life. Samuelson says she can’t wait for camp to open every year — especially this year. Camp was open last year, but the pandemic meant no communal dining, no chapel services with visiting pastors on Sundays and no children from the city in the camp’s dorms. Just the cottagers who felt safe enough to make their annual pilgrimage. This summer, Barr Camp will again serve deserving children, but in a day camp format due to COVID-19 precautions.
Samuelson will be there, too, sitting on the pier, enjoying her ritual 3 p.m. ice cream cone, attending chapel, visiting with people she’s known her whole life and baiting fishhooks for kids on the pier.
“Oh, yes,” she exclaims. “I will be there if I have to crawl. I’m using a walker now and it’s a permanent attachment, but I don’t care. Just so long as I can get to camp. That whole camp is my family.”