During the early part of the 20th century, the primary program vehicle for serving Methodist youth and young adults was the Institute — an occasion for large groups of young people to gather for worship, Bible study, evangelistic exhortation, and spiritual growth. In Southern Illinois, these Institutes were sponsored by Districts. Three of the largest and best-known were at McKendree (adjacent to the McKendree College Campus), Beulah, and Louisville (the last two in partnership with Holiness Associations).
Across Methodism, beginning in the late 1920s, as more and more Methodist young people came from urban settings and had little contact with the out-of-doors, there arose a movement to provide “adventure camp” experiences focusing on small-group experiences in more primitive settings. A number of pastors and lay people in the Southern Illinois Conference of The United Methodist Church desired to make these “adventure camp” experiences available in addition to the established Institute
In 1948, Rev. Gail Hines and Rev. Bill Lirely started “A Christian Adventure Camp” (also known as ACAC), where Methodist young people came to Giant City State Park for a week of outdoor experiences and worship while living in the old Civilian Conservation Corps barracks. There were 27 campers and 4 counselors this first year. Mona Estes Rybacki, one of those first campers, remembers: “The camp was structured with wake-up at 7, breakfast at 8, then devotions. We would have devotions for 30 minutes and then go by ourselves for our own private meditations. A workshop followed, then lunch and then an hour of rest. In the afternoon we played baseball, or went on hikes led by Mrs. Gerkin from Belleville or Mr. Pressley from Makanda. We would have an hour in the canteen then clean up and all girls would wear skirts or dresses for the supper hour and evening program. Lights out at 9 p.m.”
Soon after this, Rev. Gail Hines learned about an area set aside by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on the perimeter of Little Grassy Lake, which was then under construction, for camping and outdoor education under the sponsorship of churches and other service organizations. According to Bishop William Lewis, “Gail took it upon himself at first to explore the land around the lake and investigate how to go about acquiring a site for the Conference. The site secured was only 40 acres at the outset, but later acquisitions more than tripled its size. Gail’s initial dream for the camp was strictly as a wilderness site with emphasis upon outdoor experiences for youth. He did not want to see it developed extensively and did not anticipate it becoming an alternative site for a youth institute. He enlisted the support of others and succeeded in getting the Conference to buy into his dream sometime in the early fifties. Soon after
this the Camps & Conferences Commission was established and took over the operation of Little Grassy Lake.”
Camping at Little Grassy began in 1951. Rev. Earl Dickey remembers that he and Gail Hines each took a double-bitted axe and cut the first trail down, to the lake; weeds were fifteen feet tall, and the seeds dropped down their shirt collars and made them very uncomfortable. The first few summers, campers from the ACAC at Giant City State Park came to Little Grassy to spend one or two nights camping in tents, cooking some meals over open fires and traveling back to Giant City for other meals. Before the lake was filled, some campers helped to shape the beach area and to spread sand. Leon. Smith hired out his bulldozer for $5 per hour to develop the beach. Dr. Clyde Todd, the District Superintendent at the time, shot squirrels and made squirrel stew for workers. In 1951, a counselor brought a tent and a local funeral home donated the use of another for camping out; the first night there was a terrible deluge, but all were safe!
During these early years, Earl Dickey bought food from local farmers and from the public market in St. Louis, and he remembers with pride that there were excellent meals for a cost of 350 per meal. Gradually, the site was developed for camping, and soon Giant City was not used except for day trips. Tents were replaced by “hogans” — platforms of wood or concrete with wooden hoops which were covered by canvas to make shelters. Each hogan could hold 5 campers and a counselor, and each weekly camp was designed for 60 campers total Wash-houses were built to provide toilet and shower facilities. One of the early buildings is now a part of Cedar Lodge, and was built to provide kitchen and dining facilities. Earl Dickey remembers that before city water was piped in, he borrowed a tanker truck from Porter Brothers in Murphysboro, filled it with water, and backed it up to a window, running a hose to the sinks.
In 1951, the first day camp for younger children was started , under the direction of Mrs. Hines. Children from Murphysboro, Carterville, Carbondale, and DeSoto were bused out for the day.
Worship was always a central part of the camp experience at Little Grassy. Opening and closing night services were held next to the lake. Several campers have shared their memories of these services, when a torch was brought across the lake in a canoe to light the campfire. Bill Lirely developed an alternative to this service, running a wire from high in a tree down to the campfire and stationing a counselor in the tree with matches. At the high point of the service, Bill would pray for the light of Christ to come down upon the campers, The counselor would light a bunch of oily waste and slide it down the wire to light the campfire. On one occasion, the counselor forgot to take matches up with him, and the campers were highly amused when Bill kept praying for the light of Christ to come down while nothing happened! Inspiration Point, looking out over the lake, was a beautiful setting for worship and personal devotions. It is still a center of camp worship, although trees have grown up so that the lake is no longer visible from Inspiration Point.
Very soon, other pastors in the area, including a District Superintendent, became interested in starting an institute at the site and began to develop the Aldersgate Youth Institute and to construct buildings suitable for Institute activities. The Revs. Ralph Totten and Don Carlton were very active in leadership of this Institute. In 1969, the cost of a week at Aldersgate Institute was $18 (compared to $302 in 2003). In these early years, much use was made of volunteers which kept cost down; in later years, expectations of comfort, costs of insurance, requirements by regulatory agencies, etc. have made camping a much more costly experience. Eventually a number of living cabins were built by local churches and district groups. The tabernacle was constructed in 1958 to provide a setting for evangelistic worship services which are a central part of the Institute experience. Soon after this, the semi-circular rock wall at nearby Inspiration Point was constructed. Eventually, the more primitive camping experiences were abandoned, and all housing was done in cabins and dormitories.
Joe Hankla began camping at Little Grassy in 1957, serving as manager from 1962 to 1976. During that time, he also served as Director of Camping for the Southern Illinois Conference. During Joe’s time, many of the existing buildings were built, and a number of exciting off-site programs were developed. The grounds of the old McKendree Institute were sold, and the proceeds were used to develop Little Grassy. Two hundred and forty two acres of land around Lick Creek, about 10 miles from Little Grassy, which included Lily Cave, were purchased and called “Lost ValIey." A log lodge was built and several large canvas teepees were set up. For a number of years, this site was heavily used b yLessie Bates Davis Neighborhood house in East St. Louis. For five weeks each summer, 125-130 inner-city children and youth would be brought for a camping experience. Some meals were brought over from Little Grassy, while others were cooked on site. Eventually it became too difficult to maintain this site, which was then sold to help pay for the Massada Lodge.
Also, during this period, a canoe base site was developed on the Current River in Missouri. For nearly 15 years, this site hosted nearly 600 canoe campers a summer, and was administered from Little Grassy. With increasing federal and state regulation, increases in transportation costs, etc., the canoe site became economically infeasible, and so was taken out of operation.
As time went on, the camp became more fully developed. In 1985, the Massada Lodge was opened, providing year-round retreat facilities. The camp was more widely used by adult groups, by family camps, and by non-Methodist user groups. In the late 1980s, a fully-developed site just north of Little Grassy Camp was abandoned by a Seventh Day Adventist group, and was gradually taken over by the United Methodists, providing many more facilities for camp use, but also requiring a great deal more
Changes in policy and administration by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have had lasting effects on the operation of Little Grassy United Methodist Camps. Also, the surrounding area has experienced substantial growth and development. Little Grassy United Methodist Camp is the closest conference facility to the rapidly-growing Metro East area, and so has a growing base of churches and individuals who can be easily served. The coming years will continue to be a time of change and growth for the camp.
New opportunities for service will be accompanied by changes in familiar and comfortable patterns of operation. With God’s help and guidanóe, the camp will move into the 21st century committed to finding effective ways of reaching people with the gospel of Jesus Christ.