Yes, I will admit to it because the video has already been published. During my ten-day August Road Trip through the Dakotas, I had the opportunity to go ziplining over a river at the Wesley Acres UM Camp and Retreat Center in Dazey, North Dakota. How cool is that for a United Methodist camp? I was a bit skittish, but it was a great experience.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the Dakotas Road trip was spending time and staying overnight at our three United Methodist camps. Lake Poinsett (South Dakota), Wesley Acres, (South Dakota) and Storm Mountain (North Dakota) Camp and Retreat Centers are all vital ministries in the Dakotas. Iowa has two United Methodist Camp and Retreat Centers, Lake Okoboji and Wesley Woods UM Camp. All five of these facilities host many week-long camps and retreats every year.
Each camp is amazing and vital. But today I want to tell you about first stop in South Dakota, Lake Poinsett. I fell in love with the facilities, the beautiful United Methodist church, and the water, especially when we were able to watch a gorgeous sunset while drifting in the middle of the lake. I was particularly grateful when Camp Director Christy Heflin gave me a book to read during our ten days of driving over 2,000 miles.
The Lake Poinsett Story; A Venture in Faith, authored by Lewis C. Reimann and published in 1957, tells the history of camping in the Dakotas in the context of Lake Poinsett. Although Bishop Edwin Edgar Voight wrote the Foreward to the book sixty-four years ago, his words could well apply to our day. “What we do with our youth is the most critical task of the Church. They are the Church of tomorrow. The way they are guided into the fellowship of the Church and find a creative place in it, calls for the most judicious effort. It is well for a Conference to take an occasional look at its effort in this connection.”[i]
The year was 1945, the same time that World War 2 was coming to an end. An idea began to form in the hearts and minds of United Methodists in both the Northern and Southern districts to build one joint camp. A natural place seemed to be on the shores of Lake Poinsett, which was near the center of both the northern and southern districts and is the largest lake in the Dakotas, with 8500 acres of water.
It was suggested that a good person to contact would be Charlie Smith, who owned a dance hall, a skating rink, and a tavern and restaurant on the south side of Lake Poinsett. The location was ideal, with a sandy beach. When Smith was asked his thoughts on a location, he said, “You gents don’t have to look farther. I’ll sell you the buildings and throw in the land, or I’ll sell you the land and throw in the buildings.”[ii]
When one of the committee members asked about the price, Smith said, “My price is $12,000, lock-stock-and-barrel… That’s my price and not a cent less.”
“What about the down payment and terms?”
“I’ll take $1,200 down and give you until next June to complete the final payment.”[iii]
The committee began a conversation. Is this the right location on the lake, on the south side? As they toured the buildings, a Rev. Wagar said, “Somehow every one of us felt in our souls that this was ‘the site,’ and that it would not be hard for Methodism to sanctify the place if only we had a chance.”[iv] The committee had a vision of what this land could become for God’s kingdom.
An executive committee for the Southern District was established and was given the power to finalize the purchase as long as the majority of boards in the Northern District also agreed. A majority of churches voted “yes.” After the initial negotiations were complete, Charlie Smith decided he would no longer sell beer, saying “If the Methodists are going to use the place, I don’t want to sell liquor again.”[v] As a sidebar, along with the purchase of the property came the liquor license. It might be the only time a Methodist church has ever owned a liquor license!
On April 1, 1946, the Methodists took possession of the camp, with a goal to accommodate 300 campers and staff. Immediately, volunteers went to work to clear the land and rehabilitate old structures. At the same time, all of the Methodist churches were asked to calculate whatever 5% of their pastor’s salary was and pledge that amount as their contribution to the project. Time was of the essence since the first “Camp Institute” was to be held in that same spring.
What an amazing year it was! Now that World War II was over, many volunteers from all over thoroughly cleaned the waterfront, and the Army base in Sioux Falls released 200 mattresses that were no longer needed. They bought 99 double bunk beds at 25 cents each; 150 iron beds at $1 each; roasters at $3.00 each. Six stock trucks arrived full of tables and benches, costing $16.00.
That first 1946 season offered sleeping capacity for 120 campers and counselors. The old dance hall was used by 80 or so girls, and 46 boys stayed in the icehouse (they named the icehouse the “Waldorf-Astoria!”). Leaders had a vision of ten lodges, five classroom cottages, a garage and storage space, a handicraft shop, the superintendent home, a chapel waterfront dock, recreational equipment, and reconstruction of buildings, all done by hundreds of Methodist volunteers.[vi]
In 1948, Camp Superintendent Fred Hubbard wrote to a friend, “We found the people more than willing to give and we could have secured more if we had asked for it. I am convinced that all we have to do is call on the people and tell the story and we will get all the money we need for the camp.”[vii]
In the midst of ongoing post-war restrictions, it cost $220,000.00 to purchase the site, erect the buildings, and buy necessary equipment. Everyone joined in the effort, even non- Methodists! There was a campfire service every evening by the lake, and in the summer of 1951, 24 young people dedicated their lives to full-time Christian vocations. On June 1, 1952, the Methodist camp at Lake Poinsett was formally dedicated.
Seventy years later, Lake Poinsett United Methodist Camp is still going strong, even after camp leaders made the difficult decision to suspend conference-sponsored summer programs in 2020 because of COVID. Under its tagline, “Inviting campers and guests to experience Christ, creation and community through camp and retreat ministries,” Lake Poinsett had a full 2021 summer season, with appropriate guidelines in place to assure safety for all.
Call on the people and tell the story. Isn’t that the heart of the gospel? Time and again, I have been a part of churches where all we needed to do in order to grow was tell the story of how God is calling us to witness to the love of Jesus and change the world. When we share as well as live out the story, people respond. For there is a deep yearning in each one of us to embody the image of God through our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. When we engage in the venture of faith and invite others to be a part of this amazing story of God’s love, lives are transformed forever – especially at camp.
PS – About that Zip Line at Wesley Acres. They are attempting to raise funds to make it even longer! If you would like to support our life-changing camps in either the Dakotas or Iowa, here’s a quick way to do so.
[i] The Lake Poinsett Story; A Venture in Faith, Lewis C. Reiman, Lake Poinsett Methodist Camp, 1957, vii.
[ii] Ibid, p. 4
[iv] Ibid, p. 5.
[v] Ibid, p. 8.
[vi] Ibid, p. 28.
[vii] Ibid, p. 40.