Lake Echon needed a bridge
By Anna Spoerre
It was the mid-1960s, and Jim Kathmann Jr., an iron worker out of East St. Louis and member of Camp Ondessonk’s original board of directors, took up the task.
He sat down with a pencil and paper and began sketching up visions of a bridge, consulting his friends about the details and recruiting them to help make it a reality.
“It never entered my mind that it couldn’t be accomplished,” said Jo Kathmann, wife of the late Jim Kathmann. “You see, a momentum was built in those early years.”
There was a mindset that anything could be constructed if enough minds were put to the task, she said.
“We were all there for one purpose: to make something for children,” Jo said.
But it wasn’t always easy.
Jim, a young husband and new father, was gone 21 weekends in a row leading the construction of what would soon be known as the Garner Bridge.
“Weekend after weekend after weekend,” Jo said, recalling the seasons changing as the bridge went up. “I mean, you talk about dedication and Christianity.”
There wasn’t a huge garage full of tools at the time. Every man had to come equipped with not only his own knowledge, but also his own supplies. Donations were the name of the game then and now, Jo said.
She helped with fundraisers and marketing as word spread about the new 210-foot-long suspension bridge.
Jo quipped that she felt like a war widow at times as each week her husband made the couple hour drive from their Belleville home to Ozark, leaving her at home with their young children.
But Jo had been a unit leader at Camp and founding board member herself, and had watched her father, for whom Kane Lake is named, serve as a doctor the first summer camp was in session. She understood the force that was driving her husband to build something so grand from the ground up.
“Aside from the fact of missing him terribly in those very early years because he was gone so much, … on the other hand I knew it was such a wonderful thing,” Jo said.
Eventually, on May 19, 1968, the Garner Bridge was opened after the dedication of Lake Echon. A sign fixed to the towering structure stood as a memory of Larry Garner, camp’s first riding instructor and a unit leader who went on to be a soldier in Vietnam. He died in combat.
“It was huge and it was big and of course the kids loved it,” Jo said. “They thought it was a blast.”
Jo, who now lives in Collinsville, said looking back, she considers Jim and herself just a small part of Camp’s history because there were hundreds of other people who also threw their minds, money, and backs into etching each new structure onto Camp’s future map.
“But of course, it’s wonderful to be a part of something so big when you’re just a little tiny thing, and you think ‘oh my God,’ how did this ever get to be what it is?” she said.
Jo said she feels lucky, and proud, to have been a part of it.
“I think today in particular, because we’ll get past COVID,” Jo said. “But to be out of doors and to relate with nature and an experience for the children that can take them off the computers and social media and realize that there’s something else that doesn’t come out of a screen. To learn to appreciate trees, water, rocks, hills. You know, companionship, the beauty of nature. How can anybody just pass over that?”