THE BUILDING OF A CAMP (1959)
By Bill Clark
The summer after my senior year of high school I worked as a caretaker and lawnmower at King’s House of Retreats in Belleville, Illinois. I played on a baseball team in the Belleville City League. The summer after my first year of college found me in a totally new environment. Father Robert Vonnahmen had asked me to work at a youth camp being built in southern Illinois near the town of Ozark. The name of the camp was Camp Ondessonk. Ondessonk was the Native American name for St. Isaac Jogues, S.J. a priest killed by the Iroquois in upstate New York. More importantly, the labor to build the physical plant of the camp was 98% volunteer donated by the men and women of the Diocese of Belleville. I found myself part of that first volunteer crew. It was late spring 1959.
I still remember my first look at the camp. Our red Chevy station wagon pulled off the hard road on the outskirts of Ozark, Illinois on to a narrow, twisty, turning railroad bed that seemed to go on forever.
The first clearing we got to was a sandstone slab of rock on which the foundation of a large building had just been poured that was about to turn into the Dining Hall. Standing on the rock behind the Dining Hall I could look down into a valley and up a power line swath to the next hill miles away. Camp was from the very first for me a connection to the wilderness. The camp was in proximity to the Shawnee National Forest.
Our task that first four weeks was to build a camp. Parishes from all over southern Illinois sent volunteer help and funds. A lot of the tradesmen would donate their time on weekends to make their carpentry and plumbing skills available. Some would even use a week of their vacation to help build the camp.
The core of the crew during the week days were older high school boys and college age seminarians. I can remember trimming the fresh cut oak board on the roof of the cabins with hand saws. The units where the cabins were placed were scattered all over the camp. We had one or two gas army surplus generators to supply some electricity when they were running. Most of the carpentry work was done by hand. We also did an incredible amount of walking and carrying. One day I recall three or four of us were carrying one side of a cabin that we had constructed in the main part of camp. Three of us were holding one side of the wall. Bob Baker, a muscular senior at Assumption High School, East St. Louis, was holding the other side.
We worked long days. Our sleeping quarters were an old farm house some eight or nine miles from camp by road as the crow flew. We slept on cots and sleeping bags. We washed in the cold creek water or on special occasions we would heat the water on the farm house stove. With the aid of a fellow worker we would take turns standing on a slab of rock behind the farm house and have the hot water poured over us. We drank well water from the farm house or creek water from the moving stream that ran through camp. Surprisingly no one got sick. One of our theme songs during the construction was the Calypso song recorded by Harry Belafonte, “Water”. The appropriate line that fixed itself in our lives those first few weeks was “Bring me a little water every little once in a while…” A week before camp opened a well was dug and we had running water in camp. The first bath house had no hot water. The plastic pipe lay on top of the ground. The first one to shower got sun-heated water. The rest got goose bumps.
The Dining Hall was completed. It reminded me of a giant ski jump. There was no chapel. Mass was said under the overhang rock below the Dining Hall. We really pushed the opening of camp. Parents were bringing the children in the front gate while we were still putting bunks in the cabins. Our first swimming area was in the creek. Nature provided a cold, refreshing pool with a rock to jump off of into the deepest part. We cleared the trees away and put in a sand beach and a dressing room.
One personal memory was seeing my volunteer father standing by a bell on a pole. Dad had just dug a hole and dropped in the pole right behind the Dining Hall on a work weekend.
I have always looked back at the first summer at camp with awe. We took a piece of rock and a panorama of trees and hills and a creek and turned it into a camp that brought nature into the lives of thousands of young men and women of Illinois and Indiana over the last thirty years.
All of my siblings, with the exception of my sister Peg, spent their weeks at camp. And now my brother Jim’s and sister Ruth’s children have been to Ondessonk. I am proud to have been part of the unique beginning.