The story of Camp Wood YMCA’s founding is not a well-known one. In fact, most campers only know that there was a family by the last name of Wood and that long ago, they donated some land. But the Wood Family was no ordinary family and their legacy of service to Camp Wood did not end 100 years ago. Their values, well-matched to those of the YMCA, remain at the heart of the Camp Wood YMCA experience even a century after our founding.
A search begins.
Prior to the Wood Family’s involvement, the origins of Camp Wood can be traced to the Chapman, Kansas YMCA, where Hi-Y clubs for teenage boys first began in 1889. The clubs were designed to build Christian character through sportsmanship, scholastic achievement and leadership training. Soon, Hi-Y clubs spread to YMCAs throughout the U.S.
Summer camps began to play an important role in Hi-Y clubs. Young men, (and later, young women) flocked to Hi-Y camps to enjoy not only archery and canoeing, but to listen to speeches on the importance of leadership and values and service. In Kansas, these Hi-Y camps were held at various locations throughout the state and even as far away as Colorado. But in 1914, Hi-Y leaders sought a permanent location for their camps.
A search committee was formed and letters were sent to every YMCA field secretary in Kansas—“Do you know of a site that might be available?”
One of those letters arrived on the desk of field secretary, Clarence Wood. He shared it with his elderly father, a retired stockman and farmer named Stephen.
Born in Ohio in 1832 to a Quaker family, Stephen Wood grew up listening to his parents talk about the importance of respect for others. His parents were against slavery and his mother, Esther, was an early advocate of women’s suffrage.
At the age of 21, Stephen married schoolteacher, Caroline Breese, and the two moved to Iowa where they had two sons. When the Civil War broke out, Stephen joined the Union army. After the war, the young family packed up their belongings and headed to “the frontier” of Chase County, Kansas to join Stephen’s older brother, Samuel, who had worked as an abolitionist during the days of Bleeding Kansas, helping escaped slaves to reach freedom through the Underground Railroad.
The two brothers would go on to be important leaders in the state. Older brother, Samuel, would introduce Kansas’ first resolution in favor of women’s suffrage and when it was rejected, continue to advocate for it through his newspaper, The Chase County Banner. Younger brother, Stephen, twice represented his community in the state legislature and was also elected to the state Senate. In addition, he served as a regent of the nation’s first land grant college, Kansas State Agricultural College (today’s Kansas State University) and “no small part of the progress of the college in those eventful days was due to the clear insight…of Mr. Wood” according to historian J.D. Walters.
But for all their public involvement in political and civic affairs of the state, Stephen and Caroline were also well-known for their personal integrity and a commitment to living their values at home in Chase County. From nearly the moment they arrived in Kansas, their home (which at that time was just a small homesteader’s log cabin) was a center of hospitality and culture in the community. They welcomed everyone from traveling ministers to politicians to Native Americans in need of food or shelter. They were very involved in their church and were always ready to help those in need.
In fact, the two were so well-loved by the community, that for their 58th wedding anniversary a ceremony and reception were organized in their honor. On that May day in 1911, more than 200 people gathered to watch 77 year-old Caroline, clasping a bouquet of white roses, and 78 year-old Stephen, renew their vows under an arbor of rose garlands. Afterward, everyone gathered over fried chicken and wedding cake to celebrate the much-loved couple.
It was just 3 years later when Stephen’s son, Clarence, shared the search committee letter. The work of the YMCA and Hi-Y camps were already well-known to 82 year-old Stephen. Clarence was currently a field secretary for the local YMCA and Stephen’s grandson, Howard, had attended Hi-Y camps. The YMCA mission—to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all—must have resonated with Stephen, a man who had spent his entire life living out his faith in service and respect for others.
What’s more, it was 1914 and Stephen recognized the sounds of war escalating in Europe. Young people like his grandson, Howard, would need skills and values like those taught at Hi-Y camps to solve the world’s problems. Stephen told Clarence to offer three different parcels of land to the search committee.
The perfect site.
The day that the YMCA search committee arrived to tour the land offered, they met Stephen’s grandson, teenaged Howard, who was out delivering mail on his motorcycle. Howard immediately recognized committee member, Lawrence K. Hall, who had been on the staff at Hi-Y Camp the summer before. He offered to show the men his grandfather’s land.
Of the three options available, the committee quickly found their favorite in a 40 acre parcel containing some wooded bottomland and a large hilltop. It had easy railroad access (for supplies and campers to arrive), a creek that could be dammed to form a lake and beautiful views of the Cottonwood River Valley. After a polite glance at additional options offered by landowners in Peabody and Marion, the search committee unanimously chose Stephen Wood’s land as the site for their camp.
On December 7, 1915 Stephen officially signed over the land with the requirement that it always remain a YMCA camp “for the young people of Kansas”. Six months later, the first group of Hi-Y campers arrived and on June 4th, 1916, Camp Wood YMCA was dedicated at a ceremony with more than 1,500 people in attendance. Kansas Governor, Arthur Capper, was the keynote speaker.
The first of many gifts.
Just five years later, on Christmas Eve, Stephen would pass away, joining his beloved wife who had died earlier that year. The success of Camp Wood—a destination for young people from across the state every summer—brought Stephen “one of the greatest joys of his declining years” according to his son, Clarence.
The vision of a place “for the young people of Kansas” became a reality due in great part to the generosity of Stephen and Caroline. But their gift of 40 acres was just the beginning for the Wood Family.
In 1916, Caroline’s relatives, C.M. and Julia Breese, offered an additional 20 acres of land.
In 1944, Gracia Wood donated 40 more acres to camp.
Ten years later, Carrie Wood, daughter of Stephen and Caroline, left 40 acres to Camp Wood in her will.
And then in 1980, the Wood Family joined Don Coldsmith and others to save Camp Wood YMCA from closing its doors by chartering it as an independent YMCA. That August, they were the first to use the newly independent camp for the annual Wood Family Reunion.
These family reunions served as an important tie between the Wood Family and camp. Pauline “Polly” Ferrell (Clarence Wood’s granddaughter and Stephen’s great-granddaughter) described camp as “an extension of our family…where we often picnicked, played tennis, swam in the lake and held family reunions.” She remembers her son, Andy, and his cousin, Wade, who spent many family reunions in Cabin #1, “They did very little sleeping, but rather stayed up most of the night having fun,” she recalled.
Over the years, members of the Wood Family, including Polly, served on the camp Board of Directors, volunteered countless hours to do everything from painting buildings to fundraising, and of course, the entire family continues to gather at camp for family reunions. Currently, three descendants of Stephen and Caroline Wood serve on the Board of Directors—Margie Dyck, Ginny Braden and David Thurston. They carry on a proud family legacy of service to Camp Wood YMCA.
The Camp Wood YMCA Family
Today’s campers are heirs to the Wood Family legacy—a legacy that encompasses far more than land. It is a legacy of social responsibility, faith, respect for diversity, service to others and leadership. These values are hallmarks of the Camp Wood YMCA community—now a worldwide family of campers, parents, staff, volunteers and community members.
This December, as camp celebrates a century of service, we honor Stephen and Caroline Wood--the original Camp Wood YMCA family. We want to thank them for generously donating land, but we also want to honor the values that their family continues to ensure are a part of the Camp Wood YMCA experience. May their legacy live on for another 100 years!