Camp Mt. Crags: changing lives for 66 years

by Don Mowery –
Resident director – Camps Mt. Crags/Gilmore

Christian camping experiences can forever change the lives of young and old alike; The Salvation Army’s Camp Mt. Crags, located northwest of Los Angeles, has been doing just that for the past 66 years. Situated on land rich in history, and purchased with funds donated in memory of Will Rogers, the camp has made a lasting difference in the more than 100,000 lives that have been a part of its programs.

“That was a fine prayer…that’s the kind of prayer I like…you can communicate with the Lord God Almighty without writing him a letter.” (Will Rogers-A Biography by Donald Day)

So said Will Rogers, who was encouraged when Commander Evangeline Booth prayed without reading notes at the opening of the 1932 Democratic Presidential Convention in Chicago.
Rogers admired and trusted The Salvation Army and gave thousand of dollars to help its mission, especially when it came to young people.

“Money to Rogers meant only the means of doing greater good for his fellow man. He never sought it for himself and, after he provided security for his beloved family, he once remarked while in a serious mood: Money doesn’t worry me any more. All I care about is a good blue suit. It doesn’t even have to be good.”
(Will Rogers, Ambassador of Good Will, Prince of Wit and Wisdom by P.J. O’Brien)

Rogers’ death in an airplane crash in 1935 along with his friend, Wiley Post, did not stop his love for the Army benefiting young people’s lives. In 1939 the property know known as Camp Mt. Crags was purchased (for under $20,000) with money raised by the “Will Rogers Memorial Sanitarium” to aid underprivileged children—a top priority for Rogers. The camp began that summer, and was officially called Will Rogers Memorial Camp.

A long and colorful history
The history in and around the property now known as Camp Mt. Crags is full of amazing intrigue. The Chumash Indians, one of the first inhabitants in this area, lived off the land with the many acorns, berries, wildlife, and the coastline not far away. The Chumash would start wildfires annually in different areas, both to clear land for their use and to assist vegetation growth; today, wildfires are a grave concern in the Santa Monica mountains and even controlled burning by the fire department is an extremely rare event.

In 1542 Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo—possibly the first European to see the California coastline—sailed with two ships, San Salvador and Victoria, and landed on the shore of a Chumash Indian village “Humaliwo” (now Malibu). That was the start of Spaniards moving into the land.

In 1846, Tiburcio Tapia filed a deed on property in and around the land we now call Tapia Park and Camp Mt. Crags. According to a local historian and writer, Tiburcio buried a chest of silver and gold when he heard the Americans were coming to California. He never told his family where he buried it, keeping the secret until the day he died. (Not that I spend long hours looking for it…but if I ever stumbled across this treasure chest, what an opportunity that would offer in funding our summer program!)

In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, giving California over to the U.S. Soon after, Congress passed the Homestead Act, which allowed citizens to gain title to 160 acres of land by living on it for five years and improving it or by paying $1.25 an acre if not living on it. Ranches and adobes started to slowly spout up in the Santa Monica Mountains. In and around 1920, the soon-to-be president, Herbert Hoover, would have been spotted on more than one occasion hiking, fishing and hunting the land. His good friend and Stanford classmate, John Mott built and lived in an adobe, which can still be seen just outside the fence that borders Camp Mt. Crags with Malibu State Creek Park.

By the early 20th century, this area in Malibu Canyon had been popular as a recreation area. Families from Los Angeles drove out to enjoy the scenery while the land attracted hunters and fishermen. The roaring twenties brought in country roads and underground water systems and more and more permanent residences in the canyon.

Army camping begins
On June 26, 1939, The Salvation Army started the summer camp program, giving an outdoor experience to 1,100 boys and girls that inaugural year. The first week of camp was for boys only and the summer continued with a variety of seven-day camps, including several weeks just for girls. That summer included a specific week for music camp, which remains a constant tradition. The camp fee in 1939 was $1 per day, to cover all expenses except transportation.

An old flyer from that summer claimed that admission to camp was for “Any boy or girl of good moral character between the ages of 10 and 18 who will abide by the rules of the camp.” The purpose for that first camp was to assist in building the lives of young people. “Educators and public officials endorse the camp idea, saying that even a short week of camp life for the growing boy or girl often means the difference between success and failure, and good citizenship,” stated the initial camp brochure.

The activities that first summer included swimming in the concrete pool, baseball, football, horseshoes, tether ball, ping pong, archery, badminton, volleyball, fishing, photography, leather braiding, wood work, plastic work, and copper work. Each morning started around flag raising, calisthenics and then a good breakfast. Each evening ended at what was then called council ring and what we now call campfire. According to some of the old-timers who were there that summer, during the evening council ring, campers would enjoy weinie roasts and a watermelon treat and end the day by repeating the camp pledge. And if the weather permitted, campers would participate in “night bathing in the pool.”

Times have changed
Today we have indoor plumbing, Internet, and golf carts at summer camp. In the “good ol days” water was pumped from a deep well into a concrete reservoir and was tested regularly by the County Health Department. Sixty gallons of milk was delivered every day from a local dairy; sleeping mattresses were placed outside near the pool every day, hoping the sun would kill potential germs, since polio was a concern at the time and it was uncertain how to prevent it.

The camp’s outdoor latrines, nicknamed “John” and “Sylvia,” had to be cleared each week by staff to prepare for the new camp. To do this, they would toss kerosene into the waste and burn it. The swimming pool 66 years ago had no filters and needed to be emptied and refilled every so often to maintain some cleanliness in the water.
Today, you can enjoy an awesome view of the “big cross” from camp, or if you are up for the hike, you can see camp from a different perspective: 1,710 feet above sea level. The first “big cross” to be placed in that spot, which is officially named Brents Mountain, was placed there during the summer of 1939 and was erected by a group of young Salvationists attending a territorial future youth leader course. The group included Carl, Clenton and Edwina Irby, Rowena (Busse) Loo, Lt. Gerald Clayton, Capt. Minniebelle Shannon, Bill Bently, Dorothy Phillips, Fred Robinson, Billie Crawford, and Johnie Simunovich. That “big cross” lasted for years until it was vandalized and replaced by yet another group of young people in 1990. That group was led by Harry Cisar and Eric Dahlberg and was built to last a few more centuries.

Focus and mission remain
Today, 66 years later and after 100,000 campers have experienced this wonderful place of refuge, a lot of changes have occurred—and yet the focus and the mission of camp remain the same. Camp Mt. Crags exists to serve the young people of the communities of Southern California. The primary goal is to provide a Christian camping experience that will quicken the spirit and change the lives of our youth. Camp builds resiliency and self-confidence and enhances physical, social, educational, and spiritual needs. Although most kids don’t ask their parents to send them to camp to find God, being in God’s awesome outdoors, with the unique program and the wonderful Christian staff, somehow create a special awareness of his presence.

Camp property remains hallowed ground to many. Chapel used to be in the outdoors in an area once known as Church in the Wildwood and then Chapel Grove. Even though chapel is now in an air conditioned building, God continues to work in the lives of young and old campers who come to this place of refuge, as well as the other 43 camps The Salvation Army operates in the U.S.

A lasting change

Chance was part of the Wilderness Camp last summer. She was 16 years old and had attended camp for a long time. During an evening campfire program, Chance shared that her father died when she was a baby and her mother struggles with drugs and alcohol—leaving her to be the leader in her home with her younger siblings. She does not have time to get involved in school or with friends. She has been coming to Camp Gilmore and Mt. Crags ever since she could remember; once she became a teen, she was afraid she was going to be too old to come. When we started the Wilderness Camp she was very excited and signed up. She said that without camp every summer, she would not have the time to relax and enjoy life and take time to learn about God; she added that camp had been a refuge in her life over the years and she doesn’t know where she would be without coming here.

Monique was 15 years old and came from a divorced family. She had a difficult time with this divorce: she gained 70 pounds in 6 months, became very reclusive, and was doing poorly in school.
Because of financial difficulties, her mother called the Oxnard Salvation Army—hoping that Monique might be able to attend camp or find another program that might help. Monique was completely against the idea. On the way to camp, she wouldn’t speak to anyone the entire way up. She said she would not be participating in the activities in any way, shape or form.
When camp ended, she was a totally different person—talkative and friendly, and full of life. She talked and laughed all the way home with the other kids. When her mom picked her up, Monique ran up to give her a big hug and thanked her for making her go. Her mother says that whatever happened at camp made a lasting change.

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