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A Place Apart; A Place of Transformation:

A not-so-brief history of Camp Bethel, pre-and-post 1927.  [pre-1926]  [post-1926]

 

“In the hills of old Virginia where the whippoorwills are calling,

where the crystal springs are flowing is our Camp Bethel.”

 

I am convinced that God has reserved this sweet, wild place called Camp Bethel for direct communion with us.  Again and again in the scriptures and throughout history, God finds open hearts and minds in persons who seek “a place apart” to meet with God.

 

Before we named this place “Bethel” in 1927, did others recognize these hills, streams, fields and forests as “the house of God?”  We can only imagine others’ response, but it is with great certainty that we call Camp Bethel a sacred place.  Since 1927, this place has been truly blessed, but I also find God’s blessing for Camp Bethel in the decades, centuries and millennia before 1927.

 

The ancient geologic history of these rugged, stony foothills reflects the eternal grace and wisdom of our all-knowing Creator.  I see God’s genius in the formation of these Blue Ridge Mountains 450 million years ago, as tectonic pressures forced ocean bedrock skyward into high, rocky peaks; then their slow, deliberate erosion over the next 200 million years to soft, tree-covered slopes; and the patient, trickling streams gently sculpting the hills and stones into the beautiful place we know and enjoy today.

 

From pre-historic times through the early 1700s, these hills were home to Native American Indians, when buffalo were still plentiful, even in Virginia.  Arrowheads and artifacts can still be found at mountain gaps and around many springs in the Blue Ridge.  Surely many unnamed men, women and children were quenched by the sacred springs of Camp Bethel, “whose waters never fail.”  Their ancient paths through the valleys and over the mountain passes would become the roads bringing colonial settlers to this region.

 

The Graybill family history is now part of Camp Bethel’s history, since most of the camp’s acreage was once the Graybill farm and homestead.  In 1780, John Graybill, a minister from Berk’s County, Pennsylvania, and his family joined a considerable migration of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania German Baptist “Dunkers” to Virginia and Botetourt County.  In 1784, John acquired the acreage on and around which Camp Bethel now exists.  John was a known pacifist who paid muster fines for not serving in the Militia.  John’s home and barn became popular preaching places, and his farm grew along with his family.

 

One of John’s twenty-four grandchildren was Joseph Graybill, born in 1808 and married to Mary “Polly” Snider in 1831.  Joseph and Mary lived on their portion of the Graybill family farm and had fourteen children from 1833 to 1859, the last eight of which were born in the brick home now belonging to Camp Bethel.  In 1842, Joseph and his sons built this home from bricks fired from local clay.  Polly and the family kept a large garden from which they supplied most of their food.  Joseph was a respected, honest man who loved books and kept an extensive library.  The Graybills attended the Brethren national Annual Conference in Roanoke in 1854.  Joseph was baptized into the Church of the Brethren a short time before his death in 1876.  Polly, Joseph and his grandfather John Graybill are buried in the Graybill cemetery on Bethel Road, across from the entrance to Camp Bethel near the railroad.

 

The Fincastle-Blue Ridge Turnpike was completed in 1835, connecting to the Lynchburg-Salem Turnpike over the mountain through Black Horse Gap.  Joseph and Polly operated the White Horse Stagecoach Inn on their farm, housing and feeding many Turnpike travelers.  During the Civil War, it was said that General Robert E. Lee stayed over night with troops camping in the adjacent field.  The war took its toll as Joseph and Polly’s son Ferdinand was killed at age 25 as a prisoner of war in Ohio in 1865.  This fact makes the events of June 1864 even more poignant.

 

On June 15, 1864, Union General David Hunter led an 18,000-man army toward an attack on Lynchburg.  Hunter dispatched a large wagon train to West Virginia just before the battle saying, “Burn all wagons that break down… Shoot all horses that give out.”  On June 18, 1864, 200 wagons filled with 130 sick and wounded, 142 prisoners and the “the families of refugees, white or colored” filed through Black Horse Gap and down the mountain along the road past the Graybill farm and homestead.  Just imagine what the day must have been like, both for those coming over the mountain and seeing our blessed hills and for the Graybill family who were probably working their garden as wagon after wagon of war-torn people rolled by.  I choose to imagine that the Graybill children might have brought out water for the weary travelers. 

 

Logging, mining and hunting quickly depleted the wildlife and the mountain views above the Graybill farm from the 1860s to the 1900s.  But 1918 saw the establishment of National Forests in Virginia and the beginning of a remarkable recovery of the forests after two centuries of unrestricted use.  Once again, worshippers in the valley below could say, “I lift up my eyes to the hills - from whence comes my strength.”

 

1926 and on

Our better-known modern history of the place we call Camp Bethel begins in 1926 when the local Brethren scouted a new site for their youth conference-camps.  The summer conferences of 1923 through 1926 at C.S. Ikenberry’s “La Monte Park” (near Tinker Mountain, south of Daleville, Virginia) were a tremendous success, but problems with weather, water and road access precipitated a search for a better site and the eventual move to our present Camp Bethel.  Though there were site problems, La Monte will be remembered for the amazing “Mountain Top” experiences and the tremendous amount of enthusiasm, energy, time, thought, prayer and study poured into those early camping efforts.  The seeds of Christian camping had grown permanent roots in the hearts of the youth.

 

The Camp Trustees scouted sixty-three and two-thirds acres of scrubby land near the N & W tracks along the Fincastle-Blue Ridge Turnpike.  This rugged, rocky land, formerly part of the Graybill farm, was known as the center of a Dunker community in the 1700s and 1800s, and the big spring in the grove had been a gathering place for the Dunker youth.  But long since, the land had grown up, been left untended, and was finally sold because of a defaulted Farm Loan.  Members of the Camp Trustees waded the property’s rushing streams on a terribly rainy day.  Water supply would obviously not be an issue.  The site was bought for $1500, and Camp Bethel was born.

 

During the early months of 1927, Stover Bowman spent afternoons and Saturdays supervising the clearing of rocks and debris.  He purchased logs and lumber and managed to construct a sawdust-floor dining hall, nine cabins and a water system in preparation for summer.  Thousands of letters, fliers and posters encouraged churches and individuals to sponsor development projects and to furnish equipment and supplies.  These posters also announced a grand dedication service for Camp Bethel on July 4th, proclaiming, “Everyone is going to be at Camp Bethel,” and that it was “The Greatest Day in the History of the Camp.”

 

At 10:00am, Monday, July 4, 1927, hundreds of people gathered in blistering heat for the dedication service with Al Brightbill leading singing, Chauncey Shaumberger leading the responsive dedication, and Dr. Paul H. Bowman giving the dedicatory address: “… Let this camp stand for all that is good, true and beautiful in human life and in human relationships.  Unto these noble purposes we dedicate Camp Bethel and pray that our children for generations to come may here learn to ‘look unto the hills’ and find help unto their souls.”

 

The first camp, a joint “Young People’s Conference” and “Leadership Training School” was held on July 11-16, 1927.  Notably that first camping week at Bethel, the leaders and campers wrote the Camp Bethel Song to the tune of an old English hymn.  Also, the group held an impressive service in which each of the one-hundred and ten campers and leaders stacked stones to form the John Kline Memorial which still stands today.

 

Each following year brought increased attendance, additional camp weeks and dramatic improvements to the site, facilities and program including acre projects, the House of Pillars, a rough swimming pool, hikes to Horseshoe Bend (with antiphonal singing), Hearthstone, the Bandage Box, Hillside Auditorium, the Daleville Academy Bell, electric lines, bathhouses and additional cabins and bungalows.  The efforts and energies of leaders and campers during these early years laid a solid foundation on which the future of Camp Bethel depended.

 

If any work crews were at Bethel on Monday, April 6, 1942, their view of the northeast mountains included the ominous smoke from an immense 10,300 acre forest fire.  It took 700 men two days to control the flames, and luckily the ripe hills directly above the camp were not affected.  As World War II tried the home-front with rationing, it would be a different “trial by fire” for which Bethel’s summer camp of 1944 would be remembered.

 

Summer 1944 began smoothly with six well-attended camps from June 5 through July 17.  On Monday, July 17, “Young People” camp began with 147 campers and leaders, including three African-American teen girls.  The news of these girls’ presence at Bethel spread quickly via local telephone, and by Tuesday local antagonism and the threat of violence by some prompted an emergency Trustee Board meeting.  Opposition was voiced, but the board voted four to three to keep the girls there.  Facing local opposition and threats against integration from the Botetourt County sheriff, few campers or leaders slept that night, staying up in a sort of sympathy strike so that the girls would not suffer alone.  After a final threat from the sheriff, the camp board cited warnings from the State Health Board about a “plague of infantile paralysis” and decided to close camp for the remainder of summer.  At dawn Wednesday, instead of gathering around the Big Spring, the campers and leaders packed their luggage and headed home.  Camp Bethel’s efforts at early integration were not in vain, and they would prove, in time, that these Brethren and this camp would continue to challenge the injustices of the world in the name of Christ and for the will of God.

 

1947 marked the camp’s twentieth anniversary.  An anniversary celebration and pageant titled, “So They Call It Bethel” written by Al Brightbill and Garnett Phibbs was presented on Saturday, July 19 and Sunday, July 20.  About 300 persons attended the festivities on Saturday, and over 800 persons attended on Sunday with Dr. Raymond Peters delivering the anniversary address.

 

In 1953, Roy and Gaynelle Graybill Crowder (great-niece of Joseph Graybill) purchased and restored the old brick Graybill homestead and farm.  Campers for the next forty-five years would tell horror tales of bears snuffling around outside their cabins at night, not knowing it was only one of Gaynelle’s cows who had breeched the old barbed-wire fence into camp.

 

As Camp Bethel continued to grow during the 1950s and 1960s, each itinerant manager pressed forward, making the best with minimal resources and boldly declaring the obvious needs for improvements and their dreams and visions for the camp.  The A-frame lodges were built to comfortably house summer staff.  In April 1966, the First and Southern Districts appointed a study committee to evaluate the entire operation and program of Camp Bethel.  Their 1967 report recommendations, along with the advice of a professional consultant, “Either get serious about this ministry or close the camp!” lauded the merit of a long-range building and re-building program.

 

Under the leadership of the District Director of Educational Ministries (and thus, Camp Director), Bob Jones, the “Decade of Development” for Camp Bethel was enthusiastically launched in 1970.  Bethel became accredited by the American Camping Association, an important step in upholding industry standards.  Seventy-eight acres including Vesper Hill were purchased, the manager’s residence was built and a new dining hall was built.  The first year-round staff were hired, and James and Lois Berrier moved into the residence.  The new dining hall was named “The Ark” on Tuesday, June 20, 1972 by the campers who sheltered there all day while the flood waters of Hurricane Agnes surrounded them.  In 1974, purchase of the Trailblazer I property added 80 more acres which connected camp to the Jefferson National Forest.  With Bob’s leadership, we were “Blazing new trails at Camp Bethel.”  A 50th anniversary celebration was held, and a history of the first fifty years of camp was published as the Bethel Memory Maker: The Story of Camp Bethel – Reaching Through the Years.  In the late 1970s, the Health and Retreat Center was planned and built, providing better year-round lodging for retreat groups.  RV trailer sites were established, and many capital improvements were made.  It seems that, yes, indeed, the church was serious about this camp ministry!

 

Camp Bethel flourished through the 1980s with the construction of the Office Welcome Lodge and the large, modern Heritage Lodge.  In the 1990s, the “Mission in Ministry” and “Forward in Faith” campaigns added great improvements which truly transformed the camp into an outstanding year-round conference and retreat center.  Now four full-time, year-round staff worked at the varied ministries of the camp.  The camp’s ministries just kept getting better and better; what more could be done?  Luckily, Bob Jones had maintained a passionate vision and had laid the ground work for a crucial event that would bring Camp Bethel full-circle, connecting two centuries of history.

 

During Bob’s tenure at Camp Bethel, he maintained a close friendship with Gaynelle Graybill Crowder.  He shared his vision for future ministry with her.  In April of 2001 Gaynelle passed away, and having had no children, bequeathed in her will that Camp Bethel have the “right of first refusal” on her 205 acre farm adjoining the camp’s property.  In November of 2001, the Virlina District Board wisely exercised our option to secure this beautiful land for the camp and began the $600,000 “Trailblazer II” financial campaign.  A subsequent survey by David Bess showed that the Trailblazer II property totaled 247 acres, 42 acres more than was thought.  In December of 2002, David Bess, Norris Martin and members of the camp staff walked the long new border between Camp Bethel and the Jefferson National Forest.  All were amazed and impressed by the vast, rugged beauty of this huge tract of land now owned by the Virlina District.

 

In 2003, District Executive, David K. Shumate wrote, “We must be willing to invest ourselves and our resources into fulfillment of vision.  All that we are and that we have, after all, is God's.  We are merely the stewards for a lifetime.  One of the greatest examples of this is found at Camp Bethel.  Since the 1920's we have been investing in outdoor ministry.  Recently we purchased 247 acres of adjacent land.  This made possible the doubling of the available land area and prevents the creation of housing tracts which could diminish the serene, peaceful atmosphere so necessary in hearing the voice of God.  The guiding vision, however, is to provide a place where the transformation and redemption of human life in Jesus Christ is enhanced and multiplied.  Many persons and congregations gave generously toward the achievement of the initial phase of a vision whose realization will take decades to achieve.  This investment in the future is a selfless act since most of us will not personally benefit.  It is an act of stewardship and of vision.”

 

In March of 2003, the District Board approved purchase of the final piece to the puzzle; the 1.13 acre Aubrey Graybill house and lot for $130,000.  In two short years, the camp had doubled it’s acreage from 222 to 470.  November of 2004 brought a quick and triumphant end to the Trailblazer II campaign with the announcement that Camp Bethel was once again free from all debts.  Everyone involved recognized the tremendous faith and vision of those who gave so generously to accomplish this task.  A grand service of re-dedication was held on April 30, 2005 to celebrate the efforts of each donor and “to set apart the new additions to Camp Bethel in the name of Jesus Christ with the hope that they will provide a context for faith formation and the transformation of individuals and society.”

 

In 2006, the camp's Outdoor Ministries Committee and the Virlina District Board approved the Camp Bethel Master Site Plan as an exciting recommendation for long-range land use and future development of the property and program.

 

One can only exclaim, like Jacob, “How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of Heaven” when we consider the grand history of Camp Bethel.  What is even more awesome is that God has allowed us to play a role in the continued ministries of these blessed old hills, this sweet, wild place.  We each have a place among the tens of thousands of persons who put forth time, sweat, prayer, money and trust in the fulfillment of a vision.  What’s more, we each have a responsibility to carry on the work and the vision of those who preceded us for the glory of God and the benefit of those future generations, the hundreds of thousands, even millions who will pass through these old stone gates, most of whom we will never meet.

 

May we always “Let this camp stand for all that is good, true and beautiful…”

May we always seek to “Blaze new trails at Camp Bethel…”

 

It is with great certainty that we call Camp Bethel a sacred place.

A place apart, a place of transformation.

 

 

 

 

Sources:

Bethel Memory Maker: The Story of Camp Bethel – Reaching Through the Years (1927-1977)

            by Garnett E. Phibbs and Gerolean Marshall Buckner.

Blue Ridges, Green Valleys and Graybills

            by Lois Norris Graybill.

Conversations with Jack Graybill, executor of Gaynelle Graybill Crowder’s estate.

The Headliner, our District Newsletter with text by David K. Shumate.

Appalachian Trail Guide to Central Virginia

            first edition, Jack Albright - field editor.

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