Check out our 2019 OTMJ Camp Guide (on page 20).
By June Mathews
In the summer of 1918, a group of soon-to-be campers boarded a train in Birmingham and set out for the adventure of their lives. Traveling the last 5 miles of the journey on foot, they ended up on the banks of Kelly Creek in southern St. Clair County at a new camp called Winnataska.
The camp’s name is the Creek Indian word for “land of the laughing water” and was inspired by the waterfalls in the area.
It was those very waterfalls that four years earlier captivated Dr. Elwyn Ballard and his wife, Florence Aye Ballard, as they sought a good fishing hole. Though they didn’t realize it then, they’d found a treasure. Through Ballard’s efforts, the Birmingham Sunday School Association acquired the site in 1918, and Camp Winnataska was born.
Flash forward to 2019 and a conversation with Katherine Ann Price “Kap” Garmon, youngest of the five daughters of Daniel Ray Price. Price was executive secretary of the BSSA and served as the camp’s director from 1922 to 1957.
Born in 1930, young Kap spent her summers at Winnataska from the time she was 6 weeks old until she was 22 years old.
“My father strove to bring an interdenominational Christian character to camp, but it never excluded anyone of any faith,” she said. “He also encouraged traditions at camp that would make it a memorable time. And we have many, many traditions, including our own Indian night legend and the King Arthur legend of the Holy Grail.”
Garmon also recalls boating up the creek for picnic lunches with her parents and sisters, as well as participating in her favorite activities: pony riding and swimming. When she was old enough to become a staff member, she first worked with the horses and later became a lifeguard.
“When my children were young, I didn’t participate in camp life,” she said. “But I later became a weekly director for several years and a summer program director for two summers. Now I’m just a ‘dinosaur volunteer,’ but I still love to go out there and try to find something helpful to do.”
During her father’s 35-year tenure as camp executive, Garmon said, Winnataska grew from 40 acres and 10 buildings in 1922 to 1,400 acres and about 50 buildings by the time he retired.
“He was more responsible than anyone else for the development of the camp that we all know and love,” she said.
Even as the physical qualities of Winnataska grew, its spiritual aspects grew, too.
“I cannot explain the ‘spirit of Winnataska’ that continues to draw generations of families back to camp,” said Garmon. “But there is a ‘spirit,’ and it is real.”
That spirit likewise keeps former campers Laura Carlson and Cameron McKinley, along with their families, coming back.
“I first started going to camp when I was about nine, and I went there nearly every summer until my early 20s,” said Carlson. “My mom was a camper at Winnataska as a child and loved it; that’s why we chose it. I later met my husband there.”
As a youngster, her roles at camp progressed from camper to leader to Comanche (college-age staff member). In her early 30s, she returned to serve as a program specialist, the supervising adult in a program area.
Carlson now is part of the camp family through her two camper daughters.
“They love it for the same reasons I did and for different ones,” she said. “I love that they get to try new things and challenge themselves by riding horses, learning about shooting sports and doing the ropes course.”
McKinley similarly enjoys camp life through her own kids – two sons and a daughter. One son is now in his third summer on staff; the other son will serve on staff for the first time this year. All three have served as leaders. And for a week each summer, McKinley serves as a director for the Chicos, the youngest campers at Winnataska.
“I work hard that week, but I get to disconnect from my everyday world and connect with people and nature in a place that is beautiful and timeless,” she said.
McKinley spent part of her summers at Winnataska from age 5 to age 12. Her grandmother, a dietician, started working at the camp after her husband died at an early age. That’s how McKinley’s mother became a camper, then a leader and a staff member. Later, McKinley, her sister and her brother went to camp.
“Camp Winnataska is a part of who I am and a place my children hold dear,” McKinley said. “It is a place where you can overcome fears, meet new challenges, make new friends, learn how to get along with others and to enjoy seeing familiar faces and places each year,” McKinley said. “But camp gives us purpose in serving others, and that is what life is all about: serving each other in love.”