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A Moment in Time: Founding Camp Friedenswald

“It was hot, the windows were down, and the dust was flying!”

That’s how Melba Bechtel remembered a bright summer day spent aboard a school bus traveling gravel back roads of southern Michigan with a group examining real estate. The bus riders were searching for a suitable location to create a permanent camping retreat for youth of the Central Conference and Middle Districts churches of the General Conference Mennonite Church.

Youth camping had broad support among those congregations, but Eighth Street played an especially prominent role. Pastor I.R. Detweiler had been one of the speakers at the first retreat back in 1925; Rev. G. T. Soldner had organized the camps during some of the 1930s, and beginning in 1945 pastor Bob Hartzler was the director of youth retreats.

These summer youth retreats and camps had always been held at temporary or rented quarters – Bluffton College campus, Shipshewana Retreat, Quaker Haven, or Camp Mack – and by the late 1940s, with participation on the rise and a wider number of age groups represented, it seemed clear that larger and permanent facilities were needed.

That’s why Melba Bechtel and others were driving around southern Michigan, with Bob Hartzler at the school bus wheel. In all, the site search committee looked at eighteen properties before deciding on a location near Niles and starting to raise the necessary funds to purchase it.

Then, in November 1949, came a surprise invitation to consider yet another location: land on Shavehead Lake near the village of Union. Impressed by “the superior quality of the lake and shoreline at Shavehead,” the Camping Committee acted quickly. Two months later, in January 1950, they signed an option to buy the property for $3500. Camp Friedenswald was on its way.

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Current and future members of Eighth Street Mennonite Church were involved in the early years of Camp Friedenswald in many ways. Some of the names mentioned in the Camp’s published history: Rev. Bob Hartzler chaired the Camp Committee from 1950-1956 (and had chaired the Camp Site Committee from 1948-1950); Evelyn Hartzler (Bushong) was part of the first [1951] summer camp staff, helping in many ways and also acting as camp secretary; Evelyn was also editor of Camp News, the monthly periodical printed gratis by Alden Plank and sent to constituent churches during the early years; Arlene Hartzler (Christner) was music director during the first summer and Marjorie Lehman Mack was the camp nurse; Ernie Yoder built most of the tables and benches for the original dining hall and cabin lightning rods were contributed by the Cripe family; and Dan and Marge Graber served as camp directors from 1958-1968. This list is incomplete and many other Eighth Streeters volunteered or worked as summer staff over the years. Recent permanent staff members have included Portia and Pete Amstutz and Dale Way. Todd Kirkton was camp director from 2003-2006.  Presently, Brenda Wiebe and Jim Bare are members of the camp board of directors.

Sources: Marge Graber, Vision, Faith, Service: The Story of Camp Friedenswald, 1950-2000 (2001); Melba (Hartzler) Bechtel.