Fifty years ago, it was imagined as a place for people who had nowhere like it to go.
Now, Camp Winnebago, outside of Caledonia, Minn., is officially closed and has been handed over to new owners.
The campground, which was built 49 years ago as a special needs camp — with other camping included — has seen a decline in attendance as well as an increase in costs to provide the special needs camp, including more regulations to meet, maintenance of aging buildings, and an employee shortage. It announced in August it would shut its doors forever.
But the closing isn’t seen as inherently bad.
It’s seen as the camp completing its mission.
When the camp first started there was a need to provide children and adults with special needs a place to recreate, gather, have new experiences and enjoy nature.
Planning for the camp began shortly after the Houston County Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC) was formed in 1966.
Envisioning a camp that could serve the recreational needs of special needs populations, regardless of age or ability, a search committee was appointed to find a suitable property in Houston County. Shortly thereafter, the 116 acre Cap Stoltz farm in the Winnebago Valley was purchased for $15,000, and volunteers began work on converting the farmstead to a campground — remodeling buildings, rolling up barbed-wire fences and laying out trails and recreation areas.
In the summer of 1968, the first campers arrived to live out the camp motto, “Fun through accomplishment.”
“Forty-nine years ago when the camp started, most special needs populations were put into institutions,” Camp Director Laurie Maloney said. “Back then camp was really essential to provide a quality of life for people that weren’t integrated into their community as much.”
But in the past few decades, society has changed its outlook on people with different abilities and have integrated them more into the community at large.
“As (society) progressed after camp was born, these things kept growing and fostering,” she said. “As that has increased and gotten better, the demand for camp has decreased.”
It still hurts to close though, she said.
“It’s definitely bittersweet,” she said. “When I first came on a year and half ago, I was hopeful that my enthusiasm and expertise and energy would turn this ship around, but it was too late. It was already past the tipping point.”
A look at how things have changed
People with disabilities or special needs were in fact housed in institutions, Winona State University’s special education department chair Jeanne Danneker said as she explained the history and progression of society views toward people with different abilities.
“The initial intent of institutions was to become places of caring for people with disabilities but they became more like warehouses,” she explained. “(During budget cuts) funding would be cut to those institutions and then those people didn’t get the kind of support they needed. The situations were pretty difficult. They didn’t have advocates for them.”
A lot of times parents of children with special needs would be told by their pediatrician that they were unable to provide the care their children needed and that an institution was the best choice.
“From long ago, we had the system of taking people like that out of society, first out of their protection, and then later for the protection of society,” Danneker said, adding that in ways, we’re not all that different now in regards to people with mental illness. “Even when I was a kid in the 1950s and 1960s, I had a friend with a sister with down syndrome. It wasn’t polite to talk about it.”
But over time, it became evident that people with disabilities have a lot “more aptitude than we thought,” Danneker said, and that disability is just another form of diversity.
With pushes from advocates over the years — many of whom had different abilities themselves — things like the Americans with Disability Act of 1990 was passed making it illegal to discriminate against individuals with special needs in regards to employment, public accommodations, transportation, government services and commercial facilities.
Now, places like schools and businesses — and camps — are more accessible to individuals with special needs.
“A lot of societal change comes through education,” she said. “Schools across the country — and this is happening in Winona schools — are trying to provide more inclusive education opportunities. Teachers are trying to be more and more inclusive while balancing specialized instruction as needed. They’re needing to be creative and resourceful so those children can spend the day with others who maybe don’t have the same disabilities.”
Leading to a decline in attendance and saddened campers
The shift in views toward people with different abilities directly affected Camp Winnebago — along with the trend of taking kids to more adventurous camps. According to the camp, at its peak the camp hosted about 450 campers annually.
In the 2017 season, 135 campers were served.
“The community is saddened,” Maloney said. “But they’re not surprised.”
One of those saddened by the closing is 34-year-old Joe Kampersher, who’s been going to camp since he was 5 years old.
“I feel like part of me is gone,” he said over the phone recently.
Before coming to camp, Kampersher rarely left his home. And he never got out of his wheelchair.
With the help of camp staff, Kampersher got to experience being in a pool and to meet people from all over the country. He even went on a hayride without his wheelchair. It made him forget about his troubles, he said.
“Camp Winnebago brought me out of my comfort zone,” he said. “Seeing it close hurts because I don’t know if I’ll ever find that again.”
Kampersher said he hasn’t considered going to any other camp — even if it’s inclusive.
“I would have to think about it long and hard before I go to a normal camp,” he said. “Nothing is as good as Camp Winnebago.”
What about the property
As of Thursday, dairy farming brothers Dustin and Darin Meyer are the new property owners.
And they plan to keep it as a campground.
They’ll be doing some remodeling, Dustin’s wife, Rachel Meyer, said, and plan to build four additional cabins in spring along with an open-air chapel — which is a mix between a pavilion and a church chapel, allowing for open-air and traffic flow with the ability to be shielded from the weather — for weddings.
“It’s going to have a more modern rustic vibe to it,” Rachel said.
Rachel said they all wanted to try something new and are “taking a leap of faith” into the campground business.
The campground’s new name is Winnebago Springs.
“I’m nervous but excited for this adventure we’re taking on,” Rachel said with enthusiasm.
Tying up the loose ends
Now that the property has been sold, Maloney said the proceeds will go to other organizations that serve similar populations.
And to help kids and adults who have relied on the camp each year, Camp Winnebago has posted a list of other campgrounds available for families to choose from on its Facebook page.
“It’s been an emotional journey,” Maloney said, remembering back to some of her favorite moments — like when her and staff bused campers up to meet a group of horse and wagon drivers that ride about 100 miles with about 100 wagons as a fundraiser for the camp. For one week, campers got to spend part of the day riding along.
“Just to see how happy the campers were and how much they enjoyed riding along, waving at people,” she said. “That was rewarding.”
Maloney said without a doubt the camp has had an impact.
“The founders that started this 49 years ago ... have made a difference in hundreds of people’s lives,” she said.