EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series on the 40th anniversary of Carol Joy Holling Camp
ASHLAND – Forty years ago, the hilly land that made up half of a sprawling family homestead became an outdoor camp for children of all faiths and a place to educate adults to lead those children.
In 1974, George and Irene Holling donated a half-section of land, 318 acres total, to the Nebraska Synod of the Lutheran Church in America to be used as a church camp for youth.
Five years later, the parcel was turned into Carol Joy Holling Camp, which has provided a place for spiritual instruction and reflection for people of all ages.
On Saturday, July 13, the facility will mark its 40th anniversary with a day-long celebration starting at 10 a.m.
The day will be filled with activities located throughout the campus, including a free-will lunch. The event will conclude with a worship service at 4 p.m. (Go to our website, www.ashland-gazette.com, for last week’s story detailing the celebration.)
The anniversary will include a look back at the history of Carol Joy Holling Camp, beginning with the generous donation by the Holling family.
The Hollings gave the land, and a promise of further financial support, in honor of their daughter who died at the age of 18. Carol Joy Holling was killed in a vehicle accident in Las Vegas, N.M. on her way to college in 1952.
“They were strong members of the Lutheran church,” said the Rev. Dr. Dennis Anderson, who was bishop when Carol Joy Holling Camp was founded.
Until Carol Joy Holling Camp was built, Lutheran camping ministries were limited in Nebraska. Circle R Camp opened in 1965 on the Elkhorn River west of Omaha. It was operated by the American Lutheran Church (ALC), Central District.
At the same time, the Nebraska Synod of the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) had been holding youth camps at rented sites in western and central Nebraska.
Representatives from these two Lutheran bodies discussed forming a common ministry for several years. The Holling donation spurred further conversations and in 1975 Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministries (NLOM) was formed, according to Anderson.
The gift came with a stipulation by the Hollings – that there be campers on the property by 1979.
It was a big challenge, said Anderson, who visited the land with George Holling in August 1978 soon after being elected president (bishop) of the Nebraska Synod.
Anderson and Holling drove through the tall prairie grass in Holling’s Cadillac, bumping along trails that weren’t even roads, until they reached the highest point on the land.
“This is where I want Carol Joy interred,” Holling told Anderson.
A small altar was built on the hill and Carol Joy’s ashes were placed at the site, which came to be known as Inspiration Point. George and Irene Holling’s ashes are also there, Anderson said. The retired reverend said he and his wife will also be interred there one day.
During that trip over 40 years ago, Holling bluntly said to Anderson: “You’ve got to have camp here next summer.”
This was a tall order, as the land had no infrastructure. But within a year, the fledgling NLOM put up a rudimentary dining hall and other basic facilities. Under the leadership of new camp director Pastor Wayne Jarvis, they created sleeping quarters out of covered wagons and tents to house a total of 365 campers in 1979.
“We did it,” said Anderson.
Anderson credited Jarvis and his wife, Trudy, for the camp’s early success. Wayne Jarvis was great at scrounging around for equipment and materials, Anderson said, while Trudy Jarvis took on the cooking duties for the campers and staff.
“The two of them together, they really made it work,” Anderson said.
The Jarvis’ ingenuity helped create a camp when finances were tight. Anderson said the budget that first year was somewhere between $40,000 and $60,000.
Anderson is working with current and former NLOM board members and staffers to create a history of the camp for Saturday’s anniversary. The history states that camp planners Harrison-Hemp-Kengel, Inc. were hired to develop the site. NLOM kept Circle R open as a camp and retreat center and gave Carol Joy Holling Camp a more outdoor camp atmosphere.
Carol Joy Holling Camp gained popularity quickly and in its second year of operation the number of campers nearly doubled.
The financial picture also improved greatly, Anderson said, as the LCA’s Nebraska Synod and the ALC Central District increased their support while the Holling family continued to contribute.
The camp expanded to house more children and by 1981 a shower house was built and a dam constructed to create a lake..
In 1982, NLOM agreed to sell Circle R and used the money to construct a main building at Carol Joy Holling Camp’s Ranch Camp. They named the facility “Circle R” to continue the camp’s tradition. The building was later named the Don Sjogren Retreat Center.
The Circle R building marked the beginning of the camp’s role as a retreat center, a goal for the facility from the inception. Anderson said including space for adult instruction was vital to the NLOM ministry.
“I used to teach that if a congregation had good adult ministries, it would have good youth ministries,” he said.
Another major focus of NLOM has been to accept campers from all denominations and retreat participants from secular organizations, Anderson said.
“It is not only for Lutherans, but for all people and for the corporate community as well,” he said.
Over the years, many new facilities have been built at the camp.
In 2004, ground was broken on the Rev. Dr. Reuben T. and Darlene M. Swanson Retreat Center. The facility has 28 sleeping rooms and can accommodate over 250 people in its four meeting rooms.
The Sjogren Retreat Center, Holling House and Angels Gulch provide spaces for meetings and overnight lodging. Retreat guests also stay in the Hotel Theodore in Western Town, the bunkhouses near Angels Gulch and the Springs cabins.
Summer camp accommodations have also changed dramatically in the last 40 years. Campers have gone from sleeping in converted covered wagons and tents to staying in air conditioned rooms in the Western Town Addition, which was completed in 2014. Four years later, the new Springs facilities were opened.
Camp programs have also evolved in the last four decades. NLOM has added confirmation camp for middle schoolers, high school camp with adventure trips and camp experiences that include children and their grandparents. Programs for special needs youth and adults were added several years ago as well.
Grants from families like Bob and Christy Luebbe of Ashland allow NLOM to reach out to youth who have no home church, Anderson added.
“We have a number of people who have no relationship to a church or no relationship to the Lutheran church coming to camp, and that’s part of our ministry to all people,” he said.
Many of the current and former staff members at Carol Joy Holling Camp were campers or sent their own children to camp.
Jason Gerdes, who was named NLOM executive director last year, came to camp for four summers while growing up in Kearney. He returned as a counselor while attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Gerdes was studying agronomy, but being a counselor changed his career path.
“It took two weeks of working as a counselor before I felt like I was being called that this was the place that I was supposed to stay,” he said.
Even before Gerdes asked for a job at the camp, he was offered a part-time position with then-Development Director Dave Coker. It led to a full-time job after he graduated from college.
After 40 years, the camp has an average of 1,700 youth attend each summer, according to NLOM Associate Marketing Director Heather Abbott. The location also serves more than 20,000 retreat guests annually.
Anderson said Carol Joy Holling Camp is the second largest Lutheran camp in the U.S., topped only by a camp in North Carolina that is many years older.
Given the fact that just 40 years ago the camp was a rustic mix of rolling hills and native grasses, the transformation is nothing less than amazing, Anderson said.
“This is really kind of a miracle on the prairie,” he added.