A wilderness oasis, Camp McDowell offers environmental education, folk arts, and tranquility.
For years I’ve seen bumper stickers reading I’d rather be at Camp McDowell on vehicles in the Birmingham area. What is this mysterious place that multitudes apparently prefer, I wondered? Have they been brainwashed? Is it some secret indoctrination facility?
Nah—so much for conspiracy theories—actually, Camp McDowell is a tranquil, lush oasis 15 miles north of Jasper, Alabama, that offers summer camps for youth in addition to an environmental studies program and a folk school that includes instruction in music and folk art crafts. The facility is named after Bishop William G. McDowell, who began early versions of Episcopal retreats at several sites across the state. It’s the official camp and conference center for the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, spanning more than 1,100 acres of woods and creeks.In 1945, the Reverend Scott Eppes was appointed by Bishop C.C.J. Carpenter to build a permanent home for the Episcopal camp that was being held at Oak Mountain State Park in Pelham. [The bishop, who was prominent in Birmingham during the city's civil rights struggles, was one of the pastors Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail."] Bishop Carpenter’s son, the Reverend Doug Carpenter, fondly recalls his teenage years helping Eppes build the facility that would become Camp McDowell in 1948 after 160 acres were secured in Winston County for $600.
“I’d spend the whole summer out there, building the camp or taking care of the cattle, pitching hay, putting fences in,” Carpenter says. “Slave labor pretty much built that camp, because they didn’t pay us anything. The Diocese was pretty poor after the Second World War. Scott Eppes, who built the camp, really knew how to make money go a long way. He found out we could buy barracks from Fort McClellan [in Anniston], which was downsizing. The smaller barracks cost $15 apiece. They came apart in eight-foot sections.”
Eppes also purchased longer barracks for $100 each, Carpenter explains. The first camps were fairly primitive, with no running water. The boys would bathe first in the creek, followed by the girls. Barrels of drinking water were brought in from Jasper.
Doug Carpenter, who retired from Saint Stephens Episcopal Church in Cahaba Heights six years ago, recalls a penny campaign his father waged to raise funds for the camp.
“My dad wanted everybody to have some part in it,” Carpenter explains. “He would visit every Episcopal congregation in the state at least once a year. And two weeks before he went, he’d send everybody these paper peanut bags. They were supposed to save all their pennies for two weeks. And he’d come back from his trips with maybe 50 or 60 pounds of pennies. It’s amazing how far that money went in those days but when you’re buying cabins for $15 apiece and land for around three dollars an acre . . . ”
Carpenter also recalls the thrill of using explosives to clear the land for the camp. “I don’t know why a lot of us didn’t get hurt up there—but nobody ever did—because Scott Eppes loved to use dynamite. You could get it for ten cents a stick in those days. You just go into Jasper and get a big ol’ box of dynamite,” Carpenter says, laughing. “We used probably more than we should have. There was one place where the dynamite hadn’t gone off and somebody had forgotten it. And Mr. Eppes was in town one day at the Army surplus store and found out that he could get flamethrowers. We were clearing a lot of brambles out of the fields. So he thought, ‘Oh, that would be a good idea.’ So he got a couple of flamethrowers. We were using those things and blew up a piece of dynamite. Fortunately, nobody got hurt.”
The dynamite is long gone. These days the serenity of Camp McDowell has made it more than a place to hike, swim, and canoe. The camp has become popular with corporations and groups seeking facilities for meeting retreats. Rev. Mark Johnston has been the camp’s executive director for two decades—only the third director in the camp’s 63-year history.
“I went to Camp McDowell when I was in high school. Then I worked at the camp when I was in college,” Johnston says. “The camp is the spiritual center of our church.” Johnston has seen the camp grow into more than a summer retreat during his tenure. “We teach kids how to live their faith in their everyday life. It’s a real powerful place. We’ve had over 100,000 children come to our residential environmental education program. We’re one of the best in the country. We also have over 300 groups come every year to use our conference center. And we started the Alabama Folk School about three years ago.”
The folk school has become quite a magnet, attracting participants from across the country. Held throughout the year, it offers courses in such traditional folk arts as playing acoustic instruments, Sacred Harp singing, chair caning, quilting, watercolor, and pottery. A visit to the school this April made this writer realize why the facility is so revered. Local stringed-instrument virtuoso Herb Trotman was one of the instructors that day.
“I’ve been trying to learn how to play the banjo for about 50 years,” says Trotman, laughing. “This is the third session that I’ve done at Camp McDowell teaching banjo and fiddle.” When asked to compare the difficulty in learning banjo as opposed to other instruments, he explains: “Well, here’s the thing about banjo. If you take up the guitar and mandolin, you feel this immediate sense of gratification. But when people say they want to play the banjo, they say they want to do this: [Herb plays a simple but familiar banjo lick]. Well, you don’t get there in a week. So it’s hard to get to that level which you think you’re playing. So I’m always working with people trying to get them to realize they’re playing music; they’re just not playing what they hear the banjo do.”
Roland White is the folk school’s most famous music instructor. White played guitar with the late Bill Monroe. (His brother was the late Clarence White, who played with The Byrds.) Having someone of White’s skills teaching mandolin has been an asset to Camp McDowell. The musician participates in similar musical retreats around the country with his wife. “Camp McDowell is a very nice setting,” says White, resting in a rocking chair on a cabin porch, waiting to teach another class. “I have an advanced class this year, which is unusual. Usually I have beginner and intermediate, which is kind of my favorite thing to do because I like to get beginners who are starting but who are doing it wrong. I like to correct that and they become better players. We have a lot of fun.” Asked if he teaches his students any Bill Monroe songs, White quips, “Yeah, I always include one or two, he’s my favorite. Bill Monroe is our father who art in heaven—I hope.”
Danielle Dunbar, director of the folk school, explains that the Alabama State Council on the Arts maintains a list of master artists in Alabama, which is where the Folk School finds many of its instructors. Prices for the school range from $255 to $515, depending on occupancy preferences and length of stay. The music classes are the most popular, Dunbar says.
“Music is just one of those types of activities where it draws community and it builds community, because people are really drawn to coming together and playing music together, whether it’s fiddle or jazz or mandolin.”
The real attraction at this year’s folk school, however, are women representing the famous Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective. Among the dozen or so women attending a recent class were several Californians lured by the opportunity to learn to sew quilts under the tutelage of the Gee’s Bend quilters. A Wall Street Journal reporter who lives in Los Angeles saw the Folk School featured on Salon.com.
“My mother always wanted to quilt,” says Alexandra Berzon, who decided to bring her mother Marsha to Alabama for a “quilting” vacation. “My mother had gone to a Gee’s Bend exhibit, and later I learned about them,” she explains. “I’ve never sewn before, let alone quilted. I’m still kind of messy.” Her mother Marsha adds: “The challenging and interesting part is visualizing how the pieces [of the quilt] fit together. They said we didn’t need to bring anything, so we didn’t bring any fabrics like some did. The Gee’s Bend women and others brought some fabrics so we just kind of scrounged those, but I think that made it better in a way because we didn’t have any visual when we started. We just had to deal with whatever was available.”
Dara McLaughlin, also from Los Angeles, has been quilting for six years. She has wanted to study under the Gee’s Bend women for years. “The Gee’s Bend quilters have a very different style from traditional quilting,” she says. “Their approach is ‘Don’t measure so much. Just kind of do something!’ Normally I do a lot more measuring and trying to line it all up perfect, but not this time.”
Mary Ann and China Pettway of the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective are instructing at the camp for a second year. “My mother taught me how to quilt when I was 11 years old,” says China, who says she’s related to Mary Ann but she is not sure how. “The quilts when I learned wasn’t made from new material, they was made from old clothes that me and my sister and brother had worn out,” she explains. “We didn’t have no money to go to the store to buy material. If we was walking along the road and seen a piece of scrap, we picked it up and took it home and washed it just to get a quilt going.”
Mary Ann Pettway also recalls the poverty in which she was raised. “Back then we didn’t have tile or rugs, it was just the naked floor. So we had to make quilts to lay on the floor,” Mary Ann explains of her introduction to quilting as a child. She grew up in a house with 11 brothers and sisters. “We still do all our quilting by hand. There are a lot of people who do them by sewing machines but I always like to do mine by hand because it’s very relaxing and it takes your mind off a lot of stuff. You got to have patience, and if you don’t have patience to do it I wouldn’t suggest that anybody start on a quilt.”
The Environmental Center at Camp McDowell has been there for 18 years. Held during the school year, the environmental program allows teachers from around the country to bring their classes and choose from a list of studies. Maggie Johnston, wife of Camp McDowell director Mark Johnston, formerly taught at the Alabama School for the Deaf in Talladega. She brought her students to the environmental program for years before becoming director of the Environmental Center seven years go. It was her husband’s idea to start the program; Mark Johnston had not only observed cabins being unused nine months out of the year when Summer Camp was not in session, he also saw the opportunity to educate local kids in environmentalism.
“The folk school and the adult groups stay in hotel-style lodging. But there are 14 summer camp cabins down the hill where the school groups stay when they come here,” explains Maggie Johnston. “From Monday to Friday we have school groups here all through the year. Most of them stay three days—Monday to Wednesday or Wednesday to Friday. A few stay the whole week. It depends on the school. We have around 7,000 participants who come through the program [annually].” The kids who attend range from grades four through eight. There are 20 instructors on staff. Among the most popular classes are pond and stream, Native American studies, and geology classes.
Doug Carpenter says his favorite thing about going to Camp McDowell as a camper each summer was the opportunity to meet other teens from across the state. The retired priest has a deep love of the uniqueness of the Episcopal Church.
“I’ve always loved the Episcopal Church, and partly because we’ve got such a freedom to question things,” he says. “And that was always true at Camp McDowell, too. It’s not who’s got the right or wrong belief—let’s talk about it and explore it, because if you have all the answers about God, it’s probably not God. He’s too mysterious.”
Some camp alumni say they found a spirituality there that they weren’t able to find in church. Wendy Riggs is a 51-year old Tuscaloosa resident who went to Camp McDowell from age six to 19.
“My mom went to Camp McDowell before I went to Camp McDowell, so part of the reason I always went was tradition. But ever since I was little, we were friends with the Eppes, who used to run the camp. So we kind of went there before I was supposed to go, to be honest,” she says, laughing. “My grandmother used to tell me she was going to hide up in a tree and figure out why I like it so much because she always said, ‘There’s no horses there, there’s nothing there, it’s in the middle of nowhere.’ But I think the biggest thing was that it gave me real positive experiences, religiously, because I could not figure out how to connect with the Episcopal Church. What I’m looking for in church is what I found at camp.”
For Doug Carpenter, Camp McDowell is no doubt the closest thing on earth bearing any resemblance to the Heaven that he believes awaits him when he passes away. He admits he has to temper his enthusiasm for the camp from time to time. “I see stickers all over Birmingham that say I’d Rather Be at Camp McDowell,” he says. “I never put one on my car because I didn’t want people in my parish to think I’d [rather] be at Camp McDowell than in church.” &
Camp McDowell is located at 105 DeLong Road near Nauvoo, Alabama. For information on upcoming programs and lodging availabilities, go to www.campmcdowell.co or call 387-1806.