For more than half a century, Camp Rotary was the crown jewel in Rockford Rotary's outstanding record of public service.
The camp was launched in 1921, using borrowed Army tents as sleeping quarters and the muddy Kishwaukee River as a swimming hole. Over the years it grew to a self-contained camp, with barracks, pool, playgrounds, mess hall, kitchen, and all the support services needed to serve generations of boys and girls.
Thousands of youngsters escaped from the sweltering city summers to the joys of nature over those years. Hundreds of Rockford men and women from all walks of life still recall their weeks at Camp Rotary among the highlights of their lives.
All of this was thanks to the generosity and commitment of Rockford Rotary Club members. They donated their time, their supplies, and their dollars. They enlisted others in the cause. They built the camp, expanded it, modernized it. They financed it. Their dollars paid camping fees (camperships) for the more underprivileged local youngsters. Between 1956 and 1962 alone, Rockford Rotary spent almost $60,000 upgrading the camp. Another $68,000 was spent between 1968 and 1973. All this was in addition to individual contributions for camperships.
Over the years, hundreds of thousands of dollars were invested in the camp and its campers by Rotarians. There is no record of the total investment, but it was a massive undertaking and a major success.
Even Rotary International was skeptical at the beginning and opposed the Camp Rotary plan, but Rockford Rotarians made it work for more than five decades.
Camp Rotary was never a failure, but it eventually did fall victim to major changes in society and to the growth of an often mindless bureaucracy.
First came the social changes. Increased family mobility freed Rockford residents and their children for family vacations. No longer were the children trapped in the city during hot summer months. With this change, the demand for the type of camping offered by Camp Rotary fell sharply.
At the same time, increasingly stringent county, state, and federal codes led to alarming and hugely costly increases in maintenance and modernization demands.
As early as September of 1966, Rockford Rotary President Frank Ellis warned that $30,000 to $40,000 in essential construction and maintenance was needed, thanks to new county and state requirements.
Rotarians met this challenge, and several more that came over the next few years.
The end of Camp Rotary was in sight, however, in the fall of 1973 when the Rockford Boys' Club Association, which long had managed the camp under contract with Rockford Rotary, demanded a long list of changes, both in camp facilities and in the management agreement. Boys' Club officials said they no longer had enough staff to man the camp.
A special Rotary committee headed by Howard Bell sought other arrangements. The Rockford Park District staffed the camp for two years. An agreement was discussed with Northern Illinois University to use the camp for off-campus activities. The Rockford School District, Boy Scouts, and several church groups used the camp for short periods. But there simply was not enough demand to justify the costs.
In May of 1977, Howard Bell's committee was reformed, again including Roy Fridh, Ross Robbins, Don Wortmann, and Rusty Gates as members. They were charged with recommending disposition of the camp and with considering alternative areas for the involvement of Rotary.
In July of 1978, Rockford Rotary members voted 165-8 to dispose of the camp, but only if the 83 acres of land could be preserved for use by the general public. Seventy-seven club members voted to donate the land; 86 voted to try to sell it.
By September of 1978 it was obvious to the committee that none of the possible public bodies could finance purchase of the land. At that point, the committee agreed the property should be donated to the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District, to become a major part of the district's planned Kishwaukee Gorge development. Three covenants were to be included in the donation: the land would revert to Rockford Rotary if the Forest Preserve District ever had to dispose of it; the land would be made available for public use; and the land would always include the Rotary name in its title.
In addition, it was understood that the donated land would be used as matching "funds" to obtain $351,620 in federal grants. The federal money would be used to buy 155 acres to expand the nearby Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve.
On Nov. 2, 1978, Rockford Rotarians voted "overwhelmingly" to approve this disposition of the camp and its lands.
It was estimated that more than 100,000 youngsters used Camp Rotary in its lifetime. And even as it closed it was used to assure that a huge tract of the most beautiful lands along the Kishwaukee River would remain available to the public.
That development project is still on-going and eventually could be Winnebago County's most valuable nature preserve.