HISTORY OF CAMP MONTGOMERY
By Rev. E. F. Montgomery
By a kind Providence, the Presbytery of Suwannee is the possessor of one of the most suitable camp sites in the whole of our denomination. One hundred and sixty or more acres of wooded land, enclosing lake Emerald and with 1200 feet shoreline on beautiful, clear water, Lake Crystal, is ours to develop and to preserve for coming generation. How we came to possess this coveted lake-front property is a story well worth telling.
For more than thirty years the church had been sponsoring summer camping by giving its support to the private camp of Rev. Edwin F. Montgomery who had begun his program in 1916 while pastor of the McIntosh group of churches. Later he rented Camp Echocatee, and following the Boy Scout camp, he directed a camp for girls on the same location. When Camp Immokallee opened he assisted the YMCA in beginning their camp, and following the boys’ periods, he directed a camp for girls. In 1933 when the State built Camp O’Leno he rented the State Park and until 1957 when Camp Montgomery was completed, he directed camps there.
But the State allotted only two weeks to our church and often as many were turned away as were registered each summer. Rev. Vance Gordon, who assisted Mr. Montgomery, and following the Intermediate camp, himself directed the Young People’s Conference, was the first to call attention of the Presbytery of the need of a camp owned and operated by the Committee of Religious Education, and running the whole summer. He was joined by Rev. A.J. Kissling and Rev. Otto Lantz and others. They began to search for a suitable location, exploring the Ocala National Forest, etc. but with no success.
Providentially the United States in 1947 offered for sale a tract of land on Crystal Lake that had been an officers’ club during the recent war. Rev. J.W. Conyers, Executive Secretary of the Presbytery, called attention to this sale in his Home Mission report at the meeting of Presbytery in Atlantic Beach July 15, 1947. Mr. Kissling moved that Presbytery immediately inaugurate a program through which a camping program might be instituted and by purchasing suitable property our own camp grounds might be bought. He moved that the proposed camp be named camp Montgomery.
The Presbytery accordingly placed its bid on the US Government tract by priority rights gave preference to Alachua County which had also placed a bid. Though the legality of this was tested in the Florida Supreme Court, the purchase stood and the Presbytery lost this chance.
Rev. Ralph Neale learned of a tract in Bradford County across Crystal Lake and enclosing Emerald Lake, and through the MacKay Realty Company this tract was offered to the Presbytery for $5,500.00. The Keystone church invited Presbytery to meet with them July 25, 1950 and a motorcade was organized to view this forty acre tract. It pleased the Presbytery and following a resolution offered by Mr. Kissling which was unanimously approved this tract was purchased and Camp Montgomery was born!
This Camp Finance Committee met in the Riverside Church on March 22, 1951. It was found that Mr. A.J. Burns had advanced the money and the tract of land had been purchased for the Presbytery. A letter from Mr. J.W. Pettyjohn, the legal agent for the committee, advised that adjoining land might be purchased. He called attention to 87 acres adjoining on the East with 1200 feet on Crystal Lake as belonging to an old lady in New England by the name of Miss Minnie Lowe. He said that Miss Lowe was willing to sell this land to the church, though she had for many years refused to sell to private parties because of a grave on the land. She gave as her price of the 87 acres $4,500.00.
Title to this tract was not difficult to establish as records in Clay County court house showed the J.W. Lowe had purchased 640 acres in Clay County for $1,800.00 in the early 1870’s from the US Land Office through David Yulee. He had built his house on Crystal Lake at the spot where the pavilion now stands. It is interesting that the white oleander now scattered through the camp grounds (planted by Joe Weyer, the first caretaker) was transplanted from the home site of J.W. Lowe. A tragedy overtook the family when their 5-year old son was drowned in the lake and his grave was erected on the lakeshore, the stone bears this inscription:
Eddie Dammers Lowe
Apr. 13, 1877
Aged 5 yrs., 8 mo.
Miss Lowe asked that this grave be respected, a thing the camp has endeavored to do. Later the tract lying between Emerald Lake and State Road 100 (40 acres) was purchased, giving the Presbytery a total of 167 acres in all.
Through the indefatigable labors of Gordon Mobley development of the camp was begun, water mains laid, electricity installed and a well was sunk. Clay roads were graded and a storeroom (nor the cook’s cabin) was built.
Cabin #5 was built by Springfield Church. The H.A. Wilson family of Lake City built cabin #3 in memory of their son and brother who was killed in the recent war. Mr. C.J. Williams of Jacksonville First Church built the next one and other churches followed: Ocala built two, Riverside one, Lake City Church by a gift from Dr. and Mrs. F.A. Fearney built a cabin in honor of the Montgomery family. Jacksonville First built two others, Gainesville First built two and Springfield Church built a second.
Mr. and Mrs. W.A. Wright made the first gift for erecting the Dining Hall, which Mr. Mobley planned and erected in 1957. This has been named in his honor “Mobley Hall.” The large pavilion, when completed two years later, was named in honor of the faithful Treasurer, Mr. Herbert Eppert of South Jacksonville. Mr. A.J. Burns, visiting the camp, saw the need of a roof over the outdoor Chapel and he generously gave this roof, and the Chapel bears his name. A generous gift from Elder Louis Benson of the Riverside Church built the commodious Caretaker’s cabin. The Gregory family has consistently contributed to the building of the Gregory staff cabin, named the Gregory Lodge. The Home Mission churches through Rev. J.W. Conyers gave the Office and Infirmary building. Last of all the beautiful home of Presbytery’s Director of Christian Education was build on the entrance road and on the shore of Lake Emerald. A member of the Camp Committee, Mr. T.H. Sompayrac of Springfield, was instrumental in building a large dock. Through a “matching funds” gift to the camp in the early ‘70’s and other generous gifts, improvements such as air conditioning and renovation of the dining hall was accomplished, hot water heaters were installed in all the cabins and a playground for young (and young at heart) was built. A pavilion is now located at Lake Emerald, and a deck overlooking Lake Crystal. A floating dock which encloses the swimming area at Lake Crystal will soon be renovated and ready for use. Others too numerous to name have given time and labor and substance to the development of the grounds. Today Camp Montgomery stands as one of the best equipped camps in the area with water facilities, playgrounds, ball diamond, etc.
Future plans for the camp include a year round conference center to be built overlooking Lake Emerald with leadership to carry on this program.
God has blessed Suwannee Presbytery with a beautiful bit of His creation to be used, enjoyed and taken care of now and for the future.