I love(d) Fort Scott

This past weekend began a significant moment in the life of this Blogger. In reality it’s something I have been prepared to see happen for many years, but somehow with some luck, it took 16 long years to really take place. Fort Scott Camps, where I attended as a kid – and loved so dearly – has been sold to be turned into a 950-home subdivision. The camp closed in 1989.
This past weekend the Crosby Township Fire Department used the first building to be removed – the Girls’ Lodge – as a practice burn to ready their firefighters for real fires. It was dramatic to watch – for anyone to watch – with the fire roaring to the sky, and smoke billowing and enveloping the fire trucks, firefighters and bystanders nearby. It was also heartbreaking to see the beginning to an end of such a big part of my life.
With a pile of wood placed just inside the doorway of the old building with white siding and a green shingled roof with green-painted trim, right in the middle of a building where I went to at least one senior dance (and so clearly remember hearing Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me” for the first time, prompting me to go out and buy the 45), the firefighters poured gasoline on the stack and dropped a match.
There the orange flames began and quickly grew higher and larger and hotter and spread inside this place full of memories. This place was also the place where perched on the hillside was a stone patio overlooking the Great Miami River. There I remembered I would look to see my best friend Alan’s house on the hill opposite and feel some comfort when the inevitable homesickness of being at an overnight camp without Mom and Dad set in.
I can’t believe it’s now that I am experiencing this loss. Until now nearly every building and the two swimming pools at the former camp remained untouched. The person who bought the camp from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati used it has his home, a sprawling 400-plus-acre ranch with buildings used for entertaining guests and storing old tractors, farm equipment and motorcycles and other various items he had collected. It’s amazing to be there now, aside from the deterioration of the swimming pools and the grass growing out of the tennis courts, the place has actually been maintained. Buildings, for the most part, have received paint, the grass has been mowed and the doors and windows are still there. Some cabin names, until recently, still stood over cabin doorways. It’s still virtually the same Fort Scott Camps that I remembered as a child.
I could go on and on about the many, many positive memories and first experiences I had at that place – shooting a BB gun for the first time, hitting a bull’s-eye in archery for the first time, riding horses through the vast wilderness, sleeping alone in the woods as the final trial for my naturalist badge, or learning to be an actor – or to act goofy – in a drama class that I so dearly loved (and won awards for my silliness and, I guess, skills). I learned to swim better there, too. Competing against the Girls’ Camp in the Sunday Swim Meet, and doing not-so-badly that I could hold my head high as I came out of the pool – even if I hadn’t won the race.
Or those “Junior-Midget Dances”. “Midgets” and “Juniors” were the names given to the youngest and second-youngest campers at Fort Scott, respectively. It was a pre-pubescent romp through the teen years at age eight – and I loved it – replete with Top 40 music and a deejay and dimmed lights and slow dancing and pretty girls. It was great, even if I was scared to death to ask any woman (ahem, girl) to dance with me. It was romantic, it was summer and it was my childhood.
I still have a little Kinney Shoes shoebox (remember Kinney?) filled with mementos of my summers there. A green ribbon with the gold-stamped lettering “Fort Scott Camps, The Place to Be in ’83”. That’s 1983, kiddies. My “Character Rating Card” that was my counselor’s report card to my parents about my behavior while I was in his cabin. I always took pride in getting high marks there. I have copies of the hand-drawn map carefully outlining the trails and campsites in the Fort Scott forest. The famous “Grubers” spot – I can remember that camp site without even looking. I kept one bumper sticker, the ones for sale in the Fort Scott boys’ canteen store that had in green letters with a big red heart, “I (heart) Fort Scott”. You used to see them all around town on station wagons and mini vans and family cars. You could leave town and go to Columbus or Indianapolis and see them there, too.
Or the legend of Pottinger, the mythic man who lived just beyond the camp’s borders and hated so much when he found Fort Scott campers trespassing on his property that he’d load salt pellets in his shot gun and shoot campers in the butt if he could. It was enough to keep us scared from wandering off camp property, the logical intent of the legend for our counselors charged with our care, unrealized by our little imaginative minds.
Counselors. I can remember my first. Brian O’Neil. Then came Michael Busic. Dennis Knippenberg. The names seem as fresh as those people were so bigger-than-life and so “old” when I was a kid. I’m now probably ten years older than they were then. Hard to imagine. Then there were those other legends of camp, those counselors who weren’t your own, but they taught all the cool classes and became legends themselves. Tom Beiting. That name pops into my mind so readily, it’s scary. His Indian powwows where he wore Native American dress and jumped over the heads of campers sitting around a camp fire from a darkened woods and then ran around the fire, jumping over it and chanting the way we all thought Indians might have chanted, all of us entertained and mystified by his presence. I think I’d ask him for his autograph if I saw him today. I kind of wish I had back then.
“Stretch” – this tall guy. A great counselor. What was his real name? Did he even have a real name? He was just Stretch to us and that was just fine with him.
Laura Beiting, Mary Ann Beiting. That whole Beiting family – they were legends. Of course, Laura, Miss Beiting. Had I only been a little older and she a little younger, a marriage proposal would’ve been in order. Those crushes when you’re 10, 11, 12 years old are so funny.
So many memories of a place that I was so terrified to go to my first year that my Mom cancelled at the last minute until I was more ready the next year. But even that next summer, when they had actually got me in the car and drove that five minutes to camp (I lived across the river and up the hill from camp), came the moment my parents walked away from the cabin and I still cried. My counselor saved me and told me to try playing with the other boys, which I did and forgot momentarily that I couldn’t go and run into Mommy’s arms. Then, when I got home two weeks later I laid in my bed and cried, begging my parents to take me back. I was in love, the first of many times my heart would be broken in my life. Not even the first time my heart would be broken as it was related to that camp. But it was life and it taught me about it.
***
Within a half-hour the building was a smoldering pile of smoking gray and white ash, with two gray, now black smoke-stained chimneys standing on opposite ends, that patio still intact. The home of my friend – where someone else’s family now lives – even more visible with the Winter’s barren trees opening a clearer sight line from where I stood, a safe distance away.
While it burned in it’s blazing hot, orange brilliance, evoking this mixed-emotion of neat-o and profound sadness, in the bitter cold just feet away in safety from the comforting warmth of the smoldering building, I said a prayer. It was a prayer for the Church that once owned this great place and let it die despite the desperate cries of those who had built it, loved it and made it what it was. It was a prayer for all the bad decisions the Roman Catholic Church has made in the last 80 or so years, the ones that have not benefited anyone but themselves and have hurt thousands of people, some much more serious than the decision to close a summer camp.
I have started to realize that in my life I will see lots of change. I guess when you hit your 30s you start to realize that not everything will last forever and that things do change. Mortality means change and that things come and go in life and many do not ever stay forever. The unexpected does happen. People let you down. Organizations and routines you count on change and sometimes get worse. Some get sweeter and better. People get greedy or maybe just don’t see things the way you do, and you move on or they do, too. People and places come into your life at the right time and then leave before you realize they’re gone, the impact already made, the mark left, the memory made. The good comes to fill in when the bad seems so heavy. And just the opposite sometimes, too.
I wonder why it took me so long to realize this sometimes. But I think someone, somewhere, some Higher Power, let me realize it when they knew I’d be ready. This burning, tearing down of camp is happening when they knew I would be ready to let go. Doesn’t make it any easier, though. But I can see that chapter, that passage now for what it’s worth, for the good, the bad. I can see it for the doors the past 16 years that it opened and the experiences I might never have had if Fort Scott stayed open.
I asked the firefighter heading up the practice burn how long it would be before they came and hauled away the remaining parts of the building and cleared the spot for the builders.
“They’ll just come with a bulldozer and spread it around and work it into the dirt,” he said. Really, I thought. Like a spreading of the ashes of a dead person, forever making this building and the memories and positive experiences that happened in it part of the ground around it. Fitting, I thought. Very fitting. Perfect, even.
The photos turned out great, something I’ll be able to use for my portfolio as I build my career in journalism. One more time this place gave back to me I think, looking through the awesome shots on the little LCD screen on the back of my camera. I’m happy to know they’ll be burning down more buildings there, and the firefighters have invited me back. It’s neat to watch. Can’t wait. More buildings that will be a part of the ground again. The next to burn? The place where I saw “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” for the first time. It’ll be cold outside and hot near the building. I’ll bring the hot chocolate and raise a toast to what once was before I watch it return to the ground.

Author: Joe Wessels

Joe Wessels is a freelance journalist and photographer. Wessels covers local news events for Thomson Reuters news service and features for About.com's Cincinnati Guide site, plus is the executive director of hyperlocal news site, iRhine.com. He wrote for The Cincinnati Post, covering Cincinnati City Hall and Hamilton County government and wrote a weekly political column, which continued weekly at Cincinnati CityBeat. Previously, he was a reporter for the Cincinnati Business Courier and writes or has written for several publications in Cincinnati and around the country including The Cincinnati Enquirer, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Cincinnati Magazine, Cincy Magazine and the Sacramento News & Review. He is a native of Colerain Township, one of Cincinnati's western suburbs, and now lives in Over-the-Rhine near downtown Cincinnati. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology and a journalism writing certificate from the University of Cincinnati. He also graduated from Colerain High School, is an avid photographer, news junkie and was once a roller rink disc jockey, and sometimes rides a scooter around town.

18 thoughts on “I love(d) Fort Scott”

  1. THank you and Amen! THey cannot burn our memories! Karen Skinner Lafkas, FSC 1954-1967 camper, counselor.

  2. The girls lodge was the first building erected on camp property as a boyscout camp. It seems fitting that it should be the first to be returned to the ground. I think the blaze rivals any Indian Pagent fire. TL, FSC 1976-1988 camper, counselor.

  3. You did a WONDERFUL job of capturing so many of the wonderful memories that have been shared by Ft. Scotters through the years! I guess I’m glad that if camp has to go, that someone with a F.S. heart would be able to give it a proper send-off. It just makes me so sad! But I guess that means that that it was very important to me. I am thankful for all of the experiences I had there as a camper and a counselor…and I am immensely grateful for all of the lasting friendships that I have made. “Ally ally ike us, nobody like us, we are the counselors of Ft. Scott! Always a-winning, always a-grinning, always a feeling fi-i-ine!Ft. Scott campers go marching along…with their hearts full of laughter and song, we feel that they are unsurpassed, and we’ll cheer for the first and last!With spirits so gallant, so gay, we will cheer for our dear old Ft. Scott campers, dear campers we’re cheering for YOU…and we will fight with all our might to win your friendship!! Hey!!!” I’ll always remember that song! I’ll close with part of another song that seems quite appropriate at this time: “the camp of my dreams, has been found it seems, on top of a wooded hill…” I’ll miss Ft.Scott! Carol (Leonard) Blankman camper forever, counselor 1976-80

  4. Your pictures made me cry. Until now there was still the fantasy of some last minute miracle to save the camp. I knew such a miracle would never be a reality but… one can dream! Your memories of camp mirror mine and the stories are ones I recall too even though I was most likely there a decade or more before you. Thank you for the dignity with which you preserve the memories of a time I will never forget… SUMMERTIME at FORT SCOTT!!!!!

  5. “My God”, I said to myself as a tear ran down my cheek when I saw the picture of the girls lodge burning. Fond memories of eight years as a camper and two as a counselor ran through my mind. Fort Scott was heaven on earth. A place to learn, grow, discover friends and find love.
    The cabins, buildings, woods are ashes, and the pool where I taught swimming is gone, but Fort Scott will remain alive in my body, heart and soul forever.

  6. A sharp cry & a burst of tears are what came out of me when I saw the picture of the lodge burning. Glad to see I’m not the only one. I guess I thought they would try & preserve a piece of the camp in the new develpoment. Some sort of recognition of the meaningful place that it was! I never expected them to burn the whole place to the ground!
    I laughed & cried as I read your article. My I love Ft.Scott sticker is still stuck on the inside lid of my camp trunk that now resides in the guest bedroom. That trunk has gone with me to Europe, Minneapolis, Orlando, Louisiana & Virginia, where I now live. I will always love Ft.Scott. Pour Some Sugar on Me? It was the theme for the Staff’s “backwards” prom that year! And yes, Stretch had a name, it is Craig.

    I mean where else would they hand you an arm full of water balloons at 3 in the morning, tell you to scream at the top of your lungs, & lob them at the poor unsuspecting boys asleep in their bunks. Ah, those were the days! If I tried that now my future husband would have me committed. Then again it might keep him on his toes!
    It’s hard to articulate the powerful love, many of us feel, for this place to those who were never there. Thank you for such a wonderfully written piece. All I can say is that it was a sacred place of my childhood.
    I was camper from the ages of 8-15 and a CIT the final summer the camp was open. I knew the trails like the back of my hand & I eagerly awaited those 2 weeks away from home. I learned something every year & the people I met helped shape my life & the person I would later become.
    I remember that cold rainy day we said good bye to the camp & then went to Flicks to drown our sorrows. A handful of us went back & crawled under the fence after dark to sit at the flag pole on the boy’s hill. It was calm, peaceful & eerily quiet.
    I’m a teacher now & A little bit of the camp lives on every time I teach my students a song I learned there when I was their age.

  7. Our Camp Fire girls group spent a week at F. S. in 1950 & 51. We were all afraid and homesick for about 20 minutes. What wonderful memories! I drive by there often with fond memories. Both of my children who are now 41 and 42 went to camp and loved it as I did. We all taught my grandchildren many of the songs and they loved that we would all sing them together. Their favorite was “Great Green Gops of Greasey Grimmy Gophor’s Guts”. Makes me smile to even think of it. Thanks for the memories.

  8. I was amazed to see the camp so gone! My wife, Shelly Maffey Brauer, and I were reaquainted at that Lodge porch the summer of 1974 when my friend and I came out to play guitar and sing for the campers – and we married in January of 1975.

  9. Joe,
    I am creating an archive of everything that I can find of Fort Scott, from camp songs to photos, to copies of canteen cards. I would like to place a link to this page on my blog, and I invite you to post there whenever you would like.

    Bob Saurber
    FSC 1977-1987

  10. When going to visit a friend , I had to exit on Blue Rock Rd and noticed a sign for ” Fort Scott Homes” Being a FS camper in the late fifties and sixties, I was compelled to turn the opposite way and see what this was. To my horror my camp was gone and the area was totally changed. When I arrived home, I Googled Fort Scott Camps and was delighted to find the Bugle Camp news. This is my first time writing however; I will continue to check often. I still have my camp scrapbook with badges and other memories.

  11. Still check in here on the rare occasion now. Not exactly certain why. Guess like all, I periodically need my “FSC Fix”. Man, what an amazing summer of ’74. Simply among most beautiful memories I own. Certain you all feel the same…
    Thank you for the simple beauty of a Summer day in this small piece of heaven…wish all could have experienced it.

  12. My husband and I are building a home on Camp Ln. in Ft. Scott. I enjoyed reading your blog and feel honored to live on the grounds where so many young campers enjoyed their summers. I’ll be sure to tell my two children all about what their backyard used to be. And I’ll make sure all of our neighbors do the same with their children! šŸ™‚

  13. Molly,

    Thank you for your kind words. For not me alone, that ground is a sacred place, a memory from our sometimes separate, but collective childhoods’ filled with impossible-to-replace and cherished memories. A subdivision isn’t ever what I wanted to see go there, but it is nice to know there is someone there now, on that property, willing to share its special past with future generations. For that, thank you.

    -Joe Wessels

  14. Wow, Joe. Beautifully written. I’m not sure what compelled me to do so this evening – possibly my young son’s increasing fascination with the outdoors, myths, and legends – but I typed in the words Pottinger and Fort Scott. It led me directly me to your essay. I’ve lived all my adult life in Colorado and Oregon, and much of my work has been in conservation and the outdoors. My experiences at Fort Scott played an enormous part in the path I’ve carved out in life. Thank you for helping me relive some of those memories this evening. I’m heading back to Cincinnati in a few weeks to go through boxes as we prepare to sell our family home – I’m determined to find my ‘Fort Scott Camps – The Place to Be in ’83’ ribbon.

    Best wishes to you,

    Glenn Fee
    Portland, Oregon

  15. came across your blog trolling for images of Flick’s. but spent some time reading the words and sharing those memories. GOOD read! Fort Scott was awesome. 3 great summers as counselor and those names you shared, haven’t forgotten those characters.

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