October 19, 2021

Expect an enthusiastic outdoorsy turnout to Old Campground Festival

NEW LENOX – The annual Old Campground Festival in New Lenox attracts a crowd every year, and a crowd is expected at the 42nd annual event Saturday. But not everyone realizes the festival grounds once were an actual campground for thousands of people, and this campground turned 150 at the beginning of the year. Camps and camp meetings are an important part of Methodist church history, said Jay Carr, senior pastor at United Methodist Church of New Lenox, which hosts the festival. “After the Civil War, the Methodist church across the country was heavily invested in campground as a way to bring healing to the nation,” Carr said. “So at that point, the local Methodist church said, ‘We should do that, too.’ They knew the local picnic grounds were there.” United Methodist Church did not own the campgrounds during this time. Rather, it was run by the Centenary Campground Association of the Rock River Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Carr said. At its peak, the camp in New Lenox attracted 5,000 people on Sundays from the northern Illinois area, many of them arriving on chartered trains, Carr said. “There would be special events on Sunday and people camping out all week long,” Carr said. “They’d get up at 8 a.m. for Bible study, and they would have a variety of Bible studies or worship services or games during the week.” The nature of the camp changed from revival meetings to youth camps after World War I, Carr said. “Kids, again from the city, but also from Joliet and the surrounding area, would come from Monday to Friday for what we more typically think of camp today,” Carr said. The youth camp continued into the 1960s. Several current members of United Methodist Church attended that camp. Jim Speicher of New Lenox Township attended camp in 1956 when he was 12 years old. About 60 kids ages 10 to 12 participated that year, Speicher said. He said the boys had the cabins to the west, and the girls had cabins to the east. There was one chaperone per cabin, a shower house up from the boys cabin and a dining hall where services also were held. Jonelle Shiner of Manhattan Township never attended the actual camp, but she did spend three days on the property in the 1950s, when she and other Methodist high school students readied the grounds for the campers, Shiner said. Shiner’s parents moved to New Lenox when Shiner was 4, and she then joined United Methodist Church, so the campgrounds always have played a significant role in her life, Shiner said. “It certainly means a lot to still have it as church property and be able to use it,” Shiner said. “I must have had a good time because I went back the second year,” Nelson said. “And then I got to be a teenager, and no one can tell a teenager what to do.” Not until after United Methodist Church bought the campground property and built a church on it did the idea of hosting a festival take shape. To celebrate the campground’s 150th anniversary, people dressed in period clothing will mingle with attendees and share stories of the past. “And then on Sunday morning, there will be a rededication of the property,” Carr said. ---------------------- KNOW MORE New Lenox United Methodist Church senior pastor Jay Carr provided some additional history on the Methodist campground in New Lenox: • 1835 – Methodist meetings were being held in New Lenox. • 1867 – With the Methodist church well-established, a group of local Methodists bought the 21-acre Cold Springs Campground, on what was then the west edge of New Lenox. The purchase and development of the camp was for the purpose of holding religious camp meetings and revivals. • 1867 – After the purchase the group organized the Centenary Campground Association of the Rock River Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church to oversee and run the camp. • 1867 – Local Methodist church leaders involved in developing the camp were George Barr, Charles Francis, Fred Haven and Cal Nichols. There always has been a strong connection between the camp and United Methodist Church of New Lenox. • 1867 – The first camp meeting on the property was held in August. Families from surrounding villages and as far away as Chicago came each summer by horse and wagon and by train to attend religious camp meetings. They stayed in tents, then later in cottages. A wooden tabernacle was erected for the preaching services. The sessions lasted from 10 days to two weeks, and the attendance on Sundays was as high at 5,000. • 1927 – A log cabin constructed of poles from the Western Electric pole yard (which was located in the area known as Brisbane in south New Lenox) was built in the campgrounds for youth activities. Later, it became known as the Boy Scout Cabin. • 1927 – Arvid Swanson, a member of the Methodist church, and superintendent of the pole yards, designed and built the cabin. Carr said a preacher once lived in the cabin when starting a new church. It also was used as year-round housing for people during the Great Depression, Carr said. • 1965 – The campground was no longer used as a church camp and was put up for sale by the Joliet-Dixon District of the Methodist Church. • 1965 – At a special session of the quarterly conference on Aug. 12, 1965, the board of trustees of the New Lenox Methodist Church was authorized to purchase the estimated 21 acres of land from the Centenary Camp Meeting Association for $50,000. • 1976 – Groundbreaking services were held for United Methodist Church of New Lenox’s fourth building (which cost $500,000) on the old campground property, located at 339 W. Haven Ave. • 1977 – The church building was dedicated on June 26. • 2011 – The Boy Scout Cabin, which remains essentially the same in appearance as it was when it was built and is the only building left from the old campground, was honored as a historic landmark by the Will County Historic Preservation Commission. ––––––––––––––––––– IF YOU GO WHAT: Old Campground Festival WHEN: 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday WHERE: United Methodist Church of New Lenox, 339 W. Haven Ave., New Lenox. ------------------ IF YOU GO WHAT: Old Campground rededication WHEN: 9 a.m. June 25 WHERE: New Lenox United Methodist Church, 339 W. Haven Ave., New Lenox.