Answer Man: Tell me about Camp Wangelin

News-DemocratJanuary 18, 2014 

I'm almost 85, so it was 70 or 75 years ago that I spent time at Camp Vandeventer and loved it. But what can you tell me about Camp Wangelin, which was nearby? -- Bev Hirstein, of Waterloo

When I first tackled this question a couple of weeks ago, I assumed that if the local Boy Scout council didn't have info on the camp's history, it would be hard to find, so I simply threw the question open to readers.

Well, I just suffered another hard lesson in one colorful definition of the word "assume." Readers were very helpful, but with a little bit of digging, I came up with a wealth of information on this long-defunct camp on my own. So, here's the full story:

East St. Louis and Belleville once had separate Boy Scout councils. In 1920, Fred Nobbe began allowing the East St. Louis group to camp out on his farm near Waterloo during the summer. Eight years later, East St. Louis Judge William Vandeventer bought 68 acres from Nobbe and gave it to the Scouts on the condition that the new camp be named for him.

Soon, the Belleville council was hankering for its own camp, and on Aug. 16, 1929, the Belleville News-Democrat announced that the council was buying 271/2 acres from Michael Schorr, of Waterloo. It was covered with virgin forest on rolling hills cut by Fountain Creek, which flows through the area.

"The bed of the creek is rock bottom, and the walls of the gorge are beautiful," Scout Executive James Swofford said in making the announcement. "After having seen the beauties of (nearby) Camp Vandeventer, I believe that our new site is even a bit prettier, if that is possible."

But even better news was soon to come. On Oct. 7, 1929, three weeks before Black Monday, retired Belleville insurance agency founder Irwin H. Wangelin announced that he was going to spring for the land, which was worth an estimated $1,500. It was the largest individual gift in the council's history.

It was something people apparently could always expect Wangelin to do as a civic-minded businessman, who was a one-time postmaster and president of the Good Government and Improvement Association. Of course, he also may have had some impetus when his grandson Don won first prize as an honor camper at Camp Vandeventer two months before.

Whatever the reason, the entire town of Belleville quickly rallied behind the new camp, according to materials from John Goodwin, of Millstadt, a long-time Scout leader from Millstadt who has been collecting memorabilia for 40 years. Within two months, a mess hall and administration building were erected, Roesch Enamel donated tables for the dining hall and folks at Douglas School volunteered to build 15 sleeping cabins.

Later, Walter Keil gave $1,000 to dam Fountain Creek to create a swimming pool. By 1933, the Scouts were holding birdhouse-building contests with the winner earning free camping. Eventually, the council even erected a cabin that could accommodate winter stays.

For a decade, the camp provided a wealth of summer fun -- most of the time, at least. Gene Haller, of Waterloo, said Scouts from Camp Wangelin sometimes made their way to Camp Vandeventer even though they weren't supposed to. On one occasion in about 1940, a group of boys became a bit too frisky on a swinging bridge over Fountain Creek. At least two or three fell and wound up being taken to the hospital, one with a nail in his chin.

"Visitation stopped after that," Haller said. "But the camp was a great place to go."

But by the mid 1940s, the camp was becoming a headache. The council was expanding to the east, making Camp Wangelin a growing logistical problem. Making matters worse, the terrain prevented a third of the area from being used for camping, the road needed constant repairs, boating was impossible and, worse, state health officials had banned swimming after 1941 because of pollution in the creek.

As a result, the Scouts began searching for a more centrally located camp. They achieved their goal in 1945, when the Joy Foundation in Centralia donated 165 acres of land near Carlyle for Camp Joy. Now, the Belleville-based Lewis and Clark Council has Camp Warren Lewis in Godfrey, which dates to 1921, and Camp Sunnen in Potosi, Mo., which goes back to 1953, as well as Joy and Vandeventer.

After closing as a Scout camp, the Wangelin tract was eventually purchased by Virgil Kirchoff, who developed it into a wondrous home and grounds known as Creekhaus, according to Mary Mohrman, of Belleville, who once visited the place as part of a Waterloo Garden Club tour.

"It was astounding," she said. "It was like a mini Shaw's Garden. There were iron sculptures and he had a lady do the landscaping for him. It was just spectacular."

But Kirchoff, who died three years ago, also kept the Scouting connection alive.

"I remember there was an emblem in the floor or fireplace from the original Boy Scout camp," she said. "And he just redid all of his residence around it and absolutely spared no expense."

To see camp pictures, go to page 12 of the June 26, 1939, Daily Advocate.

Today's trivia

After battling a plumbing problem from the nether world, I'm taking a few days off. See you back here on the 28th.

Answer to Saturday's trivia: On Dec. 23, 1941, the original Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were carefully packed and sent to the Fort Knox, Ky., for safekeeping during World War II. In September 1944, they were returned to the Library of Congress. Several foreign governments also entrusted valuables to the U.S. bullion depository

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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