Saving Camp Ouachita

We live in a state where outdoor recreation continues to grow in popularity and importance. Recreational attributes help us attract and retain talented people in Arkansas. That means that protecting and enhancing those attributes is key to future economic development.

I’ve long been frustrated with the US Forest Service and US Army Corps of Engineers, agencies that too often in recent decades have pointed to budget restrictions as excuses for de-emphasizing the recreational parts of their congressionally mandated missions. Members of the Arkansas congressional delegation share my frustration.

In August 2015, US Rep. French Hill of Little Rock wrote the head of USFS to request that Camp Ouachita, a former Girl Scout camp in Perry County, be restored. The camp, which closed in 1979, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the only remaining Girl Scout camp in the country constructed during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration.

USFS didn’t bother to reply until November of that year. And the reply didn’t even come from the man to whom the letter had been addressed. It instead came from an underling named Joe Meade, who at the time headed a division called Recreation, Heritage and Volunteer Resources.

“Although the Forest Service remains open to all viable business proposals consistent with maintaining Camp Ouachita’s historic setting and features, it is not economically practical to embark on an expensive effort to restore additional structures at this time,” Meade wrote.

Hill has never been one to give up. He takes pride in the fact that Arkansas has the nation’s best system of state parks, thanks to voter passage in 1996 of Amendment 75 to the Arkansas Constitution. That amendment created a sales tax that provides needed revenue for park improvements and other uses. Hill reached out to state officials about making this piece of the Ouachita National Forest a unit of Pinnacle Mountain State Park.

In the summer of 2021, it was announced that the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism would manage the Lake Sylvia Recreation Area. The state signed a property lease with USFS. The lease includes Camp Ouachita, which was constructed from 1936-40. Ogden Hall and cabins there were designed in the rustic style that was popular during that period.

Hill points out that the staff at Pinnacle Mountain has been asked for years about potential camping sites in the Ouachita National Forest.

Lake Sylvia was constructed in 1936-37 by the CCC. In 1937, the CCC also constructed a small recreation area on the south end of the 18-acre lake, which is 38 miles west of Little Rock. Lake Sylvia Recreation Area now has a swimming beach, bathhouses, picnic sites, 14 campsites with water and electricity, eight primitive sites, seven rustic cabins with bathrooms and two group tent sites.

I’m with Hill, a ninth-generation Arkansan and lifelong outdoorsman, on a visit to the recreation area. Molly Elders, who oversees the site for the state, bubbles with enthusiasm as she takes us on a walking tour.

The Girl Scouts were founded in Georgia in 1912 by Juliette Gordon Low. The organization grew rapidly. The first Girl Scout camp was established in New York in 1922. By the late 1930s, there were almost 1,000 Girl Scout camps across the country. The first Girl Scout troop in Arkansas was organized in 1927. Starting in 1928, troops in the Little Rock Area Girl Scout Council took turns using Camp Quapaw, a Boy Scout camp in Saline County.

In 1936, Sue Worthen Ogden, president of the council, obtained a permit from USFS to create a camp in the Ouachita National Forest on Narrow Creek in Perry County. It was at a spot where the creek runs through a deep, rocky ravine known as the Narrows. The CCC decided to construct Narrow Creek Dam there. The lake formed by the dam was named Lake Sylvia on Ogden’s recommendation. Ogden had heard a speech about the ideal Girl Scout titled “Who is Sylvia? What is She?”

The public campsite was on the south side of the lake. On the north side, meanwhile, the WPA began working on Camp Ouachita. It was built in stages. The Girl Scouts paid for furnishings, equipment, materials and some labor. The WPA provided most of the labor.

The noted Little Rock architectural firm Thompson Sanders & Ginocchio designed the buildings with Frank Ginocchio as project architect. Structures were built with fieldstone and cypress logs. There were gabled roofs covered with cypress shingles and an exposed hewn-log framework. The common area had a great hall named after Ogden, an infirmary and service buildings. The common area was surrounded by four units that grouped campers by age. The units were named Lake View, Tall Timber, Echo Valley and Cliff Top.

A fifth unit across the lake was added in 1959 and called Atihcauo. It had no cabins and offered primitive camping for older girls, who accessed it by canoe.

According to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program: “Camp Ouachita drew Girl Scouts from across Arkansas and even neighboring states. There were two-week camp sessions, one-week sessions and even weekend camps. Activities varied by age and skill level with each unit hosting A different age group and interest focus.Some units emphasized water activities like canoeing and sailing.Others honed backpacking and campcraft skills.Still others taught lifesaving skills or trained future camp counselors.

“The base for each group’s activities was the unit house, where they might have nature talks, duty assignments, arts and crafts or rainy day games. It’s where they received mail from home and gathered around the fireplace on chilly evenings. There was no electricity in the camp until 1950, and then it just served the great hall, infirmary, icehouse and caretaker’s residence.

Girls were paired and used the buddy system. Water in showers was cold and came directly from the lake. In the swimming area, there were diving boards that floated on rafts in deep water. Inexperienced swimmers used two shallow swim cribs that were enclosed by a wall topped with a catwalk.

Everyone came together at Ogden Hall for meals and events such as religious services and talent shows. Girls sat eight at a table during meals.

By the 1970s, health regulations prohibited the use of untreated water from the lake. The 1978 summer camp was the last since the Girl Scouts couldn’t afford a modern water system. USFS largely neglected the site.

From 1982-86, other organizations were allowed to demolish structures and salvage the stones. Demolition was only halted when the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program announced that the camp was eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

Limited work was done in the 1990s to the caretaker’s residence and Ogden Hall’s roof. From 2001-07, Ogden Hall was renovated in stages along with the Lake View unit’s cabins and bathhouse.

“One of my favorite parts about working at this park so far has been the stories that have come out of this,” Elders says. “These cabins housed hundreds of girls through the years. I love to hear their stories. We’re trying to collect them. Even people who didn’t attend camp come here and want to get involved.”

Lake Sylvia Recreation Area is part of Hill’s dream of a corridor of outdoor attractions stretching from Little Rock to deep in the Ouachita National Forest. There are two access trails from Lake Sylvia to the Ouachita National Recreation Trail, a backpacking trail that covers 177 miles in Arkansas and 46 miles in Oklahoma.

“Good things can happen when federal, state and local governments work together toward a common goal,” he says. “We must expand and enhance the Natural State’s outdoor resources for all Arkansans to enjoy.”

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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