Christian youth organization continues nature preserve’s purpose
It was a bit of a difficult thing for former members of the board of directors for Camp Arthur to have to see the property for which they cared for 30 years pass into other hands. But when the other hands turned out to be a church association that promised to use the camp for the purposes under which it was created, a little bit of the sting was soothed.
In October of last year, Camp Arthur, which was established around 1945 as a Boy Scout camp, was passed over to the Flat Creek Association General Baptists of Indiana, a Christian youth organization that dates back to 1966. It was turned over by the Arthur Foundation, which had operated the camp for use by the public since the 1980s. While it was difficult for the members of the Camp Arthur board to let go of the property, it turned out that the Flat Creek Association wanted to do the same thing with it that the board had been doing, plus, they plan to add in more activities for youth, like summer camps. So, while Camp Arthur is under new ownership, visitors looking for opportunities to commune with nature might not even notice.
Learning on the job
Mike Hickman is a youth pastor at Bethlehem General Baptist Church in Vincennes and the full-time caretaker of the Camp Arthur property now. Hickman has his hands full daily taking care of the roughly 140 acres and 8-acre pond that comprise the camp. He mows grass, cuts downed trees and dead limbs away to keep areas accessible, splits wood and generally does whatever maintenance the property needs. He lives on site, so work is never far from his mind. This type of work wasn’t what Hickman had trained for. In a previous life he served in the Navy and then worked at the Vincennes YMCA as its athletic director.
“I had to learn how to drive a tractor and work a bush hog,” Hickman said.
Hickman is the man that will keep Camp Arthur in shape and that will allow all of the planned activities to take place. The work doesn’t exactly come easy, being as physical as it is, but Hickman has taken to it. In the early spring he was busy getting Camp Arthur ready for wedding season – hosting weddings is part of the new plan. In mid-April, with most of the grass cut, Hickman turned his attention to getting the three-sided shelter house ready to hold ceremonies.
It’s nonstop work, but Hickman seems to love it. He talks freely about how much he loves being a part of a nature preserve there and delights in the details of what he sees.
“The osprey swoop down and grab fish out of the pond. I thought they were hawks at first but someone pointed out that if they’re eating fish, they’re not,” he said. “It’s incredible.”
Changing hands through the years
Hickman’s and the Flat Creek Association’s turn with Camp Arthur is the newest chapter in a storied history of the place. Grocer John Bierhaus bought the land in 1945 and turned it over to the Southern Indiana Boy Scouts Council in memory of his deceased son, Arthur, who was a scouting enthusiast. Over the next 20 years, fundraising efforts enabled the Scouts to build a chapel, archery and rifle ranges, a boathouse, shower house, a water tower and a commissary. Young Scouts would enjoy learning about being prepared in a perfect, picturesque setting for decades.
But in the early 1980s when a larger Scout property, the Old Ben Scout Reservation, in Winslow, was bought, attendance at Camp Arthur declined and the costs of maintaining it for use by the Scouts was getting too high.
The Boy Scouts needed to give the property away but a clause in the deed stipulated that if it was ever not used as a Scout camp, then Camp Arthur would revert to the YMCA. However, at the time, the Y wasn’t interested in owning it, so in 1988, the Arthur Foundation was formed to take over the property.
Bob Bierhaus was the driving force and the money behind the Arthur Foundation at its inception until his death in 2010. Bierhaus, both through his own philanthropy and that of his wealthy friends, kept Camp Arthur afloat and open to the public for almost 30 years.
Clay Decker served on the Arthur Foundation board for more than 10 years and went to gatherings at Camp Arthur when he was a Scout as a young boy. Decker was on the board when the decision was made to sell the property.
“We had a lot of big donors in the 80s but they were Bob (Bierhaus)’s friends. They either passed away, moved away, or both,” Decker said.
The decision to give up the property was not an easy one to make for the board, Decker said, but despite trying to add in activities the board hoped the public would embrace, like building arenas and buying equipment for paintball, in the end it turned out not to be enough.
“It was not a lot of fun,” Decker said of the decision to sell. “I was treasurer a year and a half before it happened and we knew we were going to have to make a decision that none of us wanted to make.”
Talk of housing development
There was talk of the property being bought by a developer and being subdivided out into housing. With what’s essentially “lakefront” property, the payoff would have been big. But that would have been anathema to the members of the Arthur Foundation board, who wanted Camp Arthur’s future, though it was not with them, to be what John Bierhaus originally envisioned: a camp for youth and a nature preserve for the public.
“(Development) was not the intent of the Bierhaus family,” he said. “Bob was a personal friend of mine and he would have been beside himself.”
Fortunately, the Flat Creek Association came along and had a vision in line with the Bierhaus one for the camp. The timing was right, too. Flat Creek used to own a camp facility in Pike County, near Petersburg, but when the plan to run the new section of I-69 through where the camp was, the church organization had to start looking elsewhere for somewhere to hold its youth programs. With a healthy payoff from the eminent domain sale of their former property, the Flat Creek Association made an offer on Camp Arthur, buying out the YMCA’s interest after that organization again turned down taking ownership.
“There was a lot of sitting and waiting,” Hickman said of the process. “But the property had everything we needed.”
But the plans go beyond what was at Camp Arthur when the church association took over. A big part of the plans now are summer youth camps, for which cabins are being built to house the young campers.
Preparing for summer camp
That’s being helped along by a local Christian humanitarian organization, Helping His Hands, which is arranging for volunteer labor to build the cabins. Scott Shipman is the founder and director of the group and he’s personally helping to build the cabins, which he said should be ready for the summer camps planned this year, one in June, one in July.
“This is sort of the ripple in the pond,” Shipman said, referring to how he hopes building the cabins will create more interest and opportunities at Camp Arthur. “The great thing is that when we’re done, we’ll be saving souls.”
The Boy Scouts have always included a Christian component to their endeavors and now that it belongs to a church association, there’s still a strong connection to religion. Alcohol and tobacco are both prohibited on the property, which Hickman said has caused some looking to use the property for events to look elsewhere. But, on the other hand, a Christian connection is one of the things that has created more interest from the Boy Scouts, who are coming back to use the property more.
“It’s as simple as it gets,” Hickman said. “We have no religious statement. I hope people don’t notice a difference (from when Camp Arthur was run by the Arthur Foundation). We give witness by the way we live.”
Hickman said the exhausting efforts of all the volunteers and his own full-time manual labor are paying off and the public is starting to once again take an active interest in Camp Arthur. The phones are ringing daily with people looking for a place to camp, get married or go fishing. The paintball fields are undergoing renovation and the equipment bought by the former board are still there, waiting to be rented, trails waiting to be explored, and fish in the pond, waiting to be caught.
By Rama Sobhani