By Chad Hershberger
Camp Mount Luther was built in 1963. Construction bids were awarded in late May and Dedication Day was set for June 30. Today, it would be impossible to award bids and have a facility like Maple Village built in a month. As we prepared for the new bathhouse project, our architects told us to anticipate at least a year for design, permits, and bidding and a year for construction!
Prior to the start of construction of the first buildings at camp, Rev. John Bernheisel, pastor of First Lutheran, Mifflinburg, was appointed construction supervisor. Also prior to the beginning of construction by these contractors, the construction supervisor plotted the location of the center of the main building, the location of the eight cabins, and the location of the well. “At the time, there was a Hummelstown company that had some sample buildings like the cabins. The architects went out there and examined these and that’s what we had done. That was the design for the cabins in this original village,” Bernheisel said in an interview with the author.
In addition, the construction supervisor asked the United States Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Service to design and locate the pond. Competitive bids for the construction of the pond and the improvements of the roads were rather high. The supervisor, in consultation with Dr. Ira Sassaman and Wallace Alexander of Harrisburg, decided to give one of the bidders of these two operations the go-ahead based on time and materials not to exceed the lowest bid price. This arrangement saved several thousand dollars. The same problem existed with the plumbing contractor who was from Lewisburg. One bidder also agreed to a “time and material” agreement. This arrangement saved $2,500 on his initial bid price. Rev. John Bernheisel said the rationale for a number of these decisions being made was that there were just 21 working days remaining between the awarding of the contracts and the dedication day.
The synod Christian Education Committee decided not to take a full group of campers the first few weeks to give the staff a chance to get their feet on the ground. Rev. Robert Logan and Rev. John Bernheisel cut down the first trees to enable the bulldozers to make the first road into Maple Village.
Logan recounted those first days in an email to me in 2023: “I was in the fifth year of my first Call at Messiah Lutheran Church in New Berlin, still ‘wet-behind-the-ears’, learning what it meant to be a pastor. Pastor John ‘took me under his wing’ and gave me much practical counsel about the work of ministry. His encouraging brought me onto the work of development of Camp Mount Luther, the name chosen by the Camp Board. A good, supportive congregation proved to be a great blessing to me, with ‘lots of prayer support’ along the way. The Messiah congregation permitted me to serve in that capacity.
“As blessing would have it, I became the first Camp Board Chairman, still ‘wringing wet’ in the ministry. With the strong counsel and dedication of Mr. Ira Sassaman, then Central Pennsylvania Synod Director of Christian Education, we were able to get funded and get the camp constructed and opened the Summer of 1963.”
Logan tried to keep the architect on task since he was always tardy with the detailed drawings; Bernheisel kept pushing the contractor so that the buildings would at least be under roof by Dedication Day. Bernheisel recalled he was insistent when it came to getting the cabins finished. “At the time the construction was just getting underway, George Carr went on a fishing trip to Canada. On Monday, I said to his foreman, ‘I wish you would just work on four cabins and get them finished.’ His answer was, ‘I’ll do it my way.’ Believe it or not, on Tuesday, George came home. He knew it wouldn’t go with that guy. He was here on the tract and from then on they did it my way!” Bernheisel said.
Betty Jane Mincemoyer, who served as nurse during the first summer, told me that her hiring was crucial to the program. A representative from the camp visited her family farm and said Camp Mount Luther was ready to start but they couldn’t until they had a nurse. “I said I would go for one day. And I stayed eight years and was there every summer!” she recalled. She also recalled that the first summer six counselors, three male and three female, supervised the campers. Margaret and Al Harris, a couple that served as cooks at a fraternity at Penn State, served as cooks during the first summer.
The first staff training at Mount Luther took place on June 27-29, 1963, under the direction of Rev. Ted Schneider, the first camp director, and Ira Sassaman. Training included get-acquainted games, talking about Mount Luther’s goals, curriculum training, cooking out, fire building, conservation, a tour of the village, campfire/stories, worship, a hike to overnight locations, star gazing, and a nature hike. Pastor Ted trained the staff in Oak Cottage while contractors built the rest of the camp.
Then finally June 30, 1963, rolled around. A Dedication Day Service was held at 3:00. Over 600 persons were on hand for the dedication and opening. Rev. John Bernheisel was still doing dishes at two o’clock in the morning to get ready. “By dedication day, sufficient cabins were ready for campers. The main building was sufficiently near completion to be adequate for staff, campers, and their programs. The electric heater and dishwasher were completed Saturday night about midnight and all the dishes were washed for use Sunday evening for the first meal,” Bernheisel said.
Rev. Robert Logan said, “Dedication Day was exciting. Although the campers were moving in, there were no doors or windows on the A-Frame buildings. The interiors were not stained. Each morning, weather permitting, certain cabins were told to move their beds and belongings to the outside so that the painters could do their work.”
In an email to me in 2023, Logan added: “Doors and windows were not yet installed onto the cabins, mud everywhere, and no swimming pool, we OPENED WITH THE LORD’S BLESSING, with a large group of enthusiastic counsellors and campers. Carpenters and construction staff ‘worked around’ the daily camp activities without problems. The owner of a fairly large private swimming pool in the nearby village welcomed the camp program to use his pool. The campers ‘hiked” to and from the pool, daily.
“On several Sundays, the first Camp Staff conducted worship services at and for the nearby small church congregation, which was without regular pastoral services at that time. A good, harmonious relationship was built between the Camp Mount Luther administration and camp staff and the local community.”
“Pastor Theodore ‘Ted’ Schneider was the first camp director. His drive and dedication called together a good staff to get the camp in operation. Surely, there were problems, but the Holy Spirit led us through the ‘forest’ into the ‘daylight.’ Dr. Donald Mincemoyer, an agricultural professor at nearby Penn state University and local resident, guided the camp board to develop the best management of the lands. His wife, Betty Jean Mincemoyer, a registered nurse, served as the first camp nurse.
“The first year was a ‘booming success,’ thanks to God for some good weather and seasonable temperatures. Congregations throughout the Susquehanna Conference willingly supported the operation of the camp. The rest is brilliant history of heavenly blessings and dedicated leaders and staff.
“An interesting item: The Mount Luther Camp Board decided to make a ‘token tax payment’ to the local township administration, in as much as the township lost the tax base for the lands. In gratitude for the camp’s consideration, the township road crews plowed snow from the camp roads the following winters.”
In 1963, campers paid a camp fee of $22.00 and $3.00 for a store card. About 40 campers participated in the first week, and most of their parents attended the dedication service. “All the people who came who were not connected with campers didn’t know what they were walking into. I don’t think there was any apprehension. We had books and we were equipped—we had the tables and chairs,” Bernheisel said. When the camp opened, Maple Dining Hall was much shorter. Part of it was the camp office. The shower facilities and bathroom facilities were smaller, too. And the roof over the dining area leaked in a heavy rain.
An excavation contractor, Olan Boop from Laurelton, did the land and road grading. He and his son were bulldozer operators and bulldozed the terrain for the camp pond that later washed out in a severe storm. They reconstructed the pond breastwork to include a larger overflow outlet. The early campers, not having a swimming pool, swam on an irregular basis at a large private swimming pool in Pleasant Grove. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania ruled the use of the private pool by the camp illegal. Later that summer the camp transported campers to the Mifflinburg Community Pool for swimming activities. Senior High campers from 1963 noted in their journal that campers used the pond for swimming that summer as well.
At the pond, there was an old barn, and the remnants of the barn’s farmhouse foundation can still be seen today. John Bernheisel removed that structure during the summer of 1963. “I had the fire company come burn the barn down. I had to deal with fire company and insurance regulations. You can’t set a building that is in good shape on fire. So, we had a bulldozer put a cable around one end of the barn and pulled it down,” Bernheisel said.
The board wanted a craft shop constructed since the barn had been removed. Rev. John Bernheisel said in 2005 that later the first summer, a local carpenter secured plans and constructed a camp store. The original camp store and craft building was what is now the well house in Maple Village.
It was a busy year for all involved at Mount Luther. On September 24, 1963, the final inspection of Maple Village took place. As the first year of camp came to an end, the founders began looking toward the future. Projected plot plans for the camp called for a total of four villages, a central administration building (including a conference-retreat area), family camping facilities, and a congregational picnic area.
The first buildings at Mount Luther were complete and distinct. The A-Frame cabins gave Mount Luther a distinct, recognizable look. But it would take more than facilities to make the camp successful. It would also take a strong program that would take years to develop.