By Chad Hershberger
Mount Luther began as a dream of a new place of camping in the Central Pennsylvania Synod based on small-group camping. It ultimately replaced two existing conference-style camping programs at Camps Juniata and Susquehanna. To understand the history of Mount Luther, it is important to look at its predecessors.
Camp Juniata was located outside of Milroy, Mifflin County. The camp began around 1952 when laymen in the Belleville Charge, under the pastorate of Rev. John Stambaugh, purchased a 114-acre farm with farm buildings, five cement block cabins, and a macadam pool. Stambaugh, formerly of Jennerstown, served as director and worked to involve his parishioners and people of the district.
Camp Susquehanna was a large-group conference-style camping experience held on the campus of Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove. It operated from 1924 until 1969 and began as a Boy’s Camp under the sponsorship of the Boys Work Committee of the ULCA and later transformed into a youth conference. In time, the camp admitted girls to the program that consisted of classes, lectures, worship, and recreation.
In the latter part of the 50s, the Central Pennsylvania Synod of the United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA) worked to try to unify camping in the synod. By 1956, the synod reached out to Stambaugh at Camp Juniata and asked if he would be interested in an informal meeting for the directors of the four synod camps. The discussion would center around doing camping in a united fashion. Those camps were Nawakwa, located outside of Gettysburg; Sequanota, near Jennerstown; Juniata and Susquehanna.
It’s not known the outcome of that meeting (or if it even happened) but by the 60s, there was a movement to unifying synod camping ministry. Some of that was driven by the fact that the United Lutheran Church in America was planning a merger to form the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) with the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (Suomi Synod), the American Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church. As plans were progressing for that merger, in September 1960, Ira Sassaman sent a letter to the president of the board of Camp Juniata, stating that the church merger would affect camping. He suggested the camp meet with the synod Department for Youth Work to talk about camping concerns in the new structure.
One of the main concerns was the sustainability of Camp Juniata. On October 5, 1960, James Keyser, of the Board of Parish Education for the ULCA, suggested that the new LCA Central Pennsylvania Synod “might be well to consider relocating the camp [Juniata] to a new site. Also, I do not know if the merger will affect the size of your synod to such an extent that as you plan for your long-range camp program you may wish to think in terms of not just one camp which would replace Juniata, but two or more.”
A month later, two local pastors echoed that sentiment. “It might be a desirable step for the Juniata Conference to dispose of Camp Juniata and to join with the Susquehanna Conference in selecting a new camp site and starting out anew,” Pastors Jesse Wolf and John Ickes said.
In March 1961, the synod Executive Board recommended that the synod president (later bishop) appoint a committee to at a property in Lebanon County and to study the properties and programs of the existing synod camps. By November, the directors of Camps Juniata and Susquehanna along with the special committee on camps of the synod met in Mifflinburg to discuss the future. Discussion ensued on how best they could carry out a camping program. Camp Juniata stressed they needed synod approval for a new pool for them to continue their work. Camp Susquehanna wondered if they might lose the right to use the university.
By the beginning of 1962, no clear direction existed for the synod to move forward with its camping program. During a board meeting for Camp Juniata, members reported the synod had no definite plans for the camps but indicated a site for a new camp should be considered in the vicinity of Millheim to serve the Susquehanna and Juniata conferences.
A month later the synod Executive Board took action to call an associate director of Parish Education with camping as his primary responsibility, with the expectation that this office would continue in the new synod. On February 20, 1962, a letter from the secretary of the synod outlined that Camp Juniata should limit its expenditures only to necessary repairs and that the synod was considering a new camp site for the Juniata and Susquehanna conferences.
Knowing the synod’s position at this time, it probably came as no surprise to the board of Camp Juniata that on April 3, 1962, the synod’s Committee on Camping recommended to the synod Executive Committee not to allocate any synod funds for the further development of the Camp Juniata site. The synod also asked that the Camp Juniata Board take into consideration the synod’s proposed strategy to obtain and develop a new camp site to serve a larger constituency. The synod asked the board not to proceed with construction on a new swimming pool until after all factors and alternatives were carefully weighed, especially the financial resources available.
Camp Juniata’s last summer of operations was 1962. The following year, campers from there would become the nucleus for Camp Mount Luther’s first summer season. Between Summer 1962 and 1963, a site for a new camp would need to be found. Leaders wanted it to be centrally located and had several possibilities. But not everyone liked where the new camp might eventually be located. We will tell that story in a future blog post!
A postscript to Camp Susquehanna: By the late 60s, enrollment was decreasing there as Mount Luther continued to grow and a new synod camp, Kirchenwald, was opening. The Camp Susquehanna Managing Board met for the final time on September 21, 1969. George A. Smith, a schoolman from Montgomery, served as the last director and possibly the only lay director in the history of the camp. He succeeded his pastor, Rev. Adam Bingaman, who directed for 14 years.