Friday, August 1, 2014

Bicycling Adventures Interlude: The Des Plaines Methodist Camp Grounds

So, I'd been avoiding this part of the Des Plaines River Trail for a while. Besides having to bike through the literal clouds of mosquitoes, connecting from the southern to the northern portion here used to be very problematic. It involved crossing a very busy Algonquin Road, zipping down a narrow access road, climbing up a steep grade under the Metra tracks, making one's way over to Rand Road, and then somehow crossing it right in the middle of a blind curve.

Old bike crossing at Rand road
(snipped from Google Maps)

Now, there's a great bike trail that bypasses all that (which I'll get to later). And there's an interesting reason for some of the run around in this area. The old Methodist Camp that owns a large chunk of property along the Des Plaines River.

community chalk board (left) swimming pool (right)

Back in the 19th century, when large tent revival meetings were one of the main forms of entertainment, this land was purchased for the purpose of providing enough space for overnight camping, as well as a stage for visiting preachers and performers.

Wesley Tabernacle and Sanctuary

Sometime between 1860 and 70, some revival goers started building simple one-room buildings for the summer. These early cottages were added on to as years go by, reflecting a conservative, almost Victorian aesthetic.

Heritage House
summer cottages

After a while, they build larger permanent structures, also. The giant meeting tent was replaced with an ingenious, open-space round structure that utilized steel bracing to keep the sight lines free.

Waldorf Tabernacle
Waldorf Tabernacle

The C&NW railroad even gave the camp it's own train station, despite the Des Plaines stop being less than a mile away. All that's left of it now is the ticket booth and luggage depot.

ticket window
old entrance on Camp Ground Road

As you can see from some of these photos, the grounds have been hit by another major flood. When I was younger, I lived and worked at the camp, and had to deal with the occasional threat of the rising Des Plaines river. With more sub-divisions going up in the area, and more frequent storms with our changing climate, floods are now a regular occurance.

cottages near the river

The city of Des Plaines has declared a good amount of the cottages as unsafe to live in. In past years, everyone would get together, raise some money and do some hard work. The camp would be probably be up and running by now, if they hadn't had to spend all their time and money on settling a discrimination lawsuit that almost cost them some federal aid. And probably cost them a lot of friends in the church.

a few cottages have been raised above flood level this year

You see, I spent my summers in Des Plaines in order to avoid having to spend my vacation locked indoors all day in the city. With both my parents working, and being afraid of the world, most of my childhood would be spent at home or dragged out to the shopping mall. In exchange for having to sit through a week of Bible School, I had a chance to play outside and watch television and do things that normal kids did.

camp cottage
My old bedroom window

Of course, like other Atheists I've talked to, I had to keep my non-beliefs in the closet. A week of memorizing bible verse isn't a terrible thing. The hard thing, especially as I got older, was the realization that I was summering in a close-knit and close-minded community. There were exceptions to this, but I over heard many conversations about "the blacks" could one day be as good as "white people" or how "gays" are threatening "our children." It was pretty much 1950, all the time.

hotel desk
One of the last places in the world where Reader's Digest is read

And I'm not saying this to be mean or accuse anyone. Really, it just makes me sad. This could be an amazing place. It's a great patch of contemplative quiet in the middle of the forest preserve. I imagine a bed and breakfast or a restaurant could be run here, without disrupting the religious functions and musical events that still take place. This is twenty-five acres of land that is now (from what I saw) half disused. But I suppose the price one pays for seclusion and exclusion is being excluded in return.

not approved
Not Fit For Occupancy

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