In early December 2014, Camp Mount Luther lost one of its founding fathers when Rev. John Bernheisel, 93, died. Here are some excerpts from “Seeking Its Own Identity: Camp Mount Luther in the era of The Lutheran Church in America” by Chad Hershberger.
One of the people looking for a site (for the new camp) was Rev. John Bernheisel, then pastor of First Lutheran Church, Mifflinburg. He recounts:
“In early 1962, Dr. Ira Sassaman, head of Christian Education and Camping for Central Pennsylvania Synod of the [sic] Lutheran Church in America, suggested to me that a synod camp ought to be established in that general area of the synod. He suggested I search for an appropriate tract of land about 300 to 400 acres, preferably with water on for a swimming pool or lake. Accessibility was also important. During the early part of that year I visited owners of four or five possible sites. In every case, these persons had sold off the land to about 30 acres. The last owner we visited was a man from Reading, Pennsylvania, who still lived on his Union County property at times. He suggested that the Buffalo Valley Fruit Farm, just east of his property would be a good property to investigate. The local man who was assisting me in the search was of the common local opinion that “the fruit farm was not for sale.” We went and drove the roads to the house and barn and out again. For the sake of getting concrete opinion, we went to the attorney we knew was the attorney for the Gutileus family who were the sole holders of the stock in the Buffalo Valley Fruit Farm Corporation. His immediate response to our question as to the farm’s availability was “I don’t see why not.” The information, which we had gleaned about the farm, was transmitted to the synod office and to Dr. Sassaman. After inspection of the property and subsequent negotiations by the synod, the property of approximately 370 acres was purchased.”
The Buffalo Valley Fruit Farm in Lewis Township, Union County (near Mifflinburg), consisted of about 370 acres (160 clear). Mrs. Fred Gutileus, Mrs. Margaret Town, and Mrs. Laura Gutileus owned the land and Kermit Boob managed the farm. Bernheisel said, “I thought it was a pretty ideal place, size-wise and terrain as far as getting to it. I couldn’t see how it really wouldn’t go to town.”
Prior to the start of construction, Rev. John Bernheisel 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 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 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!”
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 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 at 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 unique cabins for Mount Luther to find its own identity. It would also take a strong program that would take years to develop.