A History of Camp Mitchell

by Anne Fulk

On March 23, 1942, Bishop Richard Bland Mitchell purchased 80 acres and a spring on Petit Jean Mountain from Dr. W. T. Hardison for $2,000.00.  The money came from property owned by the Diocese near Havana called Huckleberry Mountain, which had been purchased in 1921 for the Winchester School for Mountain Boys.  The property was sold with the funds earmarked for a permanent conference center.

Camping had long been a summer ritual in an effort to recruit youth to the programs of the Episcopal Church.  In 1938, as a response to Germany’s Adolph Hitler’s “I need you”, the church responded:  “The Church Needs You.”

This first Camp Mitchell took place in “cruder” rented quarters on Petit Jean, attracting 45 campers who officially requested the Diocese to work toward a permanent conference center.  Their wish was fulfilled in 1948.

In 1946, the YMCA property on Petit Jean was purchased for $10,000.  As soon as Bishop Mitchell said yes to the offer he began calling possible donors.  Kramer Darraugh made the first contribution and helped raise additional funds.   The Women’s Auxiliary immediately donated their trust fund of $2,517.00.

The 408 acres included Stout’s Point (now a State park) with a wrought iron fenced grave.  The name of the mountain, Petit Jean, as the story goes, was named for a young French girl who in the late 1700’s dressed to impersonate and pass for a cabin boy in order to follow her lover who sailed from France on a voyage to America.  She died of fever and was buried overlooking the Arkansas River on the mountain named for her.  The Revered William Cummings Stout was a pioneer clergyman who in the mid-1800’s owned land across the river from Petit Jean Mountain.

The new camp site included a stone and framed building and a swimming pool made from a creek in a deep ravine finished on the south with a rock dam.  The camp’s water system was in poor condition and hadn’t been used in years.  The Men’s Auxiliary raised funds to upgrade the system and bring it up to health department standards.  One of the first buildings, Burke Hall, was named for the Reverend Cornelius C. Burke of Marianna who did youth work in the Diocese for 40 years.

For $200.00, thirty “hutments” or surplus army barracks were trucked up to the mountain from Camp Robinson in North Little Rock and placed on concrete pilings.  They were 16 feet square “made of lumber and sound constitution.”  There was a dining room, infirmary (two hutments joined together) and cabins A through G.  Two stone cabins were built and named “Newport” and “Christ Church” for their donors.

They were furnished with government surplus steel cots and blankets, with new mattresses which came from Pine Bluff.  St. Paul’s, Fayetteville, furnished dishes and cooking utensils for the dining room.  Leslie Jeffress and his wife, Frances, a registered dietician, were the first volunteer kitchen staff with employees from the communities of Oppolo and Ada Valley.   Fans came from the Marion Hotel in Little Rock, available when air conditioning replaced them.

The Episcopal Churchmen’s Association raised $17,500 for the water system and filter plan, purchased from the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Baton Rouge.  A pump organ came from St. George church at Hartfield and Ft. Smith.

The camp went into operation in June, 1949.  By order of the diocesan Executive Council, the property was named “Camp Mitchell”.  (The Bishop advised the group they could change the name in the future.)  When the camp opened, $32,548 had been given, exclusive of the land with only $3,000 from outside the diocese.  One of the first high school camps passed a resolution that a chapel be built and $200 was raised to begin the project.

The Bishop appointed various clergymen to take charge of individual summer camp sessions.  Originally, there were separate camps for girls and boys.  A number of young men in the discernment process ran the day to day details of the camp.