Piland Youth Camp: Small in size but big in its impact on generations of kids who love it
Piland Youth Camp, near Thornfield, is small in area, 5 acres or so, but since its beginning in the mid-1950s it’s had a big impact on the hundreds, maybe thousands, of children, teens and adults who have spent time there.
Some former Piland campers have gone on to become full- or part-time preachers, including Dale Roberts and his brother Robert, Doyle Turner and his brothers Gaylon and Randall (a hospice chaplain), Joe Gaddy, Dean Trivitt, John Evans and his brothers Sam and David, Kyle Burnett and many others. Several generations of other campers, male and female, grew up to send their own children and grandchildren to Piland Youth Camp, and many of those adults also came back to serve as camp directors, cooks, teachers, guest preachers and board members.
A camp near a little church
with an impressive history
The beloved little camp started sometime between 1955 and 1958. “A fella named Charlie Phillips–he was a General Baptist preacher–he was the individual who had a vision for having a youth camp for children,” said Doyle Turner, a former camper who later served as camp director for many years.
Minnie Piland (1882-1961) donated the land for the camp; Anita Donley, another former camper and now a camp board member, said the deeds were recorded in 1952 and 1955-56. Her friend Ruth Evans told her about attending one of the first camps held on the site. The one-room Mount Lebanon School stood at the bottom of the hillside where today’s camp is located, and Ruth told Anita that originally the female campers were going to sleep in the school during the camp. “But then the school board was afraid there would be a church-school conflict, so they decided the campers couldn’t stay there,” Anita said.
Instead, according to Ruth’s recollection, the campers “slept under wagons or in the back of pickups,” Anita said.
The school building is now gone. It’s believed that when the Gainesville School District consolidated and the one-room school closed, it was bought by or reverted to the Piland family and was later part of the property donated to the camp. Dale Roberts and Doyle Turner, who attended camp there in its early years, remember that the boys slept in the old school, so it had apparently been decommissioned by the school district by then.
While the school building is gone, the historic Mount Lebanon Church, also at the bottom of the hill below the camp, continues today with Louis Stern as pastor. The church was organized Jan. 2, 1847, by Samuel and Martha Piland, and the Rev. Thomas Norris and his wife Penina (Samuel Piland’s sister). The couples came from Kentucky in 1846 and settled near Thornfield.
The church these pioneers established is recognized as the first General Baptist Church west of the Mississippi River. Mount Lebanon is also the oldest congregation in Ozark County, according to “A History of Ozark County: 1841-1991,” published by the Ozark County Genealogical and History Society.
In 1866, the church became a charter member of the Missouri Association of General Baptists, according to the Missouri State Historical Society’s account written by the late Shirley Carter Piland. The original Missouri Association consisted of churches in Missouri, Arkansas and Indian Territory.
Today the church stands as a landmark for the campground, but usually isn’t used by the campers.
Supporting the camp –
and raising money for its needs
Knowing the possible impact this special place might have on the kids who come to camp, a dedicated team of volunteers and nine local churches work hard to keep it going. The camp now consists of two dormitories where the campers sleep, a large auditorium/chapel with full basement where classes and craft activities are held, and a cafeteria/kitchen building. The buildings are air conditioned – but the equipment is aging.
Board members Anita Donley, Judy Cowan Evans, Kay Hutchison, Theta Nokes, Ray Brazael and Bill Haden are working to raise money to replace the heating and air conditioning system in the camp’s chapel. And everyone knows, after the HVAC system is replaced, there will be other needs.
They welcome donations from other churches, groups and individuals. To help with a tax-deductible donation, make checks payable to Piland Youth Camp and mail to treasurer Treva Warrick, P.O. Box 372, Gainesville, MO 65655. A gofundme.com account has also been opened. Search for “Piland Youth Camp.”
Debbie Goin Snelson grew up hearing about Piland Youth Camp, but she didn’t get to go as a kid. “My mom never wanted to let us go places except for family,” she said. But Debbie said that, as an adult, her friend and camp volunteer Vickey Yarger told her, “Oh, Debbie. You have to come. It’s so much fun.”
After that, Debbie made up for her lack of childhood camping. “I started going when I was 24, married with two kids, and I haven’t been every year since then, but I’ve been more years than I’ve missed.”
She started at the camp working as a cook. Then she served as a camp director and later taught camp classes. This year she’s a cook again. “I’ve done every job there,” she said.
Her family laughs when they say Debbie’s third child, Billy, was “the first boy to sleep in the girls dorm.” Then they hasten to add that he was 3 months old at the time, and Debbie, a new mother at the time, was one of the camp’s volunteer staff members. Now Debbie’s grandkids love Piland Youth Camp too.
A day at camp
When the Missouri Association of General Baptists started Piland Youth Camp in the mid-1950s, the association included about 20 churches throughout Missouri. Anita Donley remembers that one of the things she liked most about camp was meeting kids and renewing friendships each year with campers from outside the area, including Springfield. In the first years, the camp welcomed kids from sixth through 12 grades.
“We would have almost 100 kids a lot of times,” she said. “We would overflow the dorms, and kids would sleep on pews in the Mount Lebanon Church or in the camp’s tabernacle.”
Gay Turner Strong and her four siblings, Joe, June, Judy and Leon, attended the camp every summer for seven or eight years. “We looked forward to being away from home for a few nights, even if it was just a quarter-mile down the road from our house,” she said. The Turner kids’ cousins would come from Kansas City to go to camp with them.
In those days “there was still water in the creek, and we went down there to swim,” Gay said. She enjoyed playing ball, making crafts – and especially sitting at the long tables in the dining hall eating ice cream in the afternoons. “We really enjoyed it and always looked forward to it,” she said.
These days, water activities include such things as kiddie pools and Slip ’n’ Slides down the hillside.
A typical day at camp begins with wake-up call, usually around 7-7:30 a.m. “Then you straighten up your dorm brush your teeth and then go to sanctuary and sing some songs to wake up,” Debbie said. “Then up to the kitchen to eat breakfast and then back to the dorm to finish cleaning up and getting ready for inspection. The girls compete against the boys – and the boys win a lot of time.”
Next comes a morning class – a Bible story and lesson, singing and some recreation. Usually there’s a special speaker every morning or afternoon. Past speakers have included Douglas County Sheriff Chris Degase, former Ozark County Sheriff Darrin Reed, conservation agents, Missouri State Highway Patrol troopers and other community officials and leaders. This year, Debbie hinted that a special speaker from Springfield is expected at one of the camp sessions.
The afternoon is spent in other activities, and after supper, the campers gather for an evening worship service. Family and community members often join these evening services, which may also have guest speakers and preachers.
The 2021 camp year
Today the camp is still supported by the churches in the Missouri Association of General Baptists, although now there are only nine, and they’re all in Ozark and Douglas counties. The association holds its annual meeting each year at the camp – a change from its early years when association meetings were held in tents at the member churches.
Piland Youth Camp has always been free for all the children who attend, and children of all denominations – or no church background – are welcome.
“Sometimes we have kids who’ve never been to church at all,” Debbie said.
Longtime volunteer Linda Ellison Hannaford said, “We teach salvation through Jesus Christ, and we encourage campers to be baptized as soon as possible.” Sometimes stock tanks are brought in for baptisms, with the approval of parents. “This has become a very special part of our closing service,” Hannaford said.
In addition to financial support, the association churches also supply the food for the camp, which now is divided into three sessions: senior, junior and kiddie camp. Last year, camp was canceled due to the covid-19 pandemic, but things are back to normal in 2021. Junior camp for grades 3-6 will be held July 18-21; senior camp for grades 7-12 is July 25-28. Registration for both junior and senior camps begins at 4 p.m. Sunday. The one-day “kiddie camp” for kids age 4-8 is July 24, beginning with registration from 10 to 10:45 a.m. and the closing service, open to everyone, is at 4 p.m. followed by dinner. Younger kids are welcome, too, if an adult stays with the camper.
To register youngsters for the camp, contact the appropriate session’s director: senior camp, Linda Hannaford, 417-543-3359; junior camp, Randi Hubbard (Debbie Snelson’s daughter), 417-989-8846; and kiddie camp, Alicia Adams, 417-255-3802. For more information, visit the Piland Youth Camp Facebook page.
Debbie Snelson will return to the kitchen to cook for this year’s camp sessions.
Some evangelists and special musical groups who appear at the camp are paid for their work there, but most of adults who serve as staff members are volunteers, said this year’s senior camp director Linda Hanniford.
Remembering the past, imagining the future
As this year’s campers gather, the adults who are there to make sure they stay safe and have fun will no doubt look into the young faces and wonder which of them might be impacted by their experience at Piland Youth Camp in a way that changes their lives. They know very well that it has happened before.
For example, they look at the lives of Dale Roberts and Doyle Turner, who went forward to be “saved” during their own time as teenagers at the camp more than 50 years ago.
“I was backward and bashful as a boy, but Allen Ledbetter and my mom and dad got me to go to camp,” Roberts said recently, recalling that night in 1958 when he was 17 and everything changed for him.
At camp, he had a good time meeting “lots of kids I didn’t know” and playing ball and doing the other camp activities. Then, on the last night of camp, “several older preachers” had come in for the evening worship service. “It was a pretty big thing,” Roberts said.
His walk to the front of the church that night “was the best journey I ever made,” he said. “I went there for a purpose, and I didn’t want to leave without it. I stayed up front on my knees for an hour or longer. Finally, Allen Ledbetter said to me, ‘Dale, why don’t you stand up and shake hands with us.’ And all of a sudden, I was filled with the Holy Spirit. It just come over me. I got up and went to shouting.”
Later, Ledbetter baptized Roberts and several others in the creek below Thornfield. In 1983, the man who had been “backward and bashful” as a boy felt the call to ministry. During the next 36 years, Roberts pastored several area churches. He retired from pastoring in 2019 but continues to officiate at weddings (120 as of Friday) and funerals (now totaling 377).
Doyle Turner hasn’t kept track of the funerals he’s preached or the couples he’s married in his decades of pastoring, but he hasn’t forgotten his own night at the front of the evening worship service in 1962 or 63.
Now 69, Turner first went to the camp at age 12, “and I went every year until I got out of high school.”
As an adult, he served steadily at the camp, first as a teacher, then assistant director and as director for 20 years. He took a break then but went back later and worked as the camp director another four more years to help Mary Ann Moore, who was his co-director, he said.
He remembers, that first year as a camper, that “I had a friend there with me, Steve Sallee,” Turner said. “Before the service, we talked, and we decided we were going up to the altar that night.”
Afterward, he said, “I called myself a Christian, but I didn’t always live it.”
Then, the summer after he graduated from Bradleyville High School in May 1970, he told his mother he wanted to go to camp one more year. “They told us we could come back one more time after graduation,” he told her.
“I don’t know that camp has helped you much in years past, but you can go one more time,” his mother replied.
“That year, I went back to the altar and rededicated my life to the Lord,” Turner said.
There’s more to this story, which we hope to include in an upcoming edition of the Times. But for now, we’ll just say that, shortly after that night at the camp in 1970, when Turner made his second trip to the altar, he began a life in ministry that continues, even now, at True Hope Church in Theodosia, where he has pastored for almost 34 years.
A peaceful, spiritual place
It takes a lot of work and a lot of money to keep Piland Youth Camp going. But those involved don’t doubt that their work and financial support are worth it.
“I love the whole experience,” said Debbie Snelson. “You leave all your cares and woes behind, and you get to be a kid for a week. It’s spiritual. As soon as you walk onto the place, it feels like you’re walking on holy ground.”