Avon Park's Camp Wingmann carries on 75 years of spiritual service
Fr. Bill Yates, director of Camp Wingmann, stands in the camp's mess hall building Feb. 3. The walls and roof of the mess hall are covered in the names of campers from their 75 year history. RYAN PELHAM/STAFF
AVON PARK - Scrawled in black paint over the back door, like the facility it's associated with, the name is a testament to time, a mark of memories, an autograph for the ages. Seventy-five years ago, a teenage boy outstretched his arm and wrote his name in block letters: "Knox Brumby, camps attended. 1939 - ." By the time Brumby had become an ordained Episcopal priest, staff member and camp counselor, the dates ended at 1966. Brumby's signature is just one of hundreds etched in chalk, scribbled in paint or plastered with marker and dating the decades covering the surface of the cafeteria at Camp Wingmann, an Episcopal summer church camp and year-round youth retreat center. Over the past seven-and-a-half decades, teens have gained friends, learned new skills and gotten involved in games and crafts at, as its motto states, "A place for kids to know and grow in Christ."
From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., March 1, Camp Wingmann is holding its "75th Anniversary Celebration" on the camp grounds, 3404 Wingmann Road. During the day, there will be kayaking, canoeing, games, rope course, arts-and-crafts, camp tours and an historic photo and memorabilia display. In addition, a $10 barbecue lunch will be served, $5 for children 12 to 14 and free under 3 and Bishop Greg Brewer of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida will lead a Eucharist celebration. As he sauntered around the campgrounds on a recent workday, camp director The Reverend Fr. Bill Yates - who lives in the camp rectory with his wife and head camp cook, "Momma Joanie" Joan - pointed out interesting items regarding Camp Wingmann's past, present and future. Since joining the camp as director in 1998, he said he and his staff have worked hard to maintain the physical and spiritual integrity that's been fostered over the generations. "We definitely want to see the camp flourish and see many more kids come and have fun and have positive growth in their faith in Jesus," he said. Around the camp's 42 acres bordering the approximately 145-acre Trout Lake, an ongoing process of making edificial improvements has been underway. Yates, 62, a Lakeland native who attended the camp from fourth to 12th grade, said all of the buildings were "really run down" when he, his brother, David Yates, and friends John Davis and John White decided to buy the camp from Tri-County Rehabilitation Services, who used the camp as a drug rehabilitation facility for teens and adults. Prior to that, after the summer of 1978, the camp was sold to the Missionary Alliance Church, according to a camp history compiled by Yates. After about two years, it was sold to a boarding school called Teen Challenge and then was again quickly sold to Tri-County Rehabilitation Services, which throughout the 1980s used Wingmann as a drug rehabilitation facility for teens and adults called "Trout Lake Camp." Yates' group borrowed money from a local bank and financed a mortgage of over $500,000 for Wingmann and re-opened the youth camp in June 1998, defects and all. "All the buildings were really run down. Things were in terrible shape. I look back at it and I can't believe all that has been accomplished. Every building has been renovated at some point," he said. With help from the camp's two other full-time workers, Joan and registrar Vicki Coleman, Yates has worked hard to keep the old retreat updated and functioning after its long history. The camp was named after two bishops of the Episcopal Diocese of South Florida: Cameron Mann, bishop from 1914 to 1932, and John Wing, assistant bishop from 1925 to 1932, and then diocesan bishop in 1932 until 1950. The original camp was a week-long retreat for high school age Episcopalians held in 1928 at Moccasin Island, a few miles west of Davie, near the Everglades. Camp Wing-Mann then moved to Crystal River. From there, it operated in the Avon Park hotel and the Lake Byrd Lodge on the outskirts of Avon Park. In 1937, the lodge wasn't available, so it moved to the Florida Military Institute in Haines City for one year. In the meantime, the Diocese of South Florida was looking for a permanent location and settled in Avon Park when John Sears Francis, senior warden at the Church of the Redeemer, Avon Park, gave the diocese some property on Trout Lake and $16,000 was raised by the Diocese to begin construction and the re-monikered "Camp Wingmann." Through the 1940s and 1950s, camp attendance grew and in 1960, Wingmann weathered Hurricane Donna, despite losing some newer buildings. Yates said the 1960s were they "heydays" of the camp, which were filled to capacity. By the late 1970s, however, Yates said attendance began to shrink as church camps waned in popularity. After the Diocese of South Florida split and a financially-strained 1978, at the 1979 Diocesan convention, it was decided to sell the property and use the proceeds to build a new youth camp and conference center, which became the DaySpring in Ellenton. Wingmann was sold to the Missionary Alliance Church, to Teen Challenge and then to Tri-County Rehab, During that time and for the next 20 years, the central Florida diocese had no summer camp for youth until the camp was repurchased and renamed back to Camp Wingmann in 1998. To date, about a half-million dollars in upgrades and repairs have been made. Those include new bathrooms, air conditioning, carpeting and expansions for the wood cabins three years ago,; a new, donated bathroom under construction in a staff cabin; and remodeled and upgraded kitchens. "It is now a year-round youth retreat center, the hub of youth activities for the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida and a first rate summer camp," said Yates. A longtime supporter of the camp who now serves on the board of directors, Debbie Barber, a lifelong Avon Park resident who still lives adjacent to the camp, attended Wingmann from the mid- to late-1950s while she was in middle school. She recalled the serene and contemplative atmosphere the facility had and the chances to learn new hobbies it offered. Barber's daughter, Katie Barnett, served as a camp counselor in 2000; her son, Robert was a lifeguard and counselor from 2000 to 2005; and her grandson, Gavin Abell, 14, has attended camp there since 2007. She said like herself, they learn respect and dignity with Christ while developing character and having fun. "They kept us busy and we had fun. You never wanted to stop doing whatever you were doing, but when you did get a break, you were ready," said Barber, who recalled "talent nights" as her favorites. "They never tried to push the Episcopal denomination on (campers). It was mostly to learn about Christ." Camp Wingmann staff still strives to present the same ethics in living a good life with others and God, said Yates. He said the majority of the camp's current counselors and staff went as campers at one point or another, like Greg Rawlings, 18, of Lake Placid, who attended from 7 to 17. Rawlings, a physical therapy student at South Florida Community College, said Wingmann "changed is life" around his freshman year of high school. He said along with the newer-generational activities, like team Olympics, the old-time faith exercises in nightly devotions and daily prayer made enough of an impact he wanted to carry on as a counselor. "I had gone so long, seeing the change it had on me, I wanted to give because the camp gave so much to me," said Rawlings, who recollected kayaking and canoeing has his favorite outdoor activities. Yates said a reunion would be held for former staff members, inviting them to stay in the cabins Saturday night and have breakfast and church service Sunday morning. Camp Wingmann's 75th anniversary is a testament to its ability to not only house campers, but to involve them in spiritual and cognitive growth that lasts a lifetime, said Ernest Bennett, the Canon to the Ordinary and bishop's assistant for the Diocese of Central Florida in Orlando. He attended the camp in the 1959 and 1960 and later became a chaplain. He said although the camp is steeped in the past, camp staff and the diocese work hard to make it relevant for the future. "The days of just camping have changed dramatically. Kids now don't want to be just entertained, they want something of substance," he said. "It's still a fun place, but it's also now more about maturing as a person and in Christ." For information, see www.campwingmann.org or call (863) 453-4800(863) 453-4800.