Camp Okawana….… Re-Visited      

By Derek Smith


A short while ago, we published a story on Camp Okawana, a disabled children’s camp that was located within the confines of the Sherman Woods subdivision in Port Huron, Michigan.

The story centered around Miss Edna O’Neil, Mr. Earl Casey, the camp’s founders, and the handicapped children they so lovingly cared for.

If you have not visited that article, please do so. This writing follows some of the beautiful characters in that text and some new individuals. Your knowledge of that previous information will make this reading more illuminating and interesting.

 A few weeks after releasing the Okawana story in the Bluewater Healthy Living digital media magazine, Bluewater Healthy Living, we received a call from a lady named Celeste Repp. 

Celeste stated that she enjoyed the article and thought it had been presented as factual, loving, and caring. She left her phone number and requested this writer to call her.

It appears that over several months, with little success, Celeste and her family had been looking for information on Camp Okawana. One of Celeste’s children recently took it upon themselves to Google Camp Okawana. Much to their surprise, my “Okawana” article “popped up.”

As requested, I called Celeste, wondering what to expect. At the same time, I was anticipating further news about the beautiful camping venture launched so many years ago that had changed the lives of many disadvantaged children.

As it turned out, Celeste Repp is Edna O’Neil’s only natural daughter.

Celeste and I had a great conversation about Edna’s life, about Celeste herself, Edna’s children, grandchildren, and the lives of those dear little souls from the cripple camp.

Celeste promised to mail me more detailed information about Okawana at some time in the near future.

I waited patiently for several weeks, hoping she had not forgotten me or suddenly decided we should not follow further into that story. When the manila envelope of “camp history” finally arrived, I felt the excitement of a 10-year-old tearing into their long-awaited Christmas gifts.

In addition to the “manila information,” Celeste told me that her daughter Nancy had researched a crippled children’s camp for several years. 

As I mentioned in the earlier Okawana story, Miss O’Neil and Mr. Casey had been employed with the disabled children camp in Detroit, the “Van Leuven Browne Hospital- School” They had also spent three summers at the Van Leuven camp for crippled children at Lakeside Park in Port Huron.

Celeste’s daughter’s research focused primarily on the Van Leuven Browne Hospital, which would become the “seed” for Camp Okawana, so we shall begin this narrative with Van Leuven Browne Hospital School.

      Activities at the Van Leuven Camp on the shores of Lake Huron at Lakeside Park

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Camp Okawana…… Part Two

At nineteen years old, Blanche Van Leuven Browns was small in stature at 4 feet 8 inches and weighed 78 pounds soaking wet. However, what she lacked in size was well balanced by her drive, determination, foresight, intellect, and faith.

Born a healthy child, she developed infantile paralysis at three. Her right side and neck became paralyzed, so lifting her head was no longer possible.

Doctors had advised her parents she “would have to be lifted and carried the rest of her life.”

Never a family “to throw in the towel,” from age five through twenty- Blanche was treated with multiple orthoscopic surgeries and wore over fifty plastic casts and braces.

She had decided during her long years of hospital convalescence that if she ever became well, she would have a hospital and school for crippled children.

Blanche never gave up, and eventually, she could walk, run, and write rapidly with the hand that was paralyzed. She had only a slight paralysis on her right side brought about by severe lateral curvature of the spine.

Winston Churchill, the great English statesman and politician, once wrote, “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty”.

Blanche was forever the optimist. Still a young lady at 24, she left her home in Milford, Michigan, and went to Detroit to make the cripple hospital- school a reality.

She states,” I had six dollars when I reached the city, but I had a good wardrobe of new clothes and knew I could go back if I had to, but I did not expect or intend to return.”

At 26 years old, she founded the Van Leuven Browne Hospital -School in Detroit. The original facility consisted of five rooms with borrowed furniture and one child. That six dollars had long since disappeared.

The Van Leuven Browne Hospital School would care for nearly 200 children within nine years. Along the way, Blanche would adopt eleven children, all wholly dependent on Blanche for their care and support.

This Blanche Van-Leuven Browne Hospital School and Blanche Van Leuven Browne herself are remarkable stories. I will compose detailed writings on these topics sometime soon.

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Edna O’Neil was a nurse at the Van Leuven Browne Hospital -School, and Earl Casey was a patient, then a teacher.

Their summer visits with their patients to the Van-Leuven cripple camp at Port Huron’s Lakeside Beach would fuel the founding of their cripple camp, “Okawana.”

                         Miss Edna O’Neil and Earl Casey at Lakeside Cripple Camp Circa 1917

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Joe Sullivan was from Arkansas. He had once been a patient at the Van-Leuven facility, having lost, at the age of four, the use of his left arm and both legs due to paralysis.

When Edna was looking for a name suitable for their wooded environment on the shores of beautiful Lake Huron, Joe suggested “Okawana.” The term originated in the Ozark Mountains, where he had heard it used by Indians native to that region. I have attempted to find a meaning for the word Okawana but have met with no success. 

I find the name fits perfectly to this place and this time. Joe’s suggestion and Edna’s decision for the name Okwawana were just the beginning of many good decisions Edna would make over her lifetime.

On a side note, Joe Sullivan would go on to win fame as the author of a book called “The Unheard Cry,” which dealt with the welfare and education of crippled children. He would also go on to become the youngest mayor in the world at that time. He was elected Mayor of Imboden, Ark, on April 12th, 1912. He became editor of a local newspaper and worked as a newspaper correspondent. Joe made his way around in his wheelchair or traveled via his famous billy goat team.

                          Joe Sullivan Circa 1930.                                            Nov 1914

The first Camp Okawana story featured a boy who had spent 5-6 years of his young life in hospitals, suffering from tuberculosis. 

The lad was of North American Indian ancestry. As a small boy, he traveled with his parents, whose Indian troupe made a living appearing at circuses and as part of the old Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. The family and their Indian troupe were to travel to Europe with the Hagenbeck Wallace Circus, but the child, Steve Shomin, came down with tuberculosis and was left behind where he would begin a new life in and out of hospitals.

               In the Early Part of the 20th century, this Circus was the second-largest in the USA.

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                                     Chief Standing Rock was Steve Shomin’s Grandfather

 Steve’s parents separated, and he was made a ward of the state and placed in an orphanage in Coldwater, Michigan. When the Coldwater orphanage closed, still suffering from tuberculosis, Steve was sent to Camp Okawana for some healthy Lake Huron air. There, a young nurse, Edna O’Neil, would take over his care. Steve made a deep impression on Edna with his quiet courage and steadfast determination. Edna would eventually adopt young Steve and instill in him many positive life choices, such as the value of an education and the benefits of learning.

Edna’s daughter Celeste wrote, “I was proud of my adopted brother, Steve Shomin.

He was a quiet, humble person. My mother didn’t change his name because she did not want to give a North American Indian an Irish name”. She encouraged him to study his Indian ancestry!

Steve became active in several Indian organizations. He helped organize the Petosky tribe and was elected chairman of Unit 10 of the Ottawa tribe. He would honor his Indian name, “Chief Sky Eagle,” by teaching Brighton area school children about Indian culture, such as sign language, trapping, Native American games, and the story of his life, depicted in Indian drawings.

He assisted in securing educational grants for Michigan Native Americans and helped win a $10 million lawsuit by the Chippewa and Ottawa tribes against the federal government.

Steve would retire as supervisor of the Brighton area school bus fleet.

Shumin’s knowledge of Indian culture and history and his experience as a leader of numerous Indian Councils would earn him an audience, President Kennedy. At that time, Kennedy was presented with a copy of the Declaration of Indian Purposes signed by the leaders of the Indian Groups.

With Kennedy at the White House in 1962. (Steve is Lower Right.)     Steve, with his Native American Headdress 

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With Edna O’Neil’s help, Steve could find his original mother, who lived in Gaylord, Michigan.

Steve and his wife Loretta would have two children and be blessed with two grandchildren.

His was a life filled with learning and education. His was a life lived with love for his family and his ancestry. He had adopted and practiced the valuable advice Edna had given him back at Okawana many years ago.

Steve died in Brighton, Michigan, on April 25, 2003.

When the Okawana camp’s location was sold in 1924, as mentioned in my earlier article, several camp children moved into Edna’s house at 1831 Eleventh Street.

1933, Edna married Bert Peck, and her daughter Celeste was born in 1936.

To help make ends meet, Edna and Bert operated a grocery store from part of their house at the Eleventh Street address.

Unfortunately, during this time, America suffered the economic woes of the Great Depression. Edna and Bert, being the generous people they were, ended up giving away more food than people had money for!

The grocery store would then transition into a shoe repair business.

One of the camp boys, Earl Ladford, had learned how to repair shoes. Edna and Bert provided him with a storefront at 1831 Eleventh from which he could conduct those repairs.

                                                  1831 Eleventh St. as it Stands Today

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Marjorie Darlings came to the Eleventh Street address as a baby from the Van Leuven Browne Hospital School. She was both disabled and blind.

She arrived as a foster child and remained there for almost 20 years.

With help from the family, Marjorie would recover physically and regain most of her sight.

She became a talented pianist and earned a living as a piano tuner.

In 1942, she married Woodrow Darling, who was blind. Her camp friend Jean Osborn stood up for her at her wedding.

Marjorie and Woodrow would later move to Detroit, where they operated a stand at the Liquor Commission.

Edna’s daughter Celeste would be a bridesmaid at Hiram Brewer’s wedding, another boy from the camp.

Jean Osborn, Marjorie Woodrow, Rev DuPlan, Woodrow Darling, and Les Darling July 18th, 1942

                                                            Wedding Day

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                                 Jean Osborn, Alex, Marjorie Browne, and Harold Todd

As time passed, more and more “camp children” found independence, married, and moved away from the 1831 address. 

However, they always found time to gather with their new families. The conversation of these meetings would eventually find its way to the daily adventures they had enjoyed at Camp Okawana. 

Topics would include stories about what nature had presented them that day or possibly where their favorite swimming spots were located along Huron’s shores.

The bonds formed many years ago at Okawana would remain solid and enduring.

                          Celeste had written me, “They Were A Family”!

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Get Together of Camp Members and Spouses Circa 1973. Front row Loretta Shomin, Cecelia Chateua, Maybelle       Spencer, Edna Peck (standing), Marion Boynton. Back row ?, ?, Anson Chateau,

Jack Spencer, Steve Shomin, Hiram Brewer, Woodrow Darling,? ,?.

Edna’s husband, Bert, passed away in 1955. The last of the children of Camp Okawana had now left.

At this point, Edna decided to finally do something for herself.

She dreamed of someday returning to Huron’s lakeshore, that magical place where so many of her young patients had found peace.

Edna’s daughter Celeste and her husband Jim were married in 1960. A year later, they acquired a property on Lake Huron, including a small trailer to which Edna would move.

Four years later, a house near Celeste and Jim would become available at Lake Huron Manor.

Edna would sell the house on Eleventh Street, that address that contained so many memories, and move into her little log cabin on Elmwood Drive.

It is there that Edna’s final dreams were realized. Celeste wrote, “She was in good health, loved her house, and enjoyed her final years being close to her six grandchildren. She had built a reputation of being the first one in the lake in the spring and the last one out in the fall”.

True to her nature, with no children to look after, Edna took it upon herself to feed the birds and carefully tending to her dog and cat.

Her Christmas wish was simple: “Birdseed and cat food.”

Celeste worked as a caseworker for the Bureau of Social Aid until she and Jim’s first child was born.

Two of their daughters work at the University of Michigan Hospital, one as a nurse in the

Oncology Department and the other as a caseworker in Children’s Protective Services.

Jim and Celeste would go on to enjoy a total of eleven grandchildren, one of whom is a college senior majoring in psychology and planning to go into social work.

“The apple does not fall far from the tree!”

Camp Okawana whispered the sounds of gentle waves as they lapped on the lake’s sandy shoreline. It whispered the sounds of a crackling bonfire, providing night shadows of children laughing and giggling as they enjoyed their first perfectly charred hotdog or that sticky brown marshmallow so desperately clinging to a roasting stick.

It whispered the call of a red-tailed hawk as it skillfully navigated the night sky. It whispered the sounds of a gentle south wind, finding its way through the pines that lined the shores of Okawana.

For a brief moment so many years ago, these wonderful little campers were absorbed in nature’s magic, taken away from all their ailments, and given a renewed faith for better days and 

a better life.

My special thanks to the Edna O’Neill family for providing me with their loving insight into the life of Edna O’Neil Peck and for the narrative on the lives and adventures of Camp Okawana and its special children!

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