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Camp Okawana, where “Nothing Great is Ever Achieved Without Enthusiasm”

Prologue

The “Okawana” story had its beginnings at the bottom of a plastic box in the Sherman Woods community storage shed, just a “stone’s throw” from where Camp Okawana had been located. It was there I was continuing my ongoing search for historical information concerning Sherman Woods, historical information that I could post to our website, shermanwoods.org.

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I found the topographical map (see below) at the bottom of that plastic box. It was covered in sand and in great physical despair. (It has since been marginally repaired and removed to a more secure environment.)

Upon close examination of the map, I saw what appeared to be a rectangular box (outlined in purple). It was labeled “Cripple Camp”. At that time, I had no idea what that label meant.

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Quite to my surprise, perhaps by fate or divine intervention, a few days later, I was asked by a neighbor, Mr. Dennis Smith, if I knew where the disabled children’s camp might have been located in the Sherman Woods area.

My reply was to the affirmative and that I could show him that location on the Lot 20 McNeil Tract plot, which I then did. He told me that his grandfather and grandmother had met at the camp in the early 1920s.

Needless to say, I was immediately intrigued by this information, the seed of historical curiosity had been planted. Upon some basic investigations, it became my wish to honor all the men and women that had made this camp a reality and to present a picture of the wonderful children who were finally given an opportunity to enjoy their first “real summer” at Camp Okawana.

I will wade into more detail about my neighbor Dennis Smith and his grandparents later on in this article.

Some of the articles and pictures contained in this writing were obtained from the Times Herald Archives.

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The area with purple tint on the site plan above indicates where Camp Okawana was located on lot 20 of the McNeil Tract. There are 17 acres in this site plan which now comprise the Sherman Woods community. 

Conger Avenue and Lake Huron are to the east and Gratiot Avenue to the west.

LaSalle Boulevard would eventually be the northerly boundary and Edison Boulevard the south boundary.

Miss Edna O’Neil and Mr. Earl P. Casey, were two former employees of the Van-Leuven Hospital School for Crippled Children in Detroit, where Miss O’Neil was a nurse Mr. Casey, a teacher, and at one time a patient himself, had come up with the “cripple camp” idea.

They had spent three previous summers in a cripple camp at Lakeside Park in Port Huron.

The beauty of the woods and the blue therapeutic waters of Lake Huron lured their return to this area, whereupon they started the summer school for crippled children at Edison Beach in the Okawana cottage. Sadly, I could not find the meaning of the name “Okawana.”

Fred J Dixon owned the 17 acres contained in lot 20 of the McNeil tract and John M McKerchey of Detroit owned the beachfront property in that area. They made a joint decision to give Camp Okawana full use of their properties, free of charge, until such time they had plans to develop the region (more information on this paragraph later in this writing).

The earliest news I could find of the Camp Okawana endeavor was June 27, 1918 in the Times Herald.

It said the “camp project” was initially funded from the personal savings of Miss O’Neil and Mr. Casey. Further funding would come from room and board from those families that could afford such an expense. 

Miss Edna O’Neil would eventually come before the Port Huron Chamber of Commerce looking for support for this special outdoor place where these kids could spend a beautiful summer along the shores of Lake Huron.

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At a 1919 presentation by Miss O’Neil to the “Chamber”, Port Huron’s Rotary Club decided the “Camp” would be a great project for them and they took on the task of underwriting everything from nurses to playground equipment. The initial canvas shelter was also donated.

Of special note, March 1st of this year was the Rotary Club’s 100th birthday. Thank you for the all positive things you have accomplished for the Port Huron community.

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On July 4th, 1919, the camp’s happy family of eight, along with the aid of other workers,  completed their 12 by 24-foot canvas house which was donated by George Young of Young Bros. Manufacturing Company. Miss O’Neil had just returned from a memorial service in Paquette, Ontario for her brother Norman O’Neil and her cousin Russell O’Neil. They had drowned when the hospital ship Llandovery Castle sank on June 27th, 1918. (It had been torpedoed by the German navy off the coast of southern Ireland. 234 people lost their lives. It would become Canada’s deadliest naval disaster.) 

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A second tent was also donated on July  22nd, 1924. At that time fourteen members of the Michigan League for Crippled Children in Detroit visited the Okawana Camp. With lunches in hand, the visitors had a picnic meeting with the children. They were entertained by the camp orchestra and seventy-five dollars towards a new tent was pledged by the Michigan League for Crippled Children.

From its meager beginnings in the summer of 1918, the camp progressed along a very healthy path.

Much of this growth came from the hard work of the Rotary Club and the local Chamber of Commerce, who had made concerted efforts to advertise the success of the camp and to arrange various benefits to raise money. Camp Okawana was also blessed with a generous outpouring of love and generosity from the local Port Huron community, which is not unusual.                                           

Regarding the article image below, July 4th 1919 Miss Edna O’Neil — ‘this is an interesting read.’

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 May 17, 1920

Richard Foreman gave considerable effort to the success of the camp and its young people.

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                         July 21, 1920                              
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December 10, 1921
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July 23, 1922

These dances described above proved to be a huge success and they raised enough money to build a much bigger camp. Below is a picture of the “new” camp as it stood in February 1922.

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The “Parfet Garage dance raised almost $2,400.00 which was a tidy sum back in 1922. It helped to provide for a new left-wing to the existing structure The new wing was divided into two compartments, 8 beds for girls on one side and 8 beds for boys on the other. There were new shower baths on both sides as well as toilet facilities. At this time there were 19 children in the camp under the direction of Miss Edna O’Neil.

The picture below is of one of the Camp’s graduation classes. It was the class of June 22, 1923.

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From left to right – Lillian Beckela , Mae Belle Hayner, Hazel Bartlett, Mollie McLaughlin, Rhea Thornton, Author Clifford, Edward Claypool, Mildred Courney, Gladys Morgan, and Albin Courney. Marion. These children were now free to enter high school or to train in a vocation of their choice. During the graduation ceremony, tribute was paid to the late Earl Casey whose efforts on behalf of the children yielded such amazing results in the camp.

Their class motto was, “nothing great is ever achieved without enthusiasm”.

An interesting note, Hazel Bartlett had been good friends with Dennis Smith’s grandmother, Marion.

The camp was not set up to house the children in the winter. There was little or no heat, no insulation, and no method to keep the running water from freezing. 

Some of the kids were returned to their homes and the remaining youngsters moved to the camp’s winter home. Okawana had rented a large roomy house that was suitable to provide a safe and caring environment for at least 20 children. It was located at the corner of Lapeer and Tenth Avenue in Port Huron and the children spent their winter there.

At that time, little did the children know that they would not be moving back to Camp Okawana in the upcoming spring of 1924.

In March of that year, Fred Dixon and John McKerchey had decided to proceed with the development of their lakeside property. Dixon sold the 684 feet of beachfront property to Mr. Ross Mahon and plans were made for the Sherman Woods development. 

On April 4th 1924 the 25 children were taken to a temporary shelter at the corner of Griswold St and 22nd Ave.

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March 1925
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April 1925

Camp Okawana would eventually move to 1831 Eleventh Ave, which was the residence of Miss Edna O’Neil. 

The last correspondence I found on Okawana was on August 27, 1933, when the Rotary Club had its annual summer dance and the proceeds of that benefit went to the camp.

It is my belief that the funding for the camp gradually subsided as the camp would make its way into the past.

Epilogue

Mr Earl Casey who founded the crippled children’s camp, along with Edna O’Neil, died at Camp Okawana on Nov 12th 1921, very early into the development of that camp.

The following column appeared in a paper on November 14, 1921 in tribute to Mr. Casey.

“Earl Casey died Saturday at Okawana Camp for crippled children. ‘I’d like to have Earl’s chance in heaven’, we heard a man, a great big healthy man solemnly say, when told that Earl had passed away. It would be hard to pay a finer tribute to his memory. Earl Casey was a cripple, an incurable cripple. The lower half of Earl died years ago and what was left of his poor crooked body was barely a skeleton. Yet in Earl Casey there lived the spirit of a man, a fine wholesome man with a heart of pure gold. A cripple himself, he devoted his life to the care and education of cripples. A cripple he often said “had to do things a little better than a normal person in order to get a job”, so he taught cripples, ‘how to do things better’. He dragged himself about by the sheer force of will, to do his very last thinking only of his pitiful charges at Okawana Camp. He was their teacher, their instructor. They loved him and he loved them. He never complained, he was always cheerful, he was glad that God had let him live. Now Earl Has been taken home again. Yes, indeed, we’d like to have his chance in Heaven.”

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Rest in peace Earl Casey, you have certainly earned your place in Heaven!

I promised you earlier a follow up on the information Dennis Smith Sr. had provided for me earlier in this article.

Dennis’s grandmother was a patient in Camp Okawana. Her name was Marion Field, she had traveled there from Ohio for treatment. Styon Boynton, Dennis’s grandfather, a worker at the camp, would fall in love with Miss Field. They would eventually marry and live happily at their home on 3474 Armour St, which was but a few steps from the camp where they first met.

Nathaniel Boynton, one of the founders of Boynton Beach Florida, whom I have just finished an article on, was Styon’s uncle and Dennis’s great, great uncle.

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                            Dennis Smith’s Grandmother Marion in the Doorway of their new home at 3474 Armour Street, 1929

It just so happens that another marriage had taken place from a chance meeting at Camp Okawana. Mr. and Mrs. Steele were married on July 18, 1922.

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The land that Camp Okawana was located on would become part of the 17-acre development called Sherman Woods.

The lakefront property owned by John KcKerchey would eventually be sold to the Sherman Woods developers. That lakefront property would be deeded to the lot owners in Sherman Woods.

From my research, it is my thought that McKerchey had intended to build a road from Ballentine into the Sherman Woods acreage. This would have allowed him to develop some properties on the lake, on the east side of the proposed road. After several proposals to Port Huron City council, a request by McKerchey to build that road was never passed (more “Sherman” history at shermanwoods.org).

I found it impossible to bring closure to this story without an epitaph to the beautiful spirit that gave so much of her life to the disadvantaged. I had read several stories of Edna’s selfless devotion to the precious little people for whom she so lovingly cared. There was an orphan boy who suffered from tuberculosis and was also crippled he had spent the first five to six years of his life in the hospital. He was then moved to Camp Okawana for a year and then to a crippled children camp in Coldwater, Michigan for one and a half years. When the camp in Coldwater closed, Miss Edna adopted the boy and cared for him over the many years that followed. Twenty-two years later, the boy had become a grown man and a successful auto mechanic. With the help and encouragement of Edna, after all this time he was finally able to find his mother. He and his mother had an emotional reunion in Gaylord, Michigan where she was living at that time.

Another bit of correspondence I found was in April of 1932, a story about a Miss Marjorie Browne. Although crippled and legally blind, she was taking piano lessons at Camp Okinawa’s Eleventh Avenue address. She studied under the supervision of her teacher Miss Lois Steele and had become an accomplished pianist.

Never abandoned by Miss O’Neil for over 20 years, she was able to find happiness in a world that I am sure was not easy for her.

Any hope I had for completing the story of Camp Okawana rested on finding further news on the life of Miss O’Neil. After the correspondence I discovered about her in the middle the to late thirties, she suddenly disappeared. What happened to her? Where did she go? How can I end this story without her?

My search to complete this narrative had begun and I would spend several long hours attempting to find the whereabouts of a Miss Edna H O’Neil.

Eventually, after great effort, I found a reference to Mrs. Bert Peck formerly Miss Edna H O’Neil in the Times Herald society column in the 1940s. 

Miss O’Neil had married a Mr. Bert Peck and she had adopted the name Mrs. Edna H Peck.

They were married in 1933 in Ohio and as far as I can confirm, they continued to live at the 1831 Eleventh Street address. Bert died in 1955.

Edna had immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s having been born in Essex Ontario to William and Beatrice O’Neil.

Edna died in October of 1982 having lived a long and caring life.

Indeed, Edna O’Neil had given her life to all those precious little souls, so many years ago in the spring of 1918.

“I’d like to have Edna’s chance in heaven we heard a man, a great big healthy man solemnly say, when told that Edna had passed away…It would be hard to pay a finer tribute to her memory”

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