By Derek Smith
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. There, I continued my ongoing search for historical information concerning Sherman Woods, which I could post to our website, shermanwoods.org.
I found the topographical map (attached below) at the bottom of that plastic box. It was covered in sand and was in dire 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, which I have outlined in purple; it was labeled “Cripple Camp.” At that time, I had no idea what that label meant.
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 1920’s.
This information immediately intrigued me; the seed of historical curiosity had been planted. Upon some basic investigations, it became my wish to honor all the men and women who had made this camp a reality and to present a picture of the wonderful children who were finally allowed to enjoy their first “real summer” at Camp Okawana. (I will detail my neighbor Dennis Smith and his grandparents later in this article.)
(Some of the articles and pictures in this writing were obtained from the Times Herald Archives.)
The area with purple tint on the above site plan 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 Ave. and Lake Huron are to the east, and Gratiot Avenue is to the west.
LaSalle Blvd. would eventually be the northern and Edison Blvd., 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 and 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 them to return to this area, where they started the summer school for disabled children at Edison Beach in the Okawana cottage. ( sorry, 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 decided to give Camp Okawana full use of their properties, free of charge, until they had plans to develop the region. (more information on this paragraph later in this writing.)
The earliest news of the Camp Okawana endeavor was in the Times Herald on June 27th, 1918.
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.
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 George Young of Young Bros. Manufacturing Company donated. Miss O’Neil had 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. Two hundred thirty-four people lost their lives. It would become Canada’s deadliest naval disaster.)
A second tent was also donated on July 22, 1924. At that time, fourteen members of the Michigan League for Crippled Children in Detroit visited the Okawana Camp. With lunches, the visitors had a picnic meeting with the children. The camp orchestra entertained them, and seventy- five dollars towards a new tent was pledged by the Michigan League for Crippled Children.
The camp progressed along a healthy path from its meager beginnings in the summer of 1918.
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 camp’s success and 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.
July 4th, 1919 Miss Edna O’Neil.. “this is an interesting read.”
May 17, 1920
Richard Foreman gave considerable effort to the success of the camp and its little people!
July 21. 1920
December 10, 1921. July 23, 1922
These dances proved a huge success and raised enough money to build a much bigger camp. Below is a picture of the “new” compound in February 1922.
The “Parfet Garage dance raised almost $2400.00, a tidy sum back in February of 1922. It helped to provide for a new left wing to the existing structure. The new wing was divided into two compartments, eight beds for girls on one side and eight 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
From left to right, they were Lillian Beckela, Mae Belle Hayner, Hazel Bartlett, and Mollie.
McLaughlin, Rhea Thornton, Author Clifford, Edward Claypool, Mildred Courtney, Gladys Morgan, and Albin Couney. Marion)These children were now free to enter high school or train in a vocation they chose. During the graduation ceremony, tribute was paid to the late Earl Casey, whose efforts on behalf of the children yielded such excellent results in the camp. Their class motto was, “Nothing great is ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
( 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 heat, no insulation, and no method to keep the running water from freezing.
Some 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 had their winter there.
Little did the children know that they would not be moving back to Camp Okawana in the spring of 1924.
In March of that year, Fred Dixon and John McKerchey decided to proceed with developing 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 Griswold St and 22nd Ave.
March 1925 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. The funding for the center gradually subsided as Okawana made its way into the past.
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 Nov 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, and 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.
Rest in peace Earl Casey, you have certainly earned your place in Heaven!
I promised you a follow-up on the information Dennis Smith Sr. provided 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. Styron 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, just 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 second great-uncle.
Dennis Smith’s Grandmother, Marion, in the Doorway of their new home at 3474 Armour. Circa 1929.
Another marriage occurred from a chance meeting at Camp.
Okawana. Mr. and Mrs. Steele were married on July 18, 1922
Camp Okawana’s land 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, McKerchey had intended to build a road from Ballentine into the ShermanWoods acreage. This would have allowed him to develop some properties on the lake on the east side of the proposed route after several proposals to Port Huron City Council, a request by McKerchey to build that road, was never passed. (more on “Sherman” history at shermanwoods.org.)
I found it impossible to bring closure to this story without an epitaph of the beautiful spirit that gave so much of her life to the disadvantaged. I had read several accounts of Edna’s selfless devotion to the precious little people for whom she so lovingly cared. There was the orphan boy who suffered from tuberculosis and was also crippled. He had spent five to six years of his life in the hospital. He was then moved to Camp Okawana for a year and then to a disabled children camp in Coldwater, Michigan, for one and a half years. When the center in Coldwater closed, Miss Edna adopted the boy and cared for him over the 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 lived at that time.
Another bit of correspondence I found was in April of 1932. It was a story about a Miss Marjorie
Browne. Although a person with a disability and legally blind, she took piano lessons at Camp Okinawa’s Eleventh Ave address. She studied under her teacher Miss Lois Steele’s supervision and had become an accomplished pianist.
Never abandoned by Miss O’Neil for over 20 years, she found happiness in a world 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. She suddenly disappeared after the correspondence I had discovered about her in the middle to late thirties. 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 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 Mr. Bert Peck and 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 St 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.”