Camp Winding River, local Girl Scout camp, up for sale and facing uncertain future

CORY MACNEIL/Citizen photo Donald Swanstone, Sr. flips through a photo album from his time as site manager for the camp. He served in that role for nearly two decades, part of a family lineage that helped upkeep the camp during its storied history. DEARBORN, Mo. — With the texture of his rough hands and the utility of his thick finger nails, Donald Swanstone, Sr., turns the pages of two photograph albums. Each three-ring binder is at capacity with yellowed photograph page inserts and protecting plastic covers brittle with age.

A collection of clipped newspaper articles, yellow like a big country sunset, cut to exactly the shape of the words containing stories about Camp Winding River, push the limits of the binding of the albums.

Swanstone touches the square photographs, unfaded, but dull, low in contrast, focused and soft, the material of preserved memories in the hue and tone of their era, as he narrates.

“There’s that Ford tractor I had,” Swanstone says as he taps the reminder of a younger version of himself in denim overalls and leather boots. “The only thing I had to mow and work with.”

CORY MACNEIL/Citizen photo The equestrian center located on the grounds of Camp Winding River is a large relatively unknown structure tucked away on the property near Dearborn, Mo. The Girl Scouts of America recently put the camp up for sale.

Camp Winding River, property of Girl Scouts of Northeast Kansas Northwest Missouri, is up for sale. The decision to let it go was not easy as it is home to a multi-million dollar equestrian facility and the legacy of one Dearborn family, serving as site managers through multiple generations.

Located just outside of Dearborn along Highway 116 and Highway MM, Camp Winding River now faces an uncertain future.

The national Girl Scout-recommended program areas are camping, aquatics, equestrian, sports, high adventure, excursions and STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). The Girl Scout Council of NE Kansas NW Missouri is looking for equestrian programs already in place. This would allow them to save money on the upkeep and horse maintenance.

“What we know is that the girls want to do exactly what the boys are doing and more. And they want bigger and bolder adventures,” said Gina Garvin, vice president of brand for NE Kansas, NW Missouri.

“Well, the only way we can build that type of thing is we have to figure out to live within our means with the three properties, and so then build on those properties those things.”

Depending on the buyer and their intentions with the 409 acres, Camp Winding River may keep some of its current purpose.

“That’s also our hope, that we find a buyer who is interested in maintaining it as a camp, which is what we’ve done before with other buyers, and partner with them and hope that they will allow Girl Scouts to continue to use this facility,” said Brent Taylor, vice president of operations for Girl Scouts of NE Kansas NW Missouri.

CORY MACNEIL/Citizen photo Donald Swanstone, Sr. flips through a photo album from his time as site manager for the camp. He served in that role for nearly two decades, part of a family lineage that helped upkeep the camp during its storied history.

There’s a lot of Girl Scout history on the property.

Charlotte, Swanstone’s deceased wife, collected the photographs in the album during the 19 years they lived on the Girl Scout property. Hand written labels in tight cursive are evidence of thinking ahead to a time when the sharpness of the present would need prompting: “Winter 1997-98”.

Charlotte’s blooming roses and bulb flowers around the freshly painted site manager’s home is a highlight of the turning seasons through the turning of the album pages. Identifying a few earth bound birds in the corner of a photograph, Swanstone says, “Charlotte would raise 50 frying chickens every year, and we’d have our own chicken dinner.”

Turning the album page reveals a long row of cars parked in the wild grass; evidence that life on a Girl Scout camp is more than mending fences and painting barns.

“Only time I didn’t have campers is when the roads was so bad they couldn’t get there,” Swanstone says, proudly.

On another page, yellow school busses line up to drop off Girl Scouts and leaders.

“All I had to do was have a place for them to park,” Swanstone remarks.

But the photograph of a long row of girls riding horses in the countryside starts a conversation about his involvement in the everyday activities of the Girl Scouts.

“I was late 20 minutes one time in 19 years to check girls in,” Swanstone leans in to say with seriousness.

Camp Winding River was once a dairy farm.

There are still a few hints and remnants of the former purpose, like the dairy barn, used for sheltered camping, and its hay loft, now the activity barn with smooth polished floors. Girl Scout Winding River Council made the purchase and started the conversion from dairy farm to day and resident camp for Girl Scouts in 1965.

Camp Winding River has come through three girl scout council reorganizations and is now the property and responsibility of the Council of Northeast Kansas, Northwest Missouri.

“As those councils come together, they all bring with them properties,” Garvin said.

With those properties come assets, obligations, long-term plans and decisions.

“We had five, and our council decided that two properties needed to be sold, they needed to concentrate on those three,” Garvin said.

The camps to remain with the NE Kansas, NW Missouri council are Camp Daisy Hindman, Camp Tongawood and Camp Prairie Schooner. Camp Oakledge and Camp Winding River are up for sale.

From dairy farm to girl scout adventure haven, Camp Winding River now boasts an activity barn, staff house, Hawkins Haven and Vanetti Village with nine permatents each, fire rings, zip line, walking trails, woods, 72 acres of hay for bailing, North Hill and West Ridge primitive camping, an archery range, a plethora of latrines, a shower house and tucked away maintenance shed.

Driving up the main entrance road, first time visitors move slowly to take in the impressive barn and its hulking cement silo looking for signs of horses.

Molly Seeger, the current camp site and barn manager, laughed as she did an impression of the look of surprise on girl scout and leader faces as they mount the hill and realize that the horses they will ride wait for them in the immense equestrian center that appears as they crest the hill.

The long-term plan of the mid-continent Girl Scout Regional Council allowed them to save for 10 years for the $4.9 million equestrian center built in 2007.

The upper deck gives a commanding view of the 100x200-foot sand mixture arena. Carved into the hillside, the girls learn to gather there in case of a tornado, the steel and concrete protecting them 14 feet underground.

Opposite the arena are tie stalls to hold more than 40 horses; 20 live there now. Each horse has an assigned stall with names like Big Red and Buddy painted on them, based on friendships and rivalries among the horses.

Seeger lives on Camp Winding River for the role of horse manager, but also in a new role as the site manager, the job that Swanstone remembers fondly.

Seeger recalls seeing the plans for the equestrian center when she was a teenager in the girl scout wrangler program. She first came to Camp Winding River in 1992 as a girl scout.

“The main purpose was to have an indoor arena so that we could run the program primarily year-round, versus our old facility down below was two outdoor arenas,” Seeger said. “So, the slightest drizzle, we had to cancel because then it’s going to ruin the saddles, the leather. It’s not the horses. It was the tack, which is expensive.”

There is more than riding for Girl Scouts when they arrive at the camp. Seeger and other instructors take them to classrooms to teach lessons on colors and markings, breeds, anatomy and motion along with grooming, food and daily care.

Horses are donated — usually for a reason. They are not always the cream of the crop. There is risk of receiving a horse with arthritis or bad temper.

“You would look for the best of the best horses to do that. We can’t do that. That’s an expense we can’t do,” Garvin said, and then asked rhetorically, “Can your program be better if you look at a community partnership that can then offer that?”

Swanstone adjusts his chair to get a better view of the photograph albums on his living room table. He was site manager for 19 years, replacing his uncle who was there for 11 years. His son, Donald Swanstone, Jr., replaced him for two years after many years of accompanying his father after school.

“Thats’s the kind of way the Girl Scouts would like you to be — on the job,” says Swanstone. He retired in 1993.

“I done all the building, except one. And some of them, I built by myself,” Swanstone says, looking over photographs with rounded corners. “I’d take, to put the rafters up,” he motions the triangle of a roof with his hands, “I’d cut my rafters, tie one end of it up,” one hand stays still as the other lifts to the imaginary roof, “and nail one end up. Then go up and nail the other end in.”

“Nobody bothered you. You ordered what material you needed for two or three days,” Swanstone said, lightly touching photographs of fences, ditches and latrine structures. “Beverly Lumber would bring it up from Platte City. We tried to do business with all the local people.”

The Girl Scouts’ reorganization to regional councils came down to smaller councils failing financially. This allowed more participants in program activities.

The larger councils still have to live within their means, according to Garvin.

Camp Winding River became a part of the financial fallout due to its capacity, recent attendance and programs offered. Camp Winding River is in a catch 22 of funding: it would take more girls staying on the camp to bring in the funding needed to make serious repairs and expansion, but there is not enough room and facilities up to their best to support that amount of Girl Scouts.

The second part of the paradox is as each camp and place of adventure and learning within range of the girl scouts of NE Kansas and NW Missouri make their facilities the best and most attractive, they draw away from Camp Winding River.

“When my uncle Stanley moved out to camp, it had the platform part. Then they had metal pipe for the frame. And this had tent material to fit over this frame. That was their little platform tents at the time,” said Swanstone, who used his finger to draw imaginary lines over the photograph of permatents. “Well, we took them down and built the platform tents like they are now. We built all them.”

Swanstone smiles as he tells the now humorous story of building the permatents to the exact specifications the girl scout council sent him. He was not allowed to deviate from the plans and the materials purchased would not allow for changes by the builder.

Since their construction in 1973, adults have only been able to stand in the middle of the structures. The height of the steeply angled roof is 7 feet, but quickly slopes to 4 feet to meet the walls.

The nationwide girl scout program encourages progressive levels of camping.

From glamping, a humorous shortening of glamorous-camping wherein amenities abound and getting dirty is strictly an option, to the permatents to all-out primitive camping in tents, a subtle reminder that as a society we have risen above the necessity of tent stakes and sleeping on the lumpy earth leaving it as an option for the roughest of adventures.

Camp Winding River has a little of each, but the amount of glamping space and the maximum of 92 girls in permatents holds back the number of troops willing and able to make it their camp of choice and the recipient of their hard earned funds.

“Everything’s more modern now. That’s what the leaders want, something more modern, ya know?” said Swanstone as he comes to the last pages of the second album. “Where you used to just go out and build you a bonfire and cook and all, now what they like to have is a closed in building with toilets, and the stove and refrigerator and all that.”

Swanstone closes the album.

“I hate to see it sold. It’s kinda hard to believe that somebody — they give you 409 acres and some cash beside and then you have to turn around and sell it,” he said.

CORY MACNEIL/Citizen photo A look at the permatents located at Camp Winding River near Dearborn, Mo. The camp facility is currently up for sale.