DOWAGIAC — The United Methodist Church’s decision to first close and now sell the Crystal Springs Camp and Retreat Center near Dowagiac has left people wondering what’s next for the nearly 160-year-old church camp.
The camp is located on 65 acres along the Dowagiac River in Sumnerville, south of Dowagiac. It was dedicated on Aug. 10, 1860 as the Big Springs Campground in recognition of the springs in the middle of the property. The name was changed to Crystal Springs in 1874.
The camp initially was established as a place to hold camp meetings and religious revivals, then gradually transitioned to a summer camp for area youth and families. Most recently it was used as an events center for retreats, corporate gatherings and weddings.
Dan Stuglik was the Crystal Springs director until earlier this year. He is still watching over the property until the last event, a wedding scheduled for October, takes place and the camp officially goes on the market.
The camp’s closing and possible sale is bittersweet for Stuglik, who first began going to Crystal Springs as a youth. During his tenure, he oversaw the restoration of the massive, nearly 125-year-old Stella Cooper Memorial Tabernacle at the camp and was able to learn more about the camp’s rich history.
“It’s the second oldest church camp in the nation and the oldest church camp in the state,” Stuglik said this week. “I’ve enjoyed being a steward of this piece of history and the opportunities that came with it. So many people’s lives have been changed there. … It’s neat to have been able to take care of it for a while.”
Michigan Area United Methodist Camping Interim Executive Director Joel Wortley said the board’s decision came down to finances. The nonprofit organization runs Crystal Springs and eight other camp properties in the state.
The organization’s board decided in February to not open Crystal Springs and three other camps. The board then announced in late July that Crystal Springs and two of the three camps – in Reed City and Byron – are for sale. The third camp in Boyne City was not owned by the organization and was returned to its owner.
“The board decided they couldn’t manage nine camps. We lost over $900,000 for all nine camps in 2018,” Wortley said. “Over the years, there were tough decisions that were not made. All the camps were running deficits. The infrastructure of the camps had not been addressed in years and millions of dollars were needed to fix everything.”
“We were running on shoestrings,” he added. “We had less kids coming and less membership and there were less retreats. If the infrastructure is bad, then you can’t get people to come. … We had way too much capacity. We could have accommodated all the campers at one camp.”
Wortley said the Crystal Springs camp has been appraised at $1 million and his organization has heard from some interested parties. “We’ve had tire kickers but no offers yet,” he said.
Delynn Bushouse-Williams has operated the Camp Leo and Camp Joy camps for special need youth and adults the last several years at Crystal Springs. She said they had already made plans and deposited money to use the camp this year when they learned that it would be closed.
Williams said that while they were able to find a new home for Camp Leo this year, attendance was down by almost half. They could not find a new home for Camp Joy, she said.
She noted that she and others considered buying the camp but have not been able to come up with the $1.4 million the church organization is asking. “We just, sadly, cannot come up with that amount of money,” she said. “There is so much historical importance as well as many fond memories for people of all ages. It is a true shame that it was closed.”
Another person with many fond memories of Crystal Springs is longtime counselor and volunteer Pam Cowgill of Schoolcraft. She first went to the camp as a fifth-grader and then came back as a counselor in 1974 and never left. She officially retired in 2012 but continued to volunteer.
“That place is very special,” she said. “Through the years, I have seen so many lives changed. It makes me sad that they’re closing it. … My prayer is that somebody will buy it to keep the ministry there. It has such a history. I’ve got a big empty hole in my heart about this. It was like my second home. It’s so peaceful and you feel closer to God.”