In the Heart of the North Woods

Honey Rock Camp, ca. 1950 (Honey Rock Records, Box 1)

This month hundreds of new Wheaton College students will visit HoneyRock Center for Leadership Development in the northern woods of Wisconsin as a part of the start of their Wheaton journey. Envisioned as “a laboratory in counseling and leadership for students,” time at HoneyRock has become a touchstone for many students’ experiences at Wheaton, as well as for Wheaton College faculty, staff, and their families.

Harvey & Dorothy Chrouser at Honey Rock, 1953 (College Archive Photograph A13237)
Harvey & Dorothy Chrouser at Honey Rock, 1953 (Photograph A13237)

Beginning in 1951 as Honey Rock Camp, the program engaged Wheaton students in practical leadership skills through work as summer camp counselors for elementary and high school kids in the Chicago area. Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections holds many photographs, scrapbooks, and records on the development of the camp from this initial summer program to the current full year schedule, including several oral history interviews with former students, faculty, and staff.

Below we feature excerpts from an oral history interview with Honey Rock’s first camp director, Harvey Chrouser. A Wheaton graduate from the class of 1934, Chrouser returned to his alma mater in 1940 as the head football coach, and in 1950 became the general athletic director. The following selections from his 1983 interview illustrate his passion for the role of wilderness education in the liberal arts, as well as his experience of Honey Rock’s impact on students’ lives and faith.

Founding Honey Rock

Honey Rock, as the camp was started in 1951, but the reason for the existing Honey Rock started back in 1940. In 1948, rather, when I came back to coach in ‘46, I wanted to start a project that would provide the practical experience, internship type experience which was new in those years for liberal arts colleges. And so, I started what was called a leadership school and the laboratory for that was provided by a day camp which met here on campus, and then we went to forest preserves. After a few years of that I directed camps…in Pine Lake, Arkansas and Winona Lake, Indiana where we developed the leadership school more extensively. The counselors for all these projects were students at Wheaton who got regular college credit for the instructional phase and the leadership responsibility, counseling the campers and taking total responsibility.  

During those years, or in the late 40s and early 50s, we wanted to get a permanent site where we could run a kind of a camp that would put total responsibility upon the students and therefore make them grow and give them a good educational experience. And God provided in a wonderful way, a campsite 340 miles from the campus which had been operating for three years as a camp under the auspices of two young men, really financed partially by Midwest Bible Church and individuals. 

Stationary for original Camp Honey Rock, 1940s. (Vertical File: Honey Rock)

We took the camp over in 1951. It was a site that at that time…40 acres and ran our first camp…that summer and had a total of 160 campers and we had 18 Wheaton students involved and it was a wonderful experience for them, plus a lot of other people on the staff….. We didn’t own the camp at that time. We leased it. The trustees said that if we were successful in the project, (which they encouraged greatly) that that they would buy the property in two years, which they did, and at that time it was 40 acres, and it has grown since then. The main site is 240 and we have properties elsewhere, farms and landings up and up and along the Canadian border and landings along the Wisconsin River. Total acres of about 590.

Mission & Purpose

The project has been successful because it provides the students with a great internship experience. The academic program provides for four weeks of instruction by our faculty based at the camp. And then four weeks of internship where the students do the counseling. There are no speakers at the camp. It is not a platform camp. It is a decentralized camp and…and our goal is to provide as much experience for the…for the student as we possibly can. 

The idea is that we want to give every student what we call a proprietary responsibility. He has total responsibility for the cabin group (he or she) and they…whatever the majority impact in the student is the responsibility of a counselor and…. He has…the counselors have excellent equipment to work with. An abundance of equipment to get out on the lakes, and the rivers, and to backpack wherever they want to go. There’s a lot of latitude given to the counselors so that he can go on day trips and be alone with his group as much as possible. The underlying philosophy of the camp was to build it in small units similar to the…the way Christ worked with the disciples and our idea of being outside alone follows that pattern. If you get into the Gospels and you see how Christ worked with the disciples, how he taught them, you realize that he oftentimes sought isolation. And this is…is one of the the…the geniuses of the Christian camp or it can be, if they take advantage of the leadership.

We look upon the camp essentially as…as a discipling environment and everything that you do, you really do to that end. And this brings a certain sacred element to all of the activities, because every minute that is spent between…with the camper by the counselors is a discipling experience, where you get to know the boys and the girls and once you know them and understand them, you know their background and you have conversations with them, then you’re in a position to…to really help and to minister and your relationship is different. You don’t…You really don’t have the discipline problems because you have…you can have a different kind of relationship.

Now, this takes good people for leaders and it takes good training and good practical experience. Before the counselors go out they get…before they take over the leadership, they go on the trip themselves, which is somewhat of a…of a wilderness expedition. And they see…they are able to understand what we’re trying to convey in the…in the use of what we say is and know is the best teaching environment known in education, the…the camping environment. William Rainey Harper, the President of University of Chicago, years ago, a Christian man, said that the…the camp environment is the best educational circumstance known in education, and I think that I would have to agree with him 1000%. A camp is full of more teachable moments than any other environment in which we can place ourselves as adults or as children. 

When you’re on a project like Honey Rock, you realize that that you’re…you’re sort of running an educational program and you’re also running a camping experience for the children, but they both dovetail nicely, because the camp actually becomes a laboratory.  

Growth & Development

In the very first year of founding…of running the camp, we had so much work to do to get the camp in the condition that we wanted it. We needed a lot of help, so I started a work crew then which I named the “engineers.” That was right after the war and engineers was the name that was given to former janitors. They now…they then called them “maintenance engineers.” So, this has become a kind of a legend at camp. And now we have 35 engineers. And these people are another whole ministry for the camp, and it’s…in…in many ways, it’s been as exciting to me as what happened to the campers, and what happens to the counselors.

Some years ago, when Prexy Edmond [V. Raymond Edman, Wheaton College President] was living and they had a cabin up at Honey Rock where they spend the summers, I indicated to him that I was thinking of terminating the engineer program and hiring 8 or 10 good college students, and he was never one to be…be hasty with a…a strong answer, but he let me know in no uncertain terms that that program wasn’t to be terminated, that he felt that that that probably had the…the longest lasting effect in making the deepest impact in the most potential young people at the camp. And this has proved to be right, because from this group we have many missionaries and people in leadership roles all over the country. Of course, the same is true about the counselors. As we look back over the students who’ve been at…at camp in past years, there have been men and women there now who are in real positions of leadership, college presidents and…and people in distinctive roles in education…. I refer again to all these leadership roles and the college students get into these. They become unit leaders and assistant camp directors. And all of these, we like to think are proprietary responsibilities where the student has the whole responsibility. Must make the decisions and must face the consequence. And this is what an internship program should be, and students who have been in this program are very high in praise for what it has done to them. It’s not an easy program, it’s a very stressful and…and stretching experience. When the summer is over, there needs to be a couple of days of recovery for the students involved. 

Flyer for Honey Rock Camp, ca. 1970s. (Vertical File: Honey Rock)

Vanguard Program

Well, that started I think in 1969, and here’s how it came about. When we were in the 60s, those were traumatic years for a Christian college like Wheaton. Traumatic years for the administration, for the Presidents and the Deans…. The faculty had been coming up for faculty camp at Honey Rock for quite a few years. And Dr. Armerding [President of Wheaton College] was there and he told me that he wanted to see me for about two hours before he was leaving on a certain day…. Well, that was a busy time for us closing camp too and then also having family camp and RA’s. Well, we had a meeting, and he expressed his deep concern about the attitude of students on the campus. We were seeing the effect of the growing affluence in this country on young people, and this is when the long hair and the beards, and the indifferent attitude was afloat and growing. And he said he was concerned about the masculinity of the men on campus. He was concerned what to do. And he said what… “What do I think? What would I suggest they do?” “Well,” I said, “I would do two things. First, I would get more men and more women in…in athletic programs that were demanding, that taught…that taught teamwork, that taught…that brought discipline into their lives, and that brought struggle into their lives and that helped them with a…a self-concept.” And the second thing I proposed, I said, “Off of what we’ve seen happen in the lives of our…of our high school boys and high school girls….” I said, “I would…I would start that for freshmen. And I would suggest that…that we would do it before orientation. That they come from home up to Honey Rock and then go right from Honey Rock down to orientation.” And… He being a Navy man and knowing what the boot camp meant, what boot camp did to…to young American boys said, “Well, when can we start?” And I said, “Well, we can do it next summer.”  

Well, he said we’re going to have to bring this to the faculty, to the…to the administration and…and see if we can get an acceptance of it. I said we…we…we want to offer some credit with this because it’s going to be three weeks long. It’s going to cost money and it is an intern type…an intern type experience and some credits should be worked out for it. Well, we had…we had meetings and and we brought the Outward Bound people in…. And it was adopted, and we started that summer. In the first class we had 40 men Vanguards.

Hand-drawn map from wilderness program. (Honey Rock Records, Box 1)

But this has proved to be a very wonderful experience for our students. It’s…it’s a type of experience that…they really realize…. They don’t realize all that happened to them immediately and maybe not for days and months. But after a while they realized that they grew a great deal, and this again is…is supposed to be a stress experience, a little tougher than for the high school people. And I’ve talked to many…. In fact, I’ve probably talked to hundreds of Vanguards and asked him what happened to them. What was the best part of the experience? And it’s very interesting. Most of them say the same thing, in different words, “I feel so much better about myself,” and what they’re saying is that “my self-concept has improved greatly,” because they found more of what they were made of.  

Today our young men and women, very few of them are tested and struggle. People who get the most tests and struggles are the athletes. They…they don’t ask that question. “Who am I?” Because they know they can succeed. They know that they can fail, but they know that they can come back and…and make good again. And Vanguards is really a valid hardship in a short period of time. In all my years in athletics, I’ve never seen any experience that brought so much maturity, so much self-discovery, and so much discovery of God as the Vanguard experience.

Changes & Reflections

I think that there’s a change in…in the willingness of the boys and girls today to be involved in outdoor activities that promise a little bit of deprivation. Everybody wants it easy. Everybody wants it instant. And everybody wants it real classy because that’s what television teaches, and you have the gap between the…the gap between the romance of TV and the realism of the world is…is pretty big and this…this is a problem in all educational institutions. It’s a problem wherever you work with young people. I think that probably the saddest thing that we see is the number of children who come to camp from broken homes. It’s just…it’s just heart-rending.

I think the…the most encouraging thing to me about the camp, and this never changes really, is the tremendous quality of our Wheaton students. That this is really a great student body, and I say without hesitation, I think that student bodies like we have in our Christian colleges are the best student bodies in the world. And for these…to be involved training these people, be involved with them and see them grow. And…and I have never had any question that giving a total responsibility for campers to our Wheaton students…. I think another wonderful thing about Honey Rock is that Honey Rock has enjoyed the support of the presidents. We’ve had a wonderful Advisory Board, who’ve been a great assistance financially. By and large, the college faculty has always been…and the Ed Policies Committee has always been in favor of the project. We’ve had the traditional discussions about why credit for something like this…for something like Vanguards, but…things you know…. It’s always survived in the end the way it should. 

And another thing I’m glad to see is…is the increased use of the camp by all college groups, and this is…this is what it’s there for. True, it’s a laboratory camp for the leadership school. But it’s a costly facility. That whole project now is worth over 2 1/2 million dollars. The…there’s a mile and a half of shoreline. There’s a million and three-quarters of dollars of capitalized buildings. And now we have a staff up there that’s maintaining and running programs all year long of about 10 people. And the leadership staff…the second level of management are just the finest people you can get anywhere. So, I… I guess I would have to say that you can…you know, we…we have good equipment. We have good land. All those things are…are adequate. But the strongest part of the project are our students and the faculty who come up there to teach them. 

For information on how to access the Wheaton College oral history collection, including the full interview with Harvey Chrouser, please contact Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections at archives@wheaton.edu.

Explore more documents, photographs, and records on the development of HoneyRock in the College Archive’s Honey Rock Collection, as well as the broader history of Christian camping ministries through the records of Christian Camping International, Pioneer Ministries, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, among others.

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