Like most River Valley boys and girls who’ve been to Camp Caudle, Lee Henson and Brent Ruple’s connection to the 60-acre spread of land at the foothills of the Ozarks began with a fondness for the area’s physical allure. They loved what they could touch. The still-dewy grass on the rolling hills they ran across, the white oaks and scrawny pines they climbed and the Illinois Bayou they fished and swam in all offered themselves up to the boys. They were hooked.
They still love the land—enough to live on it full time as camp directors while raising their families. But after attending the camp as youths, volunteering as counselors in their teenage years and operating a now thriving Christian Camp, what started with an enjoyment of the tangible has over time translated, as feelings toward prior experiences should, into a thoughtful approach to life.
Camp Caudle, like those who forged its history, has its own story of transformation. From grand beginnings birthed out of toil, through decades of falling into desuetude, the camp is now known as a haven for young, religious Thoreaus looking for a change, looking to live deliberately and with purpose.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Works Progress Administration too had a distinct purpose in mind when they ordered the nucleus of Camp Caudle’s construction in 1936. Then, it was to be used by Boy Scouts and any civic group who needed it. Local laborers, mostly teenagers, Henson says, were hired out for about $1 a day to put up the same stone structures Camp Caudleites sleep and eat in today.
Renovation has been extensive, but those River Valley boys must have had no idea the native rock and mortar they fashioned into cabins through grunts and sweat would still be standing for their great grandchildren’s use.
“They made very little money, and they would usually send about 50 cents of their pay back to their family,” Henson says about the Depression-era day laborers. “But they were still able to build 19 buildings in all—15 small cabins, two larger cabins, a mess hall and a chapel.”
Henson says he likes to think those first Boy Scouts roved the land just as campers do today, exploring the flora and fauna that immerses a young mind into the interactive spectacle of nature. But additions like a zip line, slip-n-slide, playground, water trampoline, a man-made lake and a 250-seat amphitheater probably weren’t at the forefront of the camp’s provincial creators’ minds.
After a few years of Boy Scout use, a local man named T.A. Caudle purchased the land from the government and retained ownership for the entirety of his life. He passed it down to his son, and his son passed it down to his daughter. A Southerner knows never to sell land. When money, power and ideas lose the weight they can only carry during isolated periods of time, the land retains its subtle grandeur like secrets.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, the Caudle family land became disused. Thickets of tangled brush cropped up over areas previously tended to with scrupulous eyes and work-worn hands. Roofs collapsed. Cows took up permanent residence in the mess hall. Grass grew noggin high. No one was willing to turn their attention to the land, so it rightfully took back its acreage by that slow usurpation nature and time perform as one.
But a descendent of T.A. Caudle, who wishes not to be named in this story, wanted the land returned to its former prestige, and for the youth of the River Valley to use it as their growing grounds—physically and spiritually. The Southerners’ creed never said anything about giving land away. So that’s exactly what the granddaughter of the first proprietor and her husband did in 1991.
“My [other] grandfather Langford was a preacher at the Dover Church of Christ, and my husband and I went there pretty much all our lives,” she says over the phone. “When the land started going downhill, my husband and a man named Joe Miller got the idea to have a group of people from various Church of Christs in the community to get started [renovating the land]. We wanted the land to remain with them, and for kids to be able to use it.”
This is the moment in Henson and Ruple’s lives when the past and present intersect. Gauging where they started at Camp Caudle against where they are now, they have a pretty clear outline of where they want to be. Their goal is “to win as many as possible” over to Christ. But although Henson can point clearly to the $1-a-year, 99-year lease as the donation that made his life’s work feasible, he was facing much more immediate challenges when he stepped onto the property for the first time in ’91 as a boy blindly volunteering alongside his family to breathe life back into the land’s structures.
“There were no roofs on any of the buildings, no windows, no doors,” Henson says, sitting in an air conditioned and spacious dining hall, recently built. “Some of the rocks were crumbling, and cabins were filled like stalls with junk. That next year in ’92 when we had the first camp, it was very primitive.”
“We’re talking pit toilets and three outhouses,” Ruple adds.
“Yeah, there was an old green bathhouse out here, but it was unusable,” Henson says. “We had to carry our water everywhere. It was really like stepping back in time.”
The land called to them in all its primordial beauty, and as they got older, their passion for the rustic summer home they’d spent so long caring for began to take shape as a spiritual call. Ruple’s first Camp Caudle summer was in ’95, and neither of the two has missed a summer camp since their introductions to the experiences they still revel in.
Servants to their God and their land, they agree the renovation and maintenance they began in the early ‘90s should and will continue to grow in direct proportion to the number of camp goers, which increases every year. The “monumental effort” organized to make the camp functional again is a work in unceasing progress that shows no signs of slowing up. They fix, build and create the best environment possible for those around them—just like they always have.
“We never really left the land. I guess we weren’t smart enough to get out,” Henson says with a laugh. It’s evident they’d never leave. Camp Caudle is home.
The boys who were enthralled by the craggy mountain rises and cool river flow grew up. They went to college. Ruple went as far away as Colorado for work, but they knew the place they belonged lay on a donated plat in Scottsville, the unincorporated community between Dover and Hector where Camp Caudle has seen generation come and go, lives altered and cultivated.
“When we were too old to be campers, we came back as counselors and eventually became guest directors,” Henson says. He’s been living on the land full time for seven years, and Ruple would make the trip down during summers to operate the Christian camp until he became a full-time director in 2012. “It was obvious we needed more help, so he moved out here to come on full time too. There were people who lived here to tend the grounds and make sure everything was up to snuff, but we’re the first people who try to direct the future of the camp.”
“Our positions have grown from caretakers to having our hands directly in ministry,” Ruple says. “Neither one of us has missed a summer for 20 years, and our jobs and duties have evolved during that time and are still evolving.”
With daily effort that’d make the youthful laborers of 1936 proud, the men have set up a structure of camp life that allows volunteers and interns to interact with, teach and learn from the kids. One section of the camp is specified for 2-6 graders, while the other is for 7-12 graders. Ten weeks are set aside during the summer for one week sessions of church camp. Camp Caudle averages about 100 campers weekly during its busiest 10 weeks of the year.
Weeks have also been set aside for kids in foster care and children of incarcerated parents. Facilities are rented out during the rest of the year to civic and church groups, as well as for weddings and family reunions. No one is cut off from the beauty endemic to the Caudle land, precisely as its donators intended.
Ruple says he cherishes opportunity to get involved with the 7-12 grade groups in particular because they’re usually at the camp by their own volition and want to work toward spiritual maturity. “They’re really hungry for knowledge and spiritual growth. That’s what brings kids as campers and then brings them back as counselors. They grow, and in turn they want to help others grow behind them.”
As campers get older, the weeks at Camp Caudle become less focused on what the land has to offer and more directed toward spiritual offerings. But there will always be moments when the two rise and converge into a single feeling.
Walking the land in the early morning fog, Ruple points to the amphitheater and says evening worship services are usually held there because from their seats the campers are able see an Arkansas sunset cradling itself into the Ozark Mountains and the waters of the Illinois Bayou. He says it’s a powerful moment, for everyone.