Up in Smoke: Fire destroys Nebraska 4-H camp facilities
The crown jewel of the Nebraska 4-H camp program is gone.
When the Bovee Fire started at the Nebraska National Forest at Halsey, in west central Nebraska on Oct. 2, the camp buildings burned to the ground.
Ten cabins, Eppley Lodge and the Scott Lookout Tower have been destroyed, with 19,000 acres, some forest but mostly grassland, on fire, mainly in Thomas County, Neb., with a finger of fire extending north into Cherry County.
The fire, which is believed to have been started by a utility vehicle, spread quickly due to strong south winds and area drought conditions.
As of the evening of Oct. 5, the fire was 94 percent contained. Light mists and high humidity contributed to its decline.
The Nebraska National Forest at Halsey, often referred to as the Halsey Forest, is the nation’s largest man-made forest, stretching 20,000 acres in the Sandhills of Nebraska.
It was a unique place for outdoor education for youth and a central location in greater Nebraska, to hold not only youth events but learning experiences and activities for adults.
4-H campers had a wide variety of camp themes and activities from which to choose: horse riding, zipline, a trust course, cooking challenges, waterslides, crafts, tubing, a color run, archery, canoeing, and camp traditions like campfires and s’mores.
The Nebraska State 4-H Camp at Halsey was dedicated in 1963. Two years later, a major fire destroyed the boy’s bathhouse and six cabins, which were rebuilt.
Since then, the Nebraska State 4-H Council estimates over 30,000 youth have attended outdoor educational camps at Halsey, along with countless others who have enjoyed the camp and the forest.
A variety of events took place there: not only 4-H camps but Rural Electric Youth Energy Camps, Rotary Youth Leadership events, artist camps, outdoor education days for public schools, dance camps, and even prom for Dunning and Thedford High Schools. The facilities were available for the public to rent as well, for reunions, weddings and get-togethers.
Connie Cox, Purdum, Neb., worked at the camp for 24 years, first as a secretary then as director. She describes the Eppley Lodge, the distinct red building set among the pines, as a beautiful place. The second floor was a big room with a wooden floor, a stage, and windows from floor to ceiling on the east and west sides. Preserved and pressed Sandhills grasses in six-foot frames lined the walls.
“It was beautiful,” she said. “We called it the ballroom, and that’s where we put kids for different camp sessions. We played ball games there, hosted artists there, and had dances there. It was just a beautiful, beautiful ballroom.”
Her husband, Byron Cox, has family ties to the camp. His uncle, Gene Horst, built the original facilities and rebuilt the cabins after the 1965 fire. Gene’s wife, Eleanor, was its first director, and Byron’s mom Yvonne Cox and his sister Kylene Schroer cooked for campers.
Nick Brost spent five years at Halsey as a summer staff member.
It was a magical place, he said.
“It was about perfect. As I’ve been visiting (with former co-workers), we’ve all shed tears, thinking about the place and what it meant to us.”
The experiences he had there were life changing.
“We worked there because we liked working with kids, and for me, that experience has done more in developing me as a professional than any other experience I’ve had.” Brost is principal of South Platte Public School in Big Springs, Neb.
Camp life gave him a chance to build friendships, too.
“Every summer, ten of us would show up in the middle of May, and we’d have ten people living in one house together, all summer. We were stuck with each other. We made lifelong friends in that three-month period that we lived together.
“For the five summers I worked there, every time I’d pull into camp, every time I’d turn the corner to head there, I’d get a feeling of anticipation and excitement.”
From 1963 to 2018, the Nebraska State 4-H Camp was the site of the state’s Youth Range Camp, as part of the Nebraska Section of the Society for Range Management Youth Camp, and Mary Reece, assistant state conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, played a part in it.
Reece attended the Youth Range Camp in the early 1980s and in 1983, helped conduct the camp.
It was the perfect place for the event, Reece said, located in the heart of the Sandhills.
The camp “was a place for youth to have a camp experience and learn about natural resources,” she said. The Society for Range Management “wanted to be there, because it was a practical outdoor classroom for us.”
She reminisced about the impact the camp had on so many people.
“The many photos taken in front of that lodge, the friendships made, the whole camp experience, and that was the place that hosted it and made it all happen,” she said. “It’s pretty heart-breaking. The most important thing is that people are safe, but this is a facility that touched tens of thousands of people’s lives.”
There is no word if the camp will be rebuilt, but Reece thinks people would be willing to donate.
“I hope there’s a group that would spearhead the effort (to rebuild), because there are a lot of us that would give financially to see it continue. I think there’s great interest across the state in making sure we have a facility for youth in greater Nebraska.”
Connie Cox, who not only spent more than two decades working at the camp but lives in Purdum, twenty miles north of Halsey, has strong ties to the camp, even though she no longer works there.
“It was a beautiful place for the community, and a tragic loss.”
The staff building at the campground did not burn. Damage to it has not been assessed. The Bessey Tree Nursery was saved; it provides seedlings for the state’s conservation tree planting programs.
Nebraska 4-H hosted a media day on Oct. 6 at the site of the fire.
Stuart Shepherd, Nebraska 4-H Foundation director, said talks about rebuilding have yet to occur. “We’ve not had time to have those conversations with each other. I think we’re all hopeful, as all of you are, that there will be.”
Mike Moody, assistant chief of the Purdum Volunteer Fire Department, suffered a heart attack while working the fire on Oct. 1.
The owner of Harsh Mercantile, the highlight of Moody’s day was when the school bus stopped and the kids came in to buy treats, his daughter Hollie said.
Moody was married to his wife Cheryl for 34 years. They had four children and three grandchildren, who he adored.
“His first and foremost love was his grandkids,” Hollie said. He and the oldest, a granddaughter named Rylyn, would play jokes on each other, including hiding a fake cockroach. Another granddaughter, Alexis would talk about hunting with her granddad.
And the youngest, a grandson named Jhett, would ride with grandpa to the pasture, hunting for whatever they could find: turtle shells, rocks, old bones, Hollie said.
Moody was 59 years old.
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