Over 75 years, 1.5 million Kansas 4-H youth and adults have made summer camp memories at Rock Springs Ranch 4-H Center, near Junction City, Kan.
If there’s such a thing as a touchstone for Kansas 4-H, a shared common denominator, it’s Rock Springs Ranch.
A postwar idea
It was shortly after World War II when J. Harold Johnson, the state 4-H leader, proposed the idea of purchasing a property for a 4-H leadership center.
“Having a place as a state gathering point for our 4-H’ers was really important,” says Jake Worcester, current 4-H Foundation president and CEO. It was just after the war that the historic 348-acre Big Spring ranch was for sale. With its centralized location and natural ecosystem, it had the potential to be an ideal camp.
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Rock Springs Ranch gets its name from the natural spring that flows at an average 1,000 gallons per minute at a constant 55 to 60 degrees F year-round. It’s the second-largest natural spring in the state of Kansas, but it’s more famous for the 1850s water wheel that still operates today. The ranch has native tallgrass prairies, natural streams, and wooded areas as well that are host to many species of native flora and fauna.
In 1946, in just five months, 4-H members and volunteers from all 105 counties united to come up with the $22,500 to buy the property.
“They had gotten a mortgage to buy the property,” Worcester says. “By the time of the first campfire in 1946, they were able to burn that mortgage.” Rock Springs Ranch State 4-H Center was a reality.
From the beginning, 4-H youth took the lead in contributing to the success of Rock Springs Ranch. The Kansas 4-H Foundation is the 501(c)(3) fundraising arm for Kansas 4-H. It owns and operates the camp, which is funded solely through private donations. From the construction of the spring-fed Big Pool (the first Olympic-sized swimming pool in the state at the time) to the cabins, the stables, the dining hall and more, 4-H’ers have worked with private entities around the state to raise funds for the camp. Over the years, it has expanded to its current 735 acres.
Today, Kansas 4-H’ers continue that tradition and are undertaking the “Endorse the Course” fundraising effort to raise their $25,000 share for a new Leadership Adventure Course at Rock Springs. Donors have committed to the rest of the $285,000 price tag for the course, which includes high ropes, low elements, a zip line and other leadership development tools.
As Worcester explains, camp doesn’t just build leaders during four days in June — Rock Springs provides 4-H’ers an opportunity to practice those leadership skills by putting skin in the game. Just as their parents and grandparents have done for 75 years.
Magic of the springs
Jim Wheaton, Rock Springs Ranch executive director, is the current caretaker of the historic property. He says it’s rare while wearing the logo in public that he’s not stopped by an adult with a story to tell of their youthful memories of Rock Springs.
Camp, he says, is where youth test their independence in the safety of group living with others. From working with others on the adventure course, to learning to shoot an arrow or paddle a canoe and more, it’s these camp experiences that are critical to turning youth into leaders.
That goes for staff as well as campers. Over the years, thousands have worked at Rock Springs. For example, during the height of the summer camp season, it takes 25 to 30 employees just to feed 500 in Williams Dining Hall every meal. From locals who work year-round to seasonal staff, each takes lessons from their time at the camp.
“I tell the summer staff, I don’t care what your major is or what trade you’re planning on going into, there is something here at Rock Springs Ranch you can apply to your future career,” Wheaton says.
The seclusion and convenience of Rock Springs also attracts groups beyond 4-H, like FFA, the Kansas Ag and Rural Leadership Program, corporate retreats, family reunions and more. There are few people in Kansas agriculture who don’t have a Rock Springs story.
Yesterday, today and tomorrow
Wheaton knows that tradition is an important part of the magic of Rock Springs. For example, a few years back he sought out the original recipes for the camp’s signature cinnamon rolls and dinner rolls, just to make sure that the dining hall was living up to standards set by the original cooks and expected by guests.
Like many other camps in 2020, Rock Springs had to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Foundation and Rock Springs staff took the time to look ahead at what the next 75 years of camping should look like.
“COVID was tough on a lot of camps, and having one that is alive and growing like Rock Springs is something we shouldn’t take for granted,” Wheaton says. “In the closure, we focused on improvements.” From clearing out underbrush to cabin upgrades, to a new health center with updated protocols and equipment, staff spent the time preparing for campers to return.
“We will reopen at 50% capacity, based on guidance from KDHE [Kansas Department of Health and Environment], CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], the American Camping Association and our Kansas State Research [University] and Extension partners, that’s what we decided,” Wheaton says. “Kids need to be outside, breathing fresh air, riding horses, playing in the pool and on the adventure course — and we want them to do it as safely as possible.”
Beyond facility improvements, though, the 4-H camp of tomorrow might look a little different to meet the needs of future campers and their families, Worcester says. The Kansas 4-H Camping Taskforce has rolled out plans for a centralized camp model. It’s an answer to operational and risk management issues that have caused other states to discontinue their camps.
Beginning in summer 2022, camp sessions will expand to six full days, so youth have the time to develop more skills and relationships. A new Counselor in Training program will also debut, pairing youth ages 13 to 18 with professional adult counselors who will be employees of Rock Springs. This way, older 4-H’ers still have leadership opportunities open to them through the camping experience, but the health, safety and welfare of all youth is ensured.
“Kansas has a great history of camp experience,” Worcester says. Building on that means a camping experience of tomorrow that is safer and more inclusive for all.
And that means millions more campers and their families will be able to make their own memories at Rock Springs Ranch in the next 75 years.