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Barn Spotlight: Bay Cliff Health Camp helps children with special needs.

Jan Corey Arnett

March 20, 2024

12 Slides

We were doing what curious travelers often do, following a road to see where it led, as we drank in the exquisite scenery and view of Lake Superior along H-1 north of Marquette, Mich.

We came on signage, “Bay Cliff Health Camp,” and to my great delight, a large building resembling a barn. I had to know more.

Soon, John Webb, activities coordinator at the camp, treated my husband and me to a personal tour of this amazing place, describing its founders, mission and impressive purpose.

Bay Cliff Health Camp was the vision brought into being by traveling medical professionals Goldie Corneliuson, a field physician for the Children’s Fund of Michigan (forerunner of the Public Health Department) and Elba Morse, a nurse supervisor for the Northern Michigan Children’s Clinic in Marquette. It was the Great Depression and not only were their U.P. travels difficult, but the children they attended to also were often malnourished with needs unmet.

As the medical team bumped along rough roads, they strategized how to bring children to a place where they might have healthy meals, great fun and attentive medical care. But where?

The answer came as they discovered a dairy farm, 27 miles northwest of Marquette near the village of Big Bay. As has been repeated many times across the U.P., what began as virgin forest led to stripped land owned by lumber barons who decided to invest next in farming.

A large home built in 1913 for Jay Brunswick Deutsch, mill manager for the Brunswick-Balke Collender Lumber Co., was soon joined by several farm buildings, including a dairy barn and a horse barn.

Deutsch lost interest in farming and turned the operation over to his sister, Edna, and her husband, Charles Corsant, who renamed it Chedna Farms. The couple did well until the Great Depression changed the lives of so many.

“What if we could bring children together?” evolved into “We can do this!” as Dr. Goldie and Miss Elba saw potential in the idle farm buildings. Pushing Depression realities aside, they used gifts from the James Couzens Fund and the Horace and Mary Rackham Foundation to purchase the 170-acre farm for $8,500 — a hefty sum at the time.

It was renamed Bay Cliff Health Camp and is today a 501(c)3 nonprofit. By 1934, the first group —107 underweight youngsters — arrived. After weeks at camp, each had gained an average of 5 pounds, muscle mass and brightened spirits.

Soon, a horrific siege of polio swept the country, and in the summer of 1940, hospitals were overflowing with paralyzed children. Miss Elba cared for 27 children in the former Deutsch home, the “Big House” after summer camp ended, nurturing them through the winter.

By the summer of 1941, programming was expanding to address a range of physical issues. Today’s campers may have diabetes, cardiac problems, speech and language impairments, spinal bifida, vision challenges, hearing loss, and more.

Campers may be kids, as well as adults, from the U.P. Thirty programs operate year-round, with summer camps lasting seven weeks. “What if…?” has become “We can!”

The barn-like building at the entrance to Bay Cliff Health Camp is a new gymnasium. The spacious, original dairy barn performs multiple functions. It is a teen center, popular with young people who have much to talk about; a relaxing break, meeting and rec room for staff; and a storage area for costumes and camping equipment.

The barn complex also includes summer program office space for planning camp activities. A nearby horse barn is a science center known as “The Nature Nook.” 

Clare Lutgen is executive director at Bay Cliff Health Camp. She says the children’s summer camp is the mainstay of Bay Cliff, but operating year-round, its winter offerings include self-confidence and strength-building aptly named “Arctic Adventures.” Before the camp’s time, such a term might have applied to doing daily milking and chores around the farm, but today it refers to health-building fun in the snow.

Jessica Manier, camp director, was herself a camper at age of 3. Like many whose path leads back to a place they love, Manier held a dream of one day working at Bay Cliff Health Camp. She returned in her 30s as its director and embodies Bay Cliff’s mission statement, “Camp isn’t a place you visit, it’s a place that becomes part of you.” 

Manier observes that, “Historically, the barn helped to create community on the farm, and it is still helping to create community between our campers and staff today.”

Miss Elba and Dr. Goldie would be deeply gratified to know the vision they unfolded for Chedna Farms is now in its 90th year. “What if” truly has become “We can,” giving new purpose — not only to old barns, but also to young campers with dreams of their own.

Arnett is founder of the Barn Believers Project Fund, held at the Battle Creek Community Foundation. She is the author of “American Barns” and is known as "The Barn Lady.” Contact her at [email protected].

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