Sunshine, laughter and the smell of s’mores set the scene for the 100th anniversary celebration at Camp Wapsie.
Hundreds gathered Saturday at the camp near Coggon to mark the centennial. Guests ranged in age from those anticipating their first year at Camp Wapsie to people who worked at and attended the camp in the ’50s and ’60s.
“One of the things Wapsie’s known for is the Wapsie magic. It’s that Wapsie spirit that carries on when people share what Wapsie means to them,” camp director Paul Denowski said during the celebration at Wapsie’s outdoor chapel.
For some at the celebration, what Wapsie has meant to them is a place to call home.
“I spent 12 summers of my life here. This is where I grew up, this is where I met my best friends,” said former camper and former leader-in-training Katarina Tolic, 18, of Cedar Rapids. “It’s a place I can always come back to and know that I’ll be in a safe place.”
In addition to that sense of belonging, some cited the lifelong friendships formed at Wapsie.
“All the people that I’m closest with are all here. It’s really nice being able to share time with them,” said Samuel Wiesenfeld, 33. “ ... This place is basically home, so that’s kind of what you feel when you come back here and you see all your friends and fall right back into place with all your jokes and memories and such.”
Two time capsules, one from 1993 and another from 2008, were opened as part of the celebration. Wiesenfeld was at Wapsie when both were buried, first as a camper and then as a staff member.
“It brings back a lot of nostalgia. Obviously I have a lot of memories from back then as a camper,” Wiesenfeld said. “Seeing that piece of history go into the ground and come back up 25 years later is not something you think about back at the time.”
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Camp Wapsie got its start in 1918 when Chuck Filipi organized a camping trip for a group of boys along the Wapsipinicon River. The next year, the camp found a permanent home on the edge of Central City. It stayed there for more than 30 years, before relocating to its current site near Coggon in 1953.
There have been many changes over the years, including the arrival of the first female campers in 1973. The latest change — improvements to the Teepee Village area where the youngest campers stay — was unveiled Saturday.
The village’s old canvas tents have been replaced with larger, permanent, weatherproof structures with lights, fans, windows and cement floors.
“We took everything down and started fresh, even the bunks,” summer camp director Drew Demery said.
Because of the change, inclement weather no longer will force campers out of the teepees and into the camp lodge.
The reconstruction was made possible thanks to funds from the Cargill Foundation and the help of volunteers.
“Nobody got paid to do this, other than the full-time staff, and even then more of the work was done by the volunteers,” Demery said.
More upgrades are in the works. As part of Wapsie’s centennial, the camp is trying to raise $100,000 for a new bouldering wall, improvements to the kitchen, a health center remodel, acquisition of neighboring property and updates to the wastewater treatment system. So far, around $75,000 has been raised.
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Despite the changes over the years, attendees Saturday noted the camp’s traditions have remained mostly the same.
Wiesenfeld, who grew up in Cedar Rapids but now lives in Des Moines, worked on staff from 2002 to 2010 and returned for the staff reunion that took place in conjunction with the centennial.
“Most of the traditions, the camp songs, a lot of them still hold up,” he said. “… You have decades and decades of generation gaps between people yet everyone knows the same songs.”
Don Jones, 64, who was a Wapsie employee starting in 1969 and program director at Wapsie from 1971 to 1975, said the time he spent at Wapsie made up a 10th of his life.
For Jones, who grew up in Cedar Rapids and now lives in Decorah, Saturday’s event was a chance to reconnect with old friends and marvel at how well the camp has done.
“You won’t find another town of 200,000 who can support a camp anymore,” Jones said. “I’ve been camping almost 20 years, and they’re going out of business, but you look at Wapsie and see how strong and how vibrant it is, and I think that speaks a lot of the community.”
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