Adapted from “Journey of Faith, 1969-2009”
Nestled among pine trees in beautiful east Texas, Frontier Camp is a place where thousands of children and teens have learned to water-ski and ride a horse. It’s also a place where more than 4,000 youth have been led to Jesus Christ.
Frontier Camp is a 100-acre facility with dozens of activities and year-round fellowship opportunities. And it’s come a long way since its humble beginnings as Ark-La-Tex Frontier Camp Christian service organization, which was founded by a few men and a lot of prayer.
Board meeting minutes once were transcribed on a typewriter. Camp photos were blurry slides and Polaroids, and, when potential counselors filled out applications, they could specify skills such as “knot tying” or “bird study” by checking the designated box.
In 1970, just a few dozen campers made the trek to east Texas for that first summer. Today that number has surpassed 2,000 now attending each summer.
Although Frontier Camp has grown, its vision – to share God’s Word with campers – has remained the same for decades.
Known for the phrase, “it’s not the stuff; it’s the staff,” Executive Director Matt Raines says the people who work at camp, those who serve on the Board of Directors and generous friends of camp all have contributed to the growth and success of Frontier Camp. “Although certain things may have changed over the last 50 years, there’s one focus – quality Christian young people living out a Christ-like example in front of the campers,” Raines said. “You could have a successful camp on a vacant lot with a ball if you have a good staff.” You can’t point to just one church, one family, one staffer or one foundation that is the reason for the success of the ministry. It is dozens of God’s people coming together prompted by the Holy Spirit at the right times that have written the story of Frontier Camp.
The founders – Frontier Camp legends like Carl Gunn, Bill Standley, Frank Hamilton, and Ron Sardone– were set up as the original Board of Directors. They had a number of things in common including a desire to see young people come to know Jesus and grow in Him, a traditional dispensational view of the Scriptures, a love for kids, a love for work and determination. They came together wanting to start an outdoor camp ministry that was centrally located to many population centers primarily to serve church groups holding Boys Service Brigade (a division of the Christian Service Brigade) outreaches. Like several other camps across Texas, Frontier’s doctrinal fabric was cut out of a dispensational background similar to that of Dallas Theological Seminary. A stance on the inerrancy of Scripture, salvation by faith alone and a literal interpretation of Bible prophecy were among the tenants first laid out by these founders.
These men with a strong desire to establish a new camp began to pray and meet. Soon they began to look at different properties. The search was over when they met up with Bill and Elizabeth Strube of Houston. The Strubes had some land outside of Crockett, Texas on the newly established Houston County Lake. More importantly the Strubes loved the Lord, had similar doctrinal convictions and also had a desire to see a Christian camp on their newly acquired lands. The two parties struck a deal and Ark-La-Tex Frontier Camp was chartered in December of 1969.
“It started off like so many other ministries,” said Ben Woltman, who served as a board member from 1971 until his death in 2014. “It had its hard time, its hard years. But it always had a great God, good leadership, good programming and a good operation.”
Those who helped create the camp believed in the importance of its mission of leading young people to Christ. Frontier Camp would not have succeeded without the founding members’ faith and commitment to trust God despite meager resources. A financial statement from October 1972 shows Frontier Camp’s “cash in bank” was $14.66. Founding member Frank Hamilton often paid start-up costs out of his own pocket. “Frank held this camp together and didn’t give up when most others would have,” Woltman said. Other early Board Members like Bill Standley tirelessly recruited volunteers and rustled up the first tables and chairs for the camp’s dining hall. The same tireless efforts would later be said of Wes Woodard, who served as the camp’s Executive Director from 1978 to 2003 as well as Matt Raines who took the baton from Wes and serves as Director still today.
Several young men like Mark and Scott Hamilton, Gerald Olson and Jon Bergeron, all of whom still maintain a connection to it, helped build cabins on weekends throughout the 1970s. Over time, the camp went from “ticks, brush and briars” to a 35+ building, 450 bed, two camp facility, known throughout the state for its wakeboard program and top-notch Christian staff. The now 130 acre property has 21 cabins, two dining halls, two outdoor gyms, four meeting rooms, multiple sports fields, two leadership lodges, multiple ropes course and even the six acre Lake Maverick, a cable wakeboard lake that may or may not have a few bass lurking there. Activities have expanded to include things like adventure-challenge and wakeboarding and yet you can still find original camp favorites like horseback riding, woodworking, water-skiing, swimming, crafts and Outdoorsmanship going strong.
Ark-La-Tex Frontier Camp was created by participants of the Christian Service Brigade, a national movement that fostered Christian fellowship among men and boys of all ages. The “new frontier” for the service brigade’s ministry would include sections of Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas.
The philosophy for Ark-La-Tex, designated in 1968, was to meet the individual needs of men and boys through a “Christ-centered camping program based on the word of God … by a program of physical, spiritual and social activities.”
The land where Frontier Camp sits originally belonged to Elizabeth Strube, who purchased the acreage on Houston County Lake, west of Grapeland, Texas. Strube and her husband, Bill, shared a vision to build a Christian training center on the land and had attempted to sell it to Camp Peniel and Child Evangelism Fellowship before an agreement was reached with Frontier Camp. Bill Standley, an original board member, contacted the Strubes to see if they’d be willing to make an offer to Ark-La-Tex.
After discussing with Ark-La-Tex board members the camp’s intended doctrinal position, the Strubes agreed to sell 71.7 acres for $35,850. The contract required that the land would be used for programs that involved teaching the Bible, winning lost souls to Jesus Christ and training Christians for service. Frontier Camp became an incorporated business in 1969.
Jon Bergeron was selected to supervise construction when crews began clearing the land near Grapeland in June 1970. Bergeron brought a group of 15 workers, most of whom were teenagers, for a two-week construction camp. The young men cleared land, poured concrete slabs, built the dining hall, drilled a well and painted buildings.
Board members secured donations for kitchen equipment and other materials to kick off the first camping season. Three cabins were built the following summer, and the facilities were dedicated on Labor Day weekend, 1971. The following weekend, a group of Pioneer Girls arrived from Spring Branch Community Church. That October, about 30 men from Texas and Louisiana occupied the camp for the annual Brigade Men’s Conference. Families from a Texas church spent Thanksgiving weekend at the camp. The first campers to stay in cabins and not tents, 8- through 11-year-olds from churches with Christian Service Brigade programs, also came to camp that year. Meals were served in the new dining hall. Frontier Camp was off and running as a Summer Camp and Retreat Center.
Richard Stephens, now the camp’s Facilities and Communications Director, was a high school student in Longview in the early 1970s when he began spending weekends driving to the camp to work. He built bunk beds and did other construction work with Frank Hamilton, Frank Olson, Bill Standley and Jon Bergeron.
“They had a boat, so we could go water skiing,” Stephens said. “The camp, at that time, was nothing. We put sheet rock in the old dining hall, and we brought in equipment for air conditioning.”
Stephens spent several summers at Frontier Camp during the 1970s, maintaining facilities, working briefly as a counselor and scrubbing pots and pans. He eventually was offered an opportunity to join the full-time staff in 1982.
“I saw Wes at church, and I was working for Frank Olson at the time,” Stephens recalled. “The oil business had collapsed, and I said, ‘Why don’t I just go work at camp?’ I thought maybe Wes would hire me for the rest of the spring and summer.”
“The Lord had this thing going in His mind all along,” Stephens added. “When the summer was over, Wes told me they were going to have a Board meeting and he was going to tell the Board they were going to hire me full-time. Bill Standley told me the same thing. It was a done deal.”
Although Stephens is not often in the forefront, his work has been instrumental in making the camp what it is today. “I like what I’m doing and I like the Christian environment,” he said. “I know I need to be here. I’m a behind-the scenes person. There are people that can go far, and I help make sure they get there.”
The dining hall, built by Jon Bergeron and his volunteer corps, burned in spring 1982 – an occurrence that many have said was a transition in the camp’s history. The blaze is attributed to an electrical short, but in retrospect most say it was the hand of God.
“The fire, though it seemed like a negative thing, was a real turning point,” recalled Jeanette Betz, who worked as a cook at the camp for several years. “Everybody started working together. It burned down in the latter part of February and we had to get it rebuilt by summer.” Jeannette’s husband Arthur agreed that it was a time when people put aside differences and worked toward a common goal. “It was a time of real challenge and a time to see God bring things together for us,” he said. “Wes [Woodard] said to me in the wee hours of the morning as the structure burned to the ground, ‘I guess God wants us to have a new dining hall.’” Challenges like the dining hall fire proved to the Board and full-time staff that they could overcome hurdles and work toward the most important common goal, winning souls to Christ, said Woodard.
Woodard is adamant in his belief that the secret to the camp’s success is its commitment to the Great Commission mandate in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go into the world and make disciples of all nations.” “It’s one thing to say you believe that,” he said. “Lots of Christians say it. Frontier Camp really does it. We do it on the basis of the authority of the Bible. His death on the cross is what delivers us from hell. We have a chance of the Holy Spirit being in us and having the best kind of life on this earth. “We really believe the Bible,” he added. “There’s a war going on for the souls of men and the universe. God’s going to win.”