Pamadeva. Get it? Pennsylvania. Maryland. Delaware. Virginia.
The caption for this newspaper photograph tells the story. Penn Grove Camp at Smith Station in southwestern York County attracted Billy Sunday and other popular evangelists to audiences numbering in the thousands. (See photograph below of the road, now abandoned, as it appears today.) Since 1999, the restored campground has played host to day campers and retreats for church and community groups. Background posts: Billy Graham: ‘I do remember him being here and what a thrill it was’, Retiring pastor: ‘I’ll miss the people’ and Tomb of unknown soldier in York, too.
Penn Grove Camp, host of hordes of campers in its heyday, sits somewhat forgotten in southwestern York County.
Parts of the camp have been restored (see story below), and it still operates as a day camp… .
But the story of the camp is an indicator of a way of York County life that is passing – those days of taking the family on vacation to hear Christian evangelists in a large tabernacle at night, after a full day of Bible drills, swimming and a bunch of other activities.
For my recent tour of the camp, see Abe, Gwyneth passed through Porters Sideling. Yes, Abe Lincoln passed through Smith Station, too.
The camp became popular around the turn of the 20th century, after its relocation from Emig’s Grove Camp near Manchester.
It saw a rebirth after World War II when Ralph Boyer’s York Gospel Center purchased it. Many today remember it as Camp Pamadeva.
Pamadeva. Pennsylvania. Maryland. Delaware. Virginia.
Today, some Christians continue the tradition of family camp, akin to a religious Chatauqua. For example, a popular camp in the Penn Grove mold in this area is Sandy Cove in northern Maryland.
A York Daily Record/Sunday News story (6/5/04) explains restoration efforts at the camp.
After falling into ruin, Penn Grove Camp — where nationally known evangelists once preached — is being saved
Mud clung to the shoes of the older man and his son as they walked the road thousands walked in the last century from the railroad tracks to the white, iron-gated entrance of Penn Grove Camp.
The Rev. Fred Mummert remembers when the Christian retreat center in Heidelberg Township was the place of old-time camp meetings. His son, Greg Mummert, the camp’s director for two years, is too young to remember when men of God, famous evangelists such as the Rev. Billy Graham, preached revival in the outdoor tabernacle.
And “sinners” came forward to be “saved.”
As many as 10,000 people descended on the wooded grounds of Penn Grove on Sunday afternoons 50 or 60 years ago. Sunday school classes picnicked, families held reunions, and churches stayed for weekend and weeklong retreats. Two-hundred rooms were available in two-story wooden bunkhouses that boasted of electricity and window screens. Bathhouses had running water from a 20,000-gallon water tower at the camp.
The Mummerts met no one on the narrow, dirt road — a mere cow path, nowhere near a main road and surrounded by woods, farmland and a creek. They navigated deep ruts filled with brown water and climbed a thick tree trunk that had fallen and blocked the road.
They were in search of the past, something to link the subdued Penn Grove of today with the thriving camp seen in hazy, black and white photographs and yellowed newspaper clippings.
The camp’s popularity fluctuated throughout its 108 years. The United Brethren Church opened the camp in 1896 after fire destroyed its camp meeting place near Manchester. After that, Penn Grove was sold several times, the Rev. Ralph Boyer of the York Gospel Center in York paying the lowest price of $1 in 1946. The agreement was the church could have the camp for as long as it wanted if the property was used for Christian purposes.
The camp was at its strongest at the turn of the 20th century, and in the late 1940s through the 1960s, when York Gospel Center brought in national Christian speakers and singers and the camps were filled with children — many who came by train.
And then, inexplicably, Penn Grove began to die.
The Rev. Mummert was just a boy of 12 or 13 when he first visited the camp with his family in his dad’s 1940 Lincoln Zepher.
“We’d take in a Sunday afternoon service,” he said, “and we’d eat a picnic lunch in the trunk. . . . Then my dad would get to pitching horseshoes with the guys, and we’d take in an evening service.”
The Rev. Mummert had fallen in love with the camp as a boy. He tried to buy the camp about 20 years ago, he said, but the owner wasn’t selling.
So he gave up on the idea and focused on his family and his church, Harvest Time Temple, just three miles from the camp in Penn Township.
But in the years to come, attendance at the camp declined, and it was used less and less. The 1896 bunkhouses were rotted, leaning or falling down. The old mess hall that had become the game room was beyond repair.
The camp needed someone to care enough to give it life.
Harvest Time Temple bought the camp in 1999. Even with it in such sad shape, the Rev. Mummert couldn’t help thinking it was one of his childhood dreams come true.
“The church was going to build a recreational center, a multipurpose building,” Greg Mummert said, “and somebody told them this place was for sale. . . . They ended up buying the whole facility — 34 acres — at about $50,000 more than it would cost to build just the recreational facility. And not only that, it was a greater chance of ministry because of more people coming in.”
Five years later, much has been accomplished toward the camp’s restoration. The church is hoping to finish winterizing buildings by fall so the camp may be used year-round.
The bunkhouses — all but one left up for nostalgia — were torn down and cinderblock cabins of the 1970s were refurbished. The church built a new bathhouse. The church fixed the wooden floor in the 1896 tabernacle and built a covered pavilion for reunions and other gatherings, a new two-story recreation center with snack and gift shops. It also improved the dining hall, built in the 1970s.
The camp, although still operating at a large deficit and relying on the church for survival, is being used more and more. Only a few weeks remain to be reserved for this summer’s camp season.
Revival has slowly come to the grove.
The older man and his son have finished their walk around the camp and are back at the dining hall near the camp’s current entrance on Pamadeva Road, built in the 1970s.
The rutted road from the old entrance to the train tracks outside the camp isn’t used anymore. No cars or horses and buggies have rolled down it since the entrance closed and moved in the 1970s when five Baptist churches bought the camp from the York Gospel Center.
There’s no trace of the station where trains screeched in from Hanover, Chambersburg, York and Baltimore four or five times a morning — even on Sundays. Then pulled up several times in the evening to bring tuckered churchgoers home.
There’s nothing left of the white gates or the ticket booth that stood beside them, charging visitors a nickel for a day or a quarter for the season.
The Rev. Boyer passed away decades ago. His church, the York Gospel Center, closed.
Fewer and fewer people who visited Penn Grove as children are around anymore to share their memories.
And with its remote location, it would be easy to drive by the small signs to the camp at Smith Station Road and Route 116, Smith Station and Route 216, and Route 216 and Hoff Road — without even noticing them.
“When we bought this place, nobody, I mean nobody, knew it was here,” Greg Mummert said. “I lived three miles away, and I didn’t know it was here.”
As he spoke, a train whistle blew in the distance. The train rumbled past the old, abandoned entrance to Penn Grove where there once was a station, a ticket booth and a white, iron gate.
Greg Mummert never saw the gate or the station, except in a few old photographs discovered in a cardboard box.
But he has faith that the camp will go on.
The train’s wheels screech on tracks where thousands stepped off and walked the road to Penn Grove — where evangelists preached.
And “sinners” came forward to be “saved.”
In 2004, the Rev. Fred Mummert of Harvest Time Temple and his son, Greg Mummert, the director of Penn Grove Retreat, walk the abandoned road that used to be the entrance to Penn Grove Camp until it was closed off in the 1970s and moved to Pamadeva Road. Harvest Time Temple bought the Heidelberg Township camp in 1999.