Beginning in the 1950s, the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center held a popular summer camp for north Minneapolis children and their families to experience nature in the countryside, camp, canoe, and learn survival skills.
Camp Katharine Parsons, located on an idyllic 100-acre peninsula on Oak Lake in Carver County, fell into disrepair in the 2000s. Phyllis Wheatley now plans to resurrect the camp by its 100th anniversary in 2024.
The camp at its height was part of a national “war on poverty” that pooled resources for urban youth, said T Williams, former executive director of Phyllis Wheatley in the 1960s and 1970s. was turned away from that program in the decades that followed – and in particular United Way funding dried up – the camp’s infrastructure began to deteriorate, he said.
“What we’re establishing in camp can be a way of trying to connect with what happened during a time of crisis 40 to 50 years ago,” Williams said. “What were the takeaways back then that might have meaning for us today? Among those takeaways that we know was that people worked together, and they worked and communicated across racial lines , cultural and political.
During her tenure, Williams recalled members of the Young Republicans helping Phyllis Wheatley rebuild a cabin, members of the North Minneapolis Kiwanis Club planting trees, brothers from the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity carrying volunteers for the cleanup and that instructors from the University of Minnesota and Augsburg College were teaching the camp. children on land and wildlife.
Despite the lull in programming and temptations to sell, Phyllis Wheatley retained ownership of Camp Katharine Parsons.
In 2019, Phyllis Wheatley partnered with the Minnesota Land Trust to secure a conservation easement on camp property to “protect wildlife habitat and water quality in perpetuity.”
And during the last legislative session, Governor Tim Walz recommended that Phyllis Wheatley be given $4 million to design and build sustainable infrastructure in the camp as part of her capital investment proposal. The Legislative Assembly failed to pass a bail bill despite a budget surplus of more than $9 billion.
Phyllis Wheatley estimates the total cost of the Camp Katharine Parsons resurrection project at around $5 million. Its partners include renowned architectural firm Snow Kreilich and construction company Mortenson, both of which donated services to assess the property, remove old insulation and clean up the shoreline.
As the community center aims for a completion date that coincides with its centenary, its timeline hinges on a complicated set of modern challenges to reactivate a summer camp after so many decades of dormancy, said board member Laura Danielson. Directors of Phyllis Wheatley.
The camp must obtain a new conditional use permit from Carver County and establish relationships with its Oak Lake neighbors in a community that has grown in density since the camp’s last operation. There is fundraising underway to, at a minimum, bring back a day camp with overnight and family camping facilities, Danielson said.
The project also includes a historical investigation into the operation of the camp over the past decades, who Parsons was and what she wanted for her given land.
Historically, the character-building potential of Camp Katharine Parsons made it a community asset, recalled Ron Hunter, who served as camp director for two summers in the 1970s when he was a New World War II veteran. Vietnam aged about 20.
“You develop very specific skills that you can’t learn in the classroom. You learn teamwork, you learn about nature, you learn how to swim and survive in water and understand basic things like punctuality. You become more worldly because you get an experience outside of your urban asphalt world, and you can explore.”
During the heyday of Camp Katharine Parsons, Phyllis Wheatley ferried about 50 children at a time to camp within an hour’s drive each morning and back home north of Minneapolis at night. Each group signed up for a two-week cycle and, throughout the summer, Phyllis Wheatley managed to form eight groups for a total of approximately 400 young people served.