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Camp Kysoc's rich history began with construction in 1959

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By Dave Taylor

The property stands idle after a 50-year history of service as a summer residential camping facility for special needs individuals from the summer of 1960 until May 29, 2010. When first opened, Camp Kysoc was considered to be a premiere camping facility for special needs children and the first of its kind in the nation. During the years of o

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The property stands idle after a 50-year history of service as a summer residential camping facility for special needs individuals from the summer of 1960 until May 29, 2010.

When first opened, Camp Kysoc was considered to be a premiere camping facility for special needs children and the first of its kind in the nation. During the years of operation, the facility served 27,500 children and adults with physical disabilities, involving more than 165,000 overnight camping experiences.

The News-Democrat announced on May 21, 1959 that the board of directors of the Kentucky Society for Crippled Children had voted during a meeting at Butler Park to launch a “state-wide capital funds campaign for approximately $250,000 to build a resident camp for physically handicapped children.”

The newspaper reported that the State of Kentucky leased at no cost to the Crippled Children’s Society a 124-acre tract of land that had been an undeveloped part of Butler Park.

Sydney Rosenblum, a retired Louisville business executive and civic leader, was named general chairman of the campaign.

“These handicapped youngsters certainly deserve the privilege and fun of genuine camping experiences the same as normally healthy children,” Rosenblum told the local newspaper at the time. “It is our plan to provide camping programs for the blind, children with orthopedic handicaps, those with hearing and speech handicaps and those handicapped by accidents.”

The fundraising campaign was successful and on July 21, 1960, the newspaper reported on the progress of ongoing construction.

“The first building to be completed was the caretaker’s house. Mr. and Mrs. Jim Montgomery and their three children occupy that structure. The Montgomerys moved here on July 4, 1959, and since that time Mr. Montgomery has been busy clearing land, building roads and doing carpentry work.”

“There’s a lot of history there,” Jim Montgomery’s son and Carrollton resident David Montgomery told The News-Democrat when the facility closed in May. “Back in the ‘60s whenever they would open a new building there the governor always came to town for the dedication.”

Montgomery said his family has had hands-on dealings with the property for several years. His father, Jim Montgomery, was the camp’s first caretaker and directed the construction and development of the camp in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. David, his sister Cathy Gilbert, their brother Tom and Tom’s son have all worked at the camp in years past.

Gilbert says her dad’s brother, Hack Montgomery, and her mother’s cousin, George Amin, helped Jim Montgomery build a number of the structures on the grounds.

“Camp Kysoc was truly a family affair for the Montgomery’s,” she said. She called her parents’ move from Anchorage, Ky., to Carrollton “a giant leap of faith. My brothers, Tom and Dave were ages nine and six; and I was three when we made the trip to Carrollton.

The family lived at the caretaker’s house until 1969, Gilbert said.

The News-Democrat article of July 21, 1960 reported that a service building had been constructed, to be used for maintenance, storage and would house a handicrafts department for the children. Roads had been built, a well drilled and it was hoped a sewage system would be completed by the end of the summer.

Trees were being cleared away and building outlines staked out preparatory to the construction of a dining hall and kitchen unit, the paper reported. The facility, “donated by the Rotary Clubs of Kentucky, will cost approximately $70,000. It will seat 100 and also will be used as a recreation hall by blind and crippled children who will use the camp.”

The cornerstone for the Rotary Memorial Building was laid on Sept. 24, 1960, and the facility was ready for occupancy in early summer of 1961.

“Dad worked on every structure (designing many) at the camp,” Gilbert said, “including our home, the lodge, maintenance barn, cabins, bridge, pool, covered wagons and blacktop trails.”

A small group of handicapped children from the KySoc Club of Louisville were the first to camp at the site late in the summer of 1960. Regular camping programs began on a limited basis in July 1961.

“The first campers arrived on July 17,” original Camp Director Betsy Burke told The News-Democrat for the Aug. 3, 1961 issue. “Their enjoyment of the camp proves the value of all the time, effort and money which you have contributed. With the two buildings which have been completed, we are able to serve only 18 campers at a time.”

That first camping experience, enjoyed by six girls and seven boys from the Louisville area, was described by The News-Democrat on July 21, 1961:

“Some of the children were in wheel chairs, some were on crutches, and some were heart patients—but all entered into the spirit of camping and were reluctant to leave Wednesday. During their stay at the camp the children went boating on the lake in paddle-wheel boats loaned by Butler State Park. Altogether, they caught seven fish from the lake. They collected turtles, frogs and insects, and did handicraft work. They built a rustic mail box to be placed at the entrance of the camp, and during their stay they set their own tables, did their own housekeeping, and kept the buildings clean. On Tuesday night they held a ‘Last Night Campfire’ and sang songs together in the firelight.”

Burke told the local reporter that two other buildings were under construction during the summer of 1961, “and by 1962 we hope to be able to finance enough construction to run at full capacity. It is a beautiful camp; we know Kentucky will be proud of its first resident camp for handicapped children.”

“My parents were known to hundreds of handicapped children and their parents as Mama Jean and Papa Jim,” Gilbert said. “Dad drove the nails and laid the asphalt for just about everything at the camp. Mom supervised the camp kitchen that was the heart of Kysoc, an appropriate place for a woman who loved special needs kids from all over Kentucky and Southern Indiana as if they were her own.”

Gilbert said her parents were heroes to the handicapped children and their families who were able to make happy memories there. Both Jim and Jean Montgomery are now deceased.

              According to information found on the camp’s former Web site, Camp Kysoc is believed to be the first decentralized camp built in the world, the first to use ramps instead of stairs and steps, the first to use grab rails in its bathrooms, the first to asphalt all of its trails to all of its camp facilities, activity areas and sleeping cabins and the first to have a zero entry swimming pool. It is believed that these ease of access innovations were first begun at Easter Seals Camp Kysoc before anywhere else in America or the world.

              Now abandoned at the site are a large indoor heated pool, the large Rotary Memorial Building dining hall with two large fireplaces and capacity for 250 people, a large outdoor covered pavilion and nine villages with three cabins in each village. The 27 cabins can sleep five campers per cabin. It also has three villages for tents. At each village is a bathroom, a large sheltered picnic table, and a fire circle for singing around a campfire at nighttime.

              Since the closing of Camp Kysoc in May the acreage has reverted to the control of the Kentucky Department of Parks.

              “We would hate to see them market that for development,” Carroll County Judge-Executive Harold “Shorty” Tomlinson said during the July 13 meeting of Carroll County Fiscal Court. “Camp Kysoc is a one of a kind facility. We have talked about trying to get another entity to take the camp over. We as a court are very concerned about what happens to that property.”

              So are many others, including the Montgomery’s who took a leap of faith and invested years of labor to ensure the success of Camp Kysoc.

              “Children with every kind of handicap visited camp for a life changing few days where they had the freedom and safety to go on hikes, cook outs, swim, fish, take boat rides on the Matilda and perform on skit nights,” Gilbert said, “things that are hard to do when you are on crutches, cannot see, cannot hear or maybe you don’t think like most kids do. For me, Camp Kysoc was a magical place to grow up!”

 

Dave Taylor is a staff writer at The News-Democrat and the author of several books on local history. His history column “Water Under the Bridge” appears in The News-Democrat on the last Wednesday of each month.