Jason Kirkland paints t-shirts with Keionna Livingston, 8, during Camp Rising Sun at Camp Pratt in June in this Dispatch file photo. Camp Rising Sun is one of many programs Camp Pratt has hosted over the years. Photo by: Dispatch file photo
December 16, 2017 10:04:13 PM
The moment 7-year-old Fred Haley set foot on the grounds of Camp Henry Pratt something moved within him.
The YMCA-owned camp in south Lowndes County on the banks of the Tombigbee River, was 100 acres of a boy's dream. The year was 1955. Haley would spend the next 40 summers of his life there.
"You never forget the walk to the barn to ride the horses, and getting in the canoes and the way they banged together," he said. "... And especially the camp songs. We're still singing 'If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands' and 'I'm a Camp Pratt cutie pie.'"
After a few summers as a camper, he moved "up the ranks" to junior counselor at age 12, to counselor at age 16, then director and eventually resident director, meaning he lived on the camp full-time. He's seen thousands of children go through the programs held there over the years, from the overnight camp and day camp to camps for individuals with special needs. Even after retiring in 1995, Haley still spends a week there every summer volunteering with Camp Rising Sun, an overnight camp for children with cancer.
Last week, the YMCA announced it was accepting sealed bids for the property.
That idea doesn't trouble Haley -- on one condition.
"I think it's a wise thing to do -- if it can still be made available to Camp Rising Sun and special needs camps," he said.
A thing of the past
It's smaller than it was when Haley was a camper, but Camp Pratt still holds 70 acres of land, including 1,700 feet of waterfront property. On the premises are nine cabins, a large metal cafeteria and an in-ground swimming pool.
The YMCA has already begun taking bids for the sale of the camp, but YMCA Director Andy Boyd stressed the board may not choose to sell.
It's not a decision board members take lightly, he said. Many of them have fond memories of their summers there. Boyd himself remembers going to football camp while attending Lee High School in the 1960s.
But now the camp is under-utilized, he said. Since Boyd became director in 2009, Camp Pratt's only programs have been Camp Rising Sun and a few weeks of day camp. Meanwhile recent years have seen the YMCA open facilities in Caledonia and New Hope in addition to the downtown Columbus location.
On a $1.4 million budget, it's hard to justify maintaining a camp that's only used a handful of weeks out of the year, particularly with three other facilities to run, Boyd said.
"(We're) just looking at the best way to use our resources in this community, and to be prudent about it," he said.
He said children today are less interested in traditional summer camp than they are in computer camps, sports camps and other activities. About 1,500 kids use the Y's facilities every year. Boyd estimates 350-400 attended the day camp last summer.
"Times change," he said. "How we serve people changes."
Columbus City Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box, who was director of the YMCA for 15 years before Boyd, was already beginning to see this trend during his tenure.
"There is a national trend away from camping," Box said. "I just don't think camping is as big a deal as it used to be, and kids are not really inclined to go out there and stay for a week like they (used to)."
Those who are inclined tend to leave the area, he said.
"The children that can afford to go to camp can afford to go to a bigger camp like Chattanooga or one of those bigger camps up in the mountains," Box said. "... They take the newer camp, the bigger camp. That's something that ... really hurts smaller camps like ours."
Still those who spent time there have fond memories of Camp Pratt. Box himself loved spending time with children at Camp Rising Sun.
"Those are the most heart-wrenching memories," he said.
George Hazard III spent his summers as a camper there in the 1990s just like his father did in the 1950s. His favorite activities occurred on the water. He remembers being caught in a thunderstorm with about 10 other campers while canoing on a creek just off the river. The group sought shelter on a sandbar and were rescued when Haley arrived in his 24-foot cabin cruiser, Tombigbee Dundee.
"Fred ended up ... being able to get in there with that boat and probably load close to 10 campers plus a few counselors all up on there and bring us back to camp," Hazard said.
Hazard was about 8 at the time, and it didn't deter him from boating -- he even helped Haley with the boat outside the camping season, and two years ago, he bought it.
"I'd always had an interest in the river and really in that boat," he said.
Camp Pratt is also where Hazard learned to use a rifle and bow, weapons he still uses to hunt, and where he met one of his best friends.
Still both he and Haley were understanding about the potential sale.
"(Most) kids don't enjoy roughing it anymore," Haley said.
"But the ones who love it, love it," he added.
Haley still remembers sitting in the chapel and seeing a cross, made out of telephone polls, across the river. If there's one memory about Camp Pratt that sticks out the most, it's the reflection of that cross on the water, he said.
"(Camp Pratt) was a family," he said. "It was a community."
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