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Branches of Forgotten History

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All forests have their mysteries. To most residents, a Des Plaines mystery might mean the century-old United Methodist Campground situated alongside Algonquin Road with its perimeters tucked inside of the forest preserve. Since 1860, the Methodist Campground has stood to see the founding of Des Plaines in 1869 and all of the expansion and development that turned it from farm fields into a suburb. To some passerbyers, the camp-ground – now in disrepair because of years of flooding – may seem like a creepy disarray of white cottages, but its cottage owners and fellow Methodists hold the sacred campground near and dear to their hearts. “We spent every single summer there until I was 12 or 13,” Maine West administrative assistant and former “cottager” Clara VanDriska said. “That’s where I learned how to ride a bike, how to swim, where I had every sleepover. All my summer camps were there, and I met really great friends.” For years, VanDriska’s family owned a large, multi-story white clapboard house at the Methodist Campground. Even though they had their primary house elsewhere in Des Plaines and VanDriska graduated from Maine West, this was their space where they could detach from chaotic suburban life. In its beginning stages, in fact, devout Methodists – a denomination of Protestants – would gather each summer, creating a tented center of religious life on the property. More than 10,000 Meth-odists would populate the camp-ground for meetings and revivals led by ministers and accompanied by choirs. By 1865, participants sought an alternative to the long trek to the campgrounds from Chicago, and instead, they built 100 temporary cottages that were in-tended to stand for a decade or less. Many of these homes, though, still stand, or slant rather, today, which is why the Des Plaines City Council has made fierce demands for acquiring the land. Those religious gatherings throughout the past 160 years influenced population and structural growth in Des Plaines, literally building it from the ground up singlehandedly with its annual tent-city gatherings. To this day, while most cottages are severely weathered by flooding and abrasive conditions, approximately 30 cottages are still in use and occupied by a small number of Methodists who own them and use them as family getaways. “They’re not luxurious; it’s very rough living,” VanDriska said. “When I was in fifth grade, a tree went through the roof of our cottage, and be-cause it’s a historical structure, it was going to cost $300,000 to repair. It was never able to be re-paired so it’s just this horrible, ugly structure that used to be my child-hood.” Located next to the Des Plaines River, flooding events on the con-caved campground have increased over time and are the main culprit to the decay of these homes and the City Council’s reasoning for at-tempted acquisitions. With plans to take responsibility for the campsite, the city of Des Plaines had their sights set on the original location for the Rivers Casino to be on top the remnants of the campground. VanDriska said, “Methodists aren’t allowed to gamble. To tear down a religious campsite and put out a casino was a horrible idea. We were appalled and really upset at that time.” Fortunately for the cottagers, its addition to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005 disrupted the city’s encroachment onto the campground. The Des Plaines community benefited from the campground facilities, too. The campsite hosted on-property events like the annual Country Fair, Civil War reenactments, the Haunted Hike, and the pool open to all community members in the summertime. Past the rusted, white rectangular entrance sign and white schoolhouse, the main historical treasure lies in the center of the campground: the Waldorf Tabernacle. Nearby were the snack and pancake shop, the dining hall and central location of community potlucks, the run-down hotel where cottagers receive mail, and the standing cottages. These places shaped the tight-knit nature among cottagers. “Every Tuesday, the whole campground attended a potluck and everyone would bring food; all you had to bring was your own silverware and a dish. That was the one of the things that everyone in the campground did together.” VanDriska said. Even though it was just a few years back, the summer life for cottagers felt like living in history. VanDriska remembers going to Vacation Bible School while staying in their cottage at the Meth-odist Campground each summer. “I would go every day for maybe two weeks. We would wake up in the morning to a train whistle and all of us kids would run out of our cottages and try to race to the Tabernacle,” VanDriska said, “We would do arts and crafts and listen to music; it was just so freeing. There was no technology. It was just you and your friends having the time of your life, so whenever you heard the train whistle you’d think: ‘Oh yeah this is going to be a great day.’”

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