The housekeeper looked through the gate and saw the woodland estate of her former employer was for sale. Rev. Ruth Underwood looked through the iron bars and saw the future. So begins the intriguing saga of Sky Lake. Ruth Underwood, then Secretary of the Wyoming Conference Board of Education, knew that the search was on for a new facility to take the place of the defunct Sidney Grove Camp Meeting grounds and realized immediately that a wonderful opportunity had presented itself. She informed several persons in the Conference of the availability of the Sky Lake property, and on a winter day they labored on foot through deep snow to see the place for themselves. After much prayer, deliberation, and hard work the Sky Lake property was officially purchased by the Sky Lake Holding Company on March 12, 1947. Less than one month later, on April 10, 1947, a motion was unanimously adopted at Annual Conference to purchase the property from the Holding Company and to authorize a $100,000 fund to be raised to finance it.
In its early years, Sky Lake hired Russell J. Riley as camp manager and his wife, Rose, as cook. Together with their family, they would serve faithfully for 23 years as caretakers of this sacred place. Enrollment for summer camp was encouraging that first summer at 582 persons, with a weeklong session costing $13.50. Over the next few years, ten additional acres were purchased to provide a ball field, and structures in the main lodge were sold to the highest bidder. Some of the rather discouraging events included rotten support timbers in the main lodge, porches and roofs collapsed due to heavy snows, and badly leaking radiators. The truck broke down, the roads were almost impassable because of the snow, and the caretaker’s cottage was saved after it caught fire only by the timely presence of an alert church group.
Times were changing and the outlook became a little brighter with each succeeding year. On May 13, 1950 Bishop Corson presided over a service of dedication of the Sky Lake property, and in a culmination of the fine efforts of the people of the Annual Conference, the mortgage was burned. That same year a gift of was given in memory of Mr. Charles McKown, which would signal the beginning of a new era of youth ministry as construction of the West Shore Camp commenced. McKown Lodge was dedicated on September 28, 1952, and the printed program for the day stated “It is the intention of the Board of Directors to erect cabins, wash-houses, a new dining hall and other necessary buildings for the new Youth Camp as soon as funds are available.” In talking about the vital ministry that was occurring at Sky Lake then Conference Board President Tolley went on to say,
“Health and happiness abound in this high, pure, peaceful atmosphere where God lives, moves and has a special dwelling. The setting for vision, meditation, communion, challenge, and consecration to a holy task is perfect.”
By 1957, the West Shore Camp had been substantially completed in accordance with the Master Plan. At the East Shore Camp, Sidney Dining Hall had been built, dedicated, and named to commemorate the many years of service of the Sidney Grove Camp Meeting grounds. What a joy it was for campers to no longer have to stand in line outside the small dining room of the old lodge, especially on rainy days!
The dawn of the 1960s marked the beginning of a time of departure from the old ways of doing things. In 1961, conversation between the Board of Education and the Board of Directors began around the possibility of replacing the old lodge that, while picturesque, was becoming dangerous to use and had never been truly adequate for the use of our churches. There was a growing demand for retreats and conferences in the fall and spring, and it was recognized that with a new winterized facility, Sky Lake could be utilized throughout the year. Summer camps and seasonal retreats would no longer be the only choices available at Sky Lake. Construction of what was to become the present day Riley Lodge began in 1965, with formal groundbreaking ceremonies taking place on September 19, 1965 under the guidance of Miss Elsie Lewis and Rev. James A. Wert, Camp Program Coordinators, and Dr. Roswell C. Lyon, Chairman of the Conference Board of Education.
In the 1970’s, Calvin D. Cramer began his tenure as the first Conference Director of Camps and Conferences. On April 23, 1972 the Central Lodge was formally dedicated as “Riley Lodge” in memory of J. Russell Riley, “for his 23 years of devotion to Sky Lake and its ministry to persons.” This decade also saw another major development of the property and program with the construction of the family tent and trailer campground and Caldwell Pavilion in 1975. That same year, in order to help meet the demands of increasing use and additional facilities the Board of Directors hired James R. Krager to fill the newly created position of Assistant Director. As the decade progressed improvements were made to the property, including a new bathhouse for the West Shore Camp in 1979 and the connection of the East Shore Camp to the sewage treatment system that was created as part of the campground development in 1975. A longtime volunteer counselor and camp director was honored in 1975, when the West Shore Dining Hall was renamed Arthur Chauncey Dining Hall. Many are the campers and staff who will forever fondly recall the enticing aroma and heavenly taste of a chicken barbequed to perfection over a campfire by Art.
Improvements and additions to the physical plant of Sky Lake were proposed in the mid-1980’s, and by the end of the decade the original boathouse had been replaced and enlarged, the East Shore swimming area had been moved and improved, Riley Lodge had been updated to meet new code requirements, the original caretaker’s cottage had been replaced, a new office and maintenance building was in place and a new gravel path had been built along the lake between the East and West Shore Camps.
Planning was under way to implement the next of phase of the revised master plan, which would culminate in the construction in 1996 of Underwood Lodge. This new facility was conceived as a motel -type accommodation to serve the needs of the Conference for adult spiritual life retreats. With a private bath in each room, folks would no longer have to get to know their neighbor down the hall in new and unexpected ways. Real beds and linens would enhance the comfort of a retreat experience as the campers of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s returned for spiritual renewal. This wonderful addition to the property was named after the Rev. Ruth Underwood, with whom we began this story, and was dedicated on October 5, 1997.
As the new century dawned, the Board continued to seek ways to continue the growth and improvement of the property. After months of study and strategic planning sessions, the Board developed plans for a capital fund campaign. This $2.2 million “Gift for the Millennium” campaign was presented at the June 2001 Annual Conference, where it was overwhelmingly approved. A motion to give $400,000 from the Conference Rebuilding Fund toward this effort was also approved almost unanimously. The initial focus of this campaign was to replace the old Sidney Dining Hall with a year-round facility for dining and meeting. Founders’ Lodge—named for those who took the leap of faith to purchase Sky Lake— was the result of this campaign and was dedicated on May 18, 2003. Founders’ serves as a wonderful central location for our excellent food service, a Conference Room for any of our groups to use for meetings or day events, and two studio apartments that can be reserved for a private get away and retreat.