Since 1948, Alachua County Public Schools has sent second and fifth graders to Camp Crystal Lake during the school year to spend time in a different sort of world. During the summer, campers in grades 2-9 flood the camp for 1-2 week sessions.
Over the weekend, the camp hosted the first of two 75th anniversary celebrations, the second to be held Dec. 9 from 12:30 p.m. until 5 p.m. During the event, the grounds were filled again with former campers and staff, as well as many of their children and other area students who were exploring the camp for the first time, dipping a toe in Camp Crystal’s activities and atmosphere.
According to former campers, camp experiences can change a life.
Jim Springfield first came to Camp Crystal as a camper in 1962. In 1977, when Springfield was working as a teacher, he watched as the camp director at the time, Jane Driscoll, stepped down after 25 years and the school board shut the camp down.
During the 1977-78 school year, the community, full of former campers, rose up and made the school board reopen Camp Crystal. Soon after, Springfield took over as director, holding the position until 1989.
Springfield said that, while most people are “summer camp people,” he feels the school year program allows students to have opportunities they would not have otherwise, beyond even the outdoor education the program touts.
“Teachers will tell me, ‘I can’t bring Gene. He is so bad in school,’” Springfield said. “I say, no, no, no, no. He’ll be out there in the pitch dark, taking a hike, holding your hand because he’ll be scared. And you will have a different relationship with him for the rest of the year.”
Springfield said children don’t act out at camp, because it is too new and dazzling, a whole world of its own with no television, news or cell phones. He remembers going as far as to turn the clocks back to ignore daylight saving time and give campers an extra hour of daylight in the evenings. He said they never knew the difference.
Linnea Bailey was a camper from 1989 until she aged out, then came back as a counselor. She said she lived for the two-week sessions, hanging photos from camp each year on her wall. Even twenty years after she has been to the camp, she is part of a Facebook group for former staff.
“It was the most perfect place in the entire universe,” Bailey said. “I loved everything about it… I loved hearing the bell in the morning and waking up and coming to the flag ceremony.”
Gene Sanders was a camper at Camp Crystal Lake for six summers, then a counselor for six more. He remembers sitting with an ice cream or drink from the canteen, watching a wall of rain sweep across the lake to disrupt free swim time. He had his first kiss on the back porch of the rec hall. The camp looked a little different then, but Sanders said it has maintained its character.
In the 1980s, the camp hired urban planners and architects to come up with a plan for what Camp Crystal should look like in 50 years. Sanders said it was fun to see many of those plans have come to fruition.
“It’s neat to see some of those ideas having been implemented, without it changing the character of the camp,” Sanders said. “So they went about it the right way, because I know lots of times people will make plans to change a camp thinking that it’s going to help, but then it doesn’t.
Some of these changes include electricity and air conditioning, individual bathrooms and showers with showerheads.
For as long as he was at Camp Crystal, Sanders said it has been a “cooperative camp” more than a competitive one. While there are games and opportunities for competition, the core of the camp is bringing children out of their shells and into community with one another.
Landon Strack, the camp’s current director, said he thinks one of the best things about the camp is that students from all different backgrounds attend the school year sessions, a picture he would like to see more of during the summers.
Strack said his family could not afford to send him to summer camp until the last two years he was eligible, so the camp’s summer scholarship fund is personal to him. Before COVID-19, the camp used out-of-county camper fees to create a scholarship fund, but now scholarships are entirely donation-based.
Part of the 75th anniversary celebrations’ goal is to raise money for the scholarship fund, through donations and t-shirt sales. The money will go into a pool, which a committee made up of members of the school board, Education Foundation and the camp will decide how to best use.
In summer 2024, the camp will host six weeklong sessions and one two-week session, about which Jim Springfield has mixed feelings. He said when he first began, the summer was made up of only four sessions, two weeks each, giving the campers time to settle into the camp rhythm and separate from the everyday world.
The problem with so many two-week sessions was that it only allowed about 400 campers to attend each summer. Camp Crystal eventually began to shift, slowly introducing more and more one-week sessions, 120 campers each.
While Springfield said he was sad to see the two-week sessions fade, he also said the camp has not changed at its core. The traditions that were passed to him continue through every camp session, and campers and staff continue to grow new ones.
“Camp is a place, and it’s an area that people choose to gather at the same time. But the people that meet here and the things that we do together is really what makes it so magical. We call it paradise. We really do,” Strack said.