Starting in the 1950s, the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center ran a popular summer camp for north Minneapolis kids and their families to experience nature in the country, camp, canoe and learn survival skills.
Camp Katharine Parsons, located on an idyllic 100-acre peninsula on Oak Lake in Carver County, fell into disrepair in the 2000s. Phyllis Wheatley now plans to resurrect the camp by its 100-year anniversary in 2024.
The camp in its heyday was part of a national "War on Poverty" that rallied resources for urban youth, said T Williams, a former executive director of Phyllis Wheatley in the 1960s and '70s. When focus shifted from that agenda over the decades — and specifically when United Way funding dried up — camp infrastructure began to deteriorate, he said.
"What we establish in the camp can be one way that we can try to connect with what happened during a period of crisis 40 to 50 years ago," said Williams. "What were the takeaways back then that might have some meaning for us today? Among those takeaways that we know were that people worked together, and they worked and communicated across racial, cultural and political lines."
During his tenure, Williams recalled that members of the Young Republicans helped Phyllis Wheatley rebuild a cabin, members of the north Minneapolis Kiwanis Club planted trees, Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brothers volunteered for cleanup and instructors from the University of Minnesota and Augsburg College would teach campers about the land and wildlife.
Despite the lull in programming and temptations to sell, Phyllis Wheatley kept hold of the Camp Katharine Parsons property.
In 2019, Phyllis Wheatley partnered with the Minnesota Land Trust to obtain a conservation easement on the property to "protect wildlife habitat and water quality in perpetuity."
And this past legislative session, Gov. Tim Walz recommended Phyllis Wheatley receive $4 million to design and construct sustainable infrastructure at the camp as part of his capital investment proposal. The Legislature did not pass a bonding bill despite a budget surplus of more than $9 billion.
Phyllis Wheatley estimates the total project cost of resurrecting Camp Katharine Parsons to be about $5 million. Its partners include architecture firm Snow Kreilich and Mortenson Construction, both of which have donated services to assess the property, remove old insulation and clean up the shoreline.
While the community center is aiming for a completion date to coincide with its centenary, its timeline is contingent on a complicated bundle of modern challenges, said Phyllis Wheatley board member Laura Danielson.
The camp needs to obtain a new conditional use permit from Carver County and establish relationships with its neighbors in Oak Lake, a community that has grown denser since the camp last operated. There's ongoing fundraising to, at a minimum, bring back a day camp with some overnight and family camping facilities, Danielson said.
The project also includes an investigation into how the camp operated in past decades, who Parsons was and what she intended for her donated land.
The character-building potential of Camp Katharine Parsons made it a community asset, said Ron Hunter, who was camp director for two summers in the 1970s, when he was a 20-something veteran of the Vietnam War.
At the height of Camp Katharine Parsons, which is less than an hour from Minneapolis, Phyllis Wheatley would bus about 50 kids at a time to the siteeach morning and bring them back at night. The camp served about 400 children per summer.
"You develop some very specific skills you can't get in the classroom," Hunter said. "You learn about teamwork, you learn about nature, you learn how to swim and survive in the water ... You become more worldly because you get an experience outside of your urban asphalt world, and you get to explore."