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Stronghold Camp & Retreat Center celebrates 50 years

By Derek Barichello

Sauk Valley Media

When asked what the secret to success has been for Stronghold Camp & Retreat Center, the Rev. John Rickard had an immediate answer.

"Not many other camps have a castle," the camp's pastor said.

Founded in 1963, Stronghold in Oregon celebrated its 50th anniversary Saturday with an open house that drew about 300 people from across northern Illinois.

Activities included archery, high rope courses, giant swings, zip lines and arts and crafts, and of course, tours of the castle.

The Tudor-style castle was built by Walter Strong, publisher of the Chicago Daily News, in 1928-29 as a summer home for his wife and five children. It has 25 rooms, four secret passages and a tower with a view of the Rock River. It was built with limestone quarried on site.

Strong died in 1931 after spending just one summer at the home, but his wife, Josephine, continued to live there.

In 1962, various Presbyterian organizations took control of the property and made it into a summer camp site for youth. Now owned and operated by Presbytery of Blackhawk, Presbyterian Church USA, its camps and retreats bring more than 8,000 people to the 350-acre facility year-round, Rickard said.

During Oregon's annual Autumn on Parade festival, Stronghold opens it doors to the public for a 2-day Olde English Faire. Admission is charged for the event.

If 7-year-old Karly Reel, Mendota, had her wish, she would live in the castle.

"That would be very nice," said Karly, who came to visit with her grandmother, mother and three cousins. "One room has a secret passage through the bookshelves, and there are guards that stand in front of certain rooms."

Instead, she was happy to settle for Saturday's visit, taking part in arts and crafts and shooting a bow and arrow for the first time.

Strong's grandson, Howard Strong, Geneva, remembered what it was like to visit the castle as a child, but his family referred to it as "the farm."

"It was a lovely and beautiful place to visit," said Strong, whose family sold the castle when he was 14. "I can remember catching fireflies and having fun out here. It was always about family. We'd have parties of 40 to 60 people, but it was all relatives, cousins, aunts and uncles."

He's happy to see the Presbytery using the facility to bring people together, he said.

Two years ago, Eddie Cathelyn, 15, Braidwood, spent a summer as a camper in the Night Owl Camp, where teenagers get to stay up doing activities until 3 a.m., then sleep in.

He enjoyed the experience so much that he had to return. He brought a friend Derek Schott, 14, who wants to sign up for a camp.

"It was perfect for teenagers, because that's how we want to sleep," Cathelyn said.

Others, like Kevin Krause, 17, Marengo, and Christi Carroll, 17, Harvard, came to the camp for the first time to visit friends, and to take a ride on the 500-foot zip line.

"It's really awesome," Carroll said. "Getting up there is the toughest part, climbing the ropes. It's scary at first, but it's fun. I flew, and it happens so fast."

Rickard, a general presbyter of the Blachawk Presbytery, was pleased with the turnout, saying it was more than expected.

More retreat buildings have been constructed and the camp continues to grow every year, Rickard said. It's well-known throughout northern Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Chicagoland, he said.

"It's special to make it to 50 years, because a lot of camps don't make it that far," Rickard said. "There've been a lot of changes, and we've created a great environment to make it to the next 50 years."

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