History for Sale

Dearborne, MO — Camp Winding River, property of Girl Scouts of North East Kansas North West Missouri is up for sale. The decision to let it go was not easy as it is home to a multi million dollar equestrian facility and the legacy of one Dearborne family of site manager through multiple generations. 

With the texture of his rough hands and the utility of his thick finger nails, Donald Swanstone, Sr., turns the pages of two photograph albums. Each three-ring binder is at capacity with yellowed photograph page inserts and protecting plastic covers brittle with age. A collection of clipped newspaper articles, yellow like a big country sunset, cut to exactly the shape of the words containing stories about Camp Winding River, push the limits of the binding of the albums. 

Swanstone touches the square photographs, unfaded, but dull, low in contrast, focused, but soft, the material of preserved memories in the hue and tone of their era, as he narrates his legacy. 

“There’s that Ford tractor I had,” Swanstone says as he taps the reminder of a younger version of himself in denim overalls and leather boots. “The only thing I had to mow and work with.”

Charlotte, Swanstone’s deceased wife, made the photographs during the 19 years they lived on the Girl Scout property. Hand written labels in tight cursive are evidence of thinking ahead to a time when the sharpness of the present would need prompting. Winter 1997-98. 

Charlotte’s blooming roses and bulb flowers around the freshly painted site manager’s home is a highlight of the turning seasons through the turning of the album pages. 

“Let’s see what this one is,” Swanstone says as he takes a long look at a photograph on the far side of the album. “Charlotte got a picture of the deer standing in the front yard, right out in front of the house on the side walk.”

Identifying a few earth bound birds in the corner of a photograph, Swanstone says, “Charlotte would raise 50 frying chickens every year and we’d have our own chicken dinner.”

Turning the album page reveals a long row of cars parked in the wild grass; evidence that life on a girl scout camp is more than mending fences and painting barns. 

“Only time I didn’t have campers is when the roads was so bad they couldn’t get there,” Swanstone says, proudly. 

On another page, yellow school busses line up to drop off Girl Scouts and leaders. “All I had to do was have a place for them to park,” Swanstone remarks. 

But the photograph of a long row of girls riding horses in the country side starts a conversation about his involvement in the every day activities of the Girl Scouts.

“I was late 20 minutes one time in 19 years to check girls in,” Swanstone leans in to say with seriousness. 

Camp Winding River was once a dairy farm. There are still a few hints and remnants of the former purpose of the 409 acres, like the dairy barn, used for activities and a hay loft, now with smooth polished floors. 

Girl Scout Winding River Counsel made the purchase and started the conversion from dairy farm to day and resident camp for Girl Scouts in 1965. 

Camp Winding River has come through three girl scout council reorganizations and is now the property and responsibility of the Counsel of North East Kansas, North West Missouri. 

“As those councils come together, they all bring with them properties,” explained Gina Garvin, vice president of brand for NE Kansas, NW Missouri. With those properties come assets, obligations, long-term plans and decisions. 

“We had five, and our counsel decided that two properties needed to be sold, they needed to concentrate on those three,” said Gina. 

The camps to remain with the NE Kansas, NW Missouri counsel are Camp Daisy Hindman, Camp Tongawood and Camp Prairie Schooner. Camp Oakledge and Camp Winding River are up for sale. 

From dairy farm to girl scout adventure haven, Camp Winding River now boasts an activity barn, staff house, Hawkins Haven and Vanetti Village with nine permatents each, fire rings, zip line, walking trails, woods, 72 acres of hay for bailing, North Hill and West Ridge primitive camping, an archery range, plethora of latrines, a shower house and tucked away maintenance shed. 

Driving up the main entrance road, first time visitors move slowly to take in the impressive barn and its hulking cement silo looking for signs of horses. Molly Seeger, the current camp site and barn manager laughed as she did an impression of their look of surprise on girl scout and leader faces as they mount the hill and realize that the horses they will ride wait for them in the immense equestrian center that appears as they crest the hill. 

In the long term plans of mid-continent Girl Scout Regional Counsel, Girl Scouts eagerly waited and saved for 10 years for the $4.9 million equestrian center built in 2007. 

The upper deck gives a commanding view of the 100 by 200 sand mixture arena. Carved into the hillside, the girls learn to gather there in case of a tornado, the steel and concrete protecting them 14 feet underground. 

Opposite the arena are stalls to hold up to 40 horses; 20 live there now. Each horse has an assigned stall with names like Big Red and Buddy painted on them, based on friendships and rivalries among the horses. 

Seeger lives on Camp Winding River for the role of horse manager, but also in a new role as the site manager, the job that Swanstone remembers fondly. 

Seeger recalls seeing the plans for the equestrian center when she was a teenager in the girl scout wrangler program. She first came to Camp Winding River in 1992 as a girl scout.

“The main purpose was to have an indoor arena so that we could run the program primarily year-round, versus our old facility down below was two out door arenas. So, the slightest drizzle, we had to cancel because then it’s going to ruin the saddles, the leather” Seeger said. “It’s not the horses. It was the tack, which is expensive.”

There is more than riding for Girl Scouts when they arrive at the camp. Seeger and other instructors take them to classrooms to teach lessons on colors and markings, breeds, anatomy and motion. 

Horses are donated — usually for a reason. They are not always the cream of the crop. There is risk of receiving a horse with arthritis or bad temper.

“Their personalities don’t always match this program where you have four girls with them in a day riding them. There are some horses that their personality — they want a consistent rider. They don’t want to be ridden for an eight-hour day, they don’t want to work eight hours. They want to work for, maybe, an hour,” Molly said. 

“You would look for the best of the best horses to do that. We can’t do that. That’s an expense we can’t do,” Gina said, and then asked rhetorically, “Can your program be better if you look at a community partnership that can then offer that?”

Swanstone adjusts his chair to get a better view of the photograph albums on his living room table.

He was site manager for 19 years, replacing his uncle who was there for 11 years. His son, Donald Swanstone, Jr., replaced him for two years after many years of accompanying his father after school. 

“Thats’s the kind of way the Girl Scouts would like you to be — on the job,” says Swanstone. He retired in 1993.

“I done all the building, except one. And some of them, I built by myself,” Swanstone says, looking over photographs with rounded corners. 

“I’d take, to put the rafters up,” he motions the triangle of a roof with his hands, “I’d cut my rafters, tie one end of it up,” one hand stays still as the other lifts to the imaginary roof, “and nail one end up. Then go up and nail the other end in,” says Swanstone.

“Nobody bothered you. You ordered what material you needed for two or three days,” says Swanstone, and he lightly touches photographs of fences, ditches and latrine structures. “Beverly Lumber would bring it up from Platte City. We tried to do business with all the local people.”

Conversing about the raised walk way, Swanstone says, “We had a level that you could set it on 10 percent, and you could put it on the slope there,” representing the slope of the hill with his hands, “and you had to either dig it out or fill it up.” 

Why a reorganization of girl scout counsels? 

“It honestly came down to there were so many smaller counsels across the country at the time that were failing — financially. And so, they needed to do more regional things because girls weren’t getting the type of program activities that they wanted in those small councils,” Garvin said.

What advantages do larger councils offer?

“We know that we can do way more programmatic stuff for our girls in our regions now than we could do, but it’s like any business, right. You have to live within your means,” Garvin said.

Why is Camp Winding River selected to sell?

“When the board of directors had to look at a lot of things they certainly looked at your capacity, and how many had stayed here and could stay here, what could those properties and facilities do,” Gina said. 

Camp Winding River is in a catch 22 of funding: it would take more girls staying on the camp to bring in the funding needed to make serious repairs and expansion, but there is not enough room and facilities up to their best to support that amount of Girl Scouts. 

The second part of the paradox is as each camp and place of adventure and learning within range of the girl scouts of NE Kansas and NW Missouri make their facilities the best and most attractive they draw away from Camp Winding River. 

“When my uncle Stanley moved out to camp it had the platform part. Then they had metal pipe for the frame. And this had tent material to fit over this frame. That was their little platform tents at the time,” says Swanstone.

He uses his finger to draw imaginary lines over the photograph of permatents. 

“Well, we took them down and built the platform tents like they are now. We built all them,” says Swanstone referring to the permatents still in use on the camp. 

Swanstone smiles as he tells the now humorous story of building the permatents to the exact specifications the girl scout council sent him. He was not allowed to deviate from the plans and the materials purchased would not allow for changes by the builder. 

Since their construction in 1973, adults have only been able to stand in the middle of the structures. The height of the steeply angled roof is 7 feet, but quickly slopes to 4 feet to meet the walls. 

The nationwide girl scout program encourages progressive levels of camping. From glamping, a humorous shortening of glamorous-camping wherein amenities abound and getting dirty is strictly an option, to the permatents, to all-out primitive camping in tents, a subtle reminder that as a society we have risen above the necessity of tent stakes and sleeping on the lumpy earth leaving it as an option for the roughest of adventures. 

Camp Winding River has a little of each, but the amount of glamping space and the maximum of 92 girls in permatents holds back the number of troops willing and able to make it their camp of choice and the recipient of their hard earned funds. 

“Here’s that bell we donated them,” Swanstone says, as he turns a photograph album page showing an iron bell suspended on a headstock and gudgeon. “I bought that bell at an auction one day for 10 dollars.”

The bell was used to warn of emergency. A plaque affixed to the platform reminds visitors of the Swanstone legacy at the camp. 

“Everything’s more modern now. That’s what the leaders want, something more modern, ya know,” says Swanstone as he comes to the last pages of the second album. 

“Where you used to just go out and build you a bon-fire and cook and all, now what they like to have is a closed in building with toilets, and the stove and refrigerator and all that,” says Swanstone as much to himself as anyone else in his living room.

Swanstone closes the album. 

“I hate to see it sold. It’s kinda hard to believe that somebody — they give you 409 acres and some cash beside and then you have to turn around and sell it,” says Swanstone.

“What we know is that the girls want to do exactly what the boys are doing and more. And they want bigger and bolder adventures,” Garvin said.

The national girl scout recommended program areas are camping, aquatics, equestrian, sports, high adventure, excursions and STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). 

“Well, the only way we can build that type of thing is we have to figure out to live within our means with the three properties, and so then build on those properties those things.” Gina said.

The Girl Scout Counsel of NE Kansas NW Missouri is looking for equestrian programs already in place.

“And it’s so you have the ability to work with a partner who has the horses, who has a great facility, who’s in an area where Girl Scouts will go, still having the great girl scout program, but we now don’t feed, and have the expense of all these horses and a facility to keep up.” 

Depending on the buyer and their intentions with the 409 acres, Camp Winding River may keep some of its current purpose. 

Brent Taylor, vice president of operations for Girl Scouts of NE Kansas NW Missouri said, “That’s also our hope, that we find a buyer who is interested in maintaining it as a camp, which is what we’ve done before with other buyers, and partner with them and hope that they will allow Girl Scouts to continue to use this facility.”


Cory MacNeil