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May 31, 2016 | Carol E. Barnwell

Legacy writ Large, Generosity of Spirit Continues at Camp Allen

[Diolog Magazine Camp Allen June 2016]  Nearly 100 years ago, Bishop Clinton Quin was having difficulty attracting clergy to the Diocese of Texas, and a sagging church population concerned the missionary bishop. He hoped a renewed vision for the youth of the Diocese would help attract those who might be interested in attending seminary, and envisioned a summer camp that would support his vision. Rosa Lum Allen, a prominent Houstonian and member of Christ Church (not yet the Cathedral) offered the use of her spacious summer estate at Sylvan Beach for that first summer camp session in 1921.


At Diocesan Council that year, delegates approved the organization of the Young People’s Service League. According to historiographer, the Rev. Lawrence L. Brown, in an article in the November 1982 Texas Churchman, “[Proposed regional camps] would have been a tremendous undertaking, since the Diocese had neither camping facilities nor experience. Into this breach stepped a wonderfully generous church lady, Mrs. Sam E. (Rosa Lum) Allen.”   


Rosa Allen left her home in Fort Bend County at the age of 18 to marry Samuel E. Allen, a rancher and grandson of Ezekiel Thomas, who had arrived in Texas in 1824, part of the original Stephen F. Austin Colony, the “Old 300.” Rosa grew up attending Calvary Episcopal Church in Richmond. After her marriage in 1876, she joined Christ Church where her husband’s family had been members since the original wooden building sat facing Fannin Street. The Allens remained faithful members of Christ Church, commuting from the Allen Ranch every Sunday by horse and buggy, a habit they continued with their children come rain or shine.


In his book From Wave of the Gulf, Jesse A. Ziegler described Samuel Allen as “the cattle-king” whose acreage flanked both Simms and Buffalo bayous. “His cattle numbered in the thousands, and his landed estate [23,000 acres in Harris and Brazoria counties] seems to me to have occupied the greater portion of soil between Houston and Galveston. Allen’s home was a two-story, Colonial structure with broad verandas, and the scene at one time or another of much gaiety and entertainment,” Ziegler wrote. It was this grand house that would be the first home of Camp Allen.


Four years after Samuel’s death in 1913, Rosa sold 700 acres to Sinclair Oil Company for the first refinery on what would become the Houston Ship Channel. She moved to a home on the corner of Main and Pierce near downtown Houston and had the ranch house Ziegler wrote about dismantled and rebuilt as a summer home on Galveston Bay near Sylvan Beach in La Porte. 


Rosa remained active at Christ Church and when Bishop Quin came calling, she readily made the Sylvan Beach house available for the Diocese’s summer camp program. Thirty-six campers came from Houston, Austin, Galveston, Dallas and Tyler the first summer. Cost for two-week sessions was $15 plus $1.35 for railroad fare. Rosa was often present to make the campers welcome. 


The two weeks 14-year-old Martha Johnson spent at camp in 1921 was the first time she had been away from home. In a 2001 interview, Johnson, then 94, said that evenings around the campfire eased her initial homesickness, but what she particularly recalled was the intimacy of worship she experienced. “The house had a sunroom in the front that looked out on [the water], a real long room where we had worship services. I’ve never had such a personal experience at communion as I had there.” Johnson said. 


The huge house had six bedrooms, a large sunroom and living room where the group met for Bible study before taking nature hikes. Fireside sing-alongs were a favorite part of the starry nights. Counselors, guides and cooks cared for the campers even though the program was rather informal. “It wasn’t as organized as camps are today,” Johnson said. Campers took their own bedding and slept on cots. “We just played it by ear those first years, but we had a ball,” she said. Twin brothers Tom and Charles Sumners were also among the first group of campers and later served as counselors. 


“Bishop Quin’s vision [for Camp Allen] was always bigger than just kids going to camp,” said Francita Stuart Koelsch Ulmer, Rosa Allen’s great-granddaughter. “He saw it also as an opportunity to develop leaders, both lay and clergy, that would help form the Diocese over the next 50 years,” she said. 


An early photo of camp counselors (see above right) bears witness to his longer vision. It included Gresham Marmion, Charles Sumners, Horace Kale, Haskins Hartwell, Bill Marmion, Joe Greenhill and Tom Bagby. The Marmion brothers became bishops, Charles Sumners was the longtime rector of St. David’s, Austin, and his twin brother Tom became the founding rector of St. John the Divine, Houston. Tom Bagby was ordained and went on to become founding rector of St. Martin’s, Houston, the largest Episcopal Church in the country today. Kale and Hartwell also became priests, while Greenhill attended the University of Texas law school and later served for 25 years on the Texas Supreme Court, 10 of those as chief justice. 


Bishop Quin called Rosa Allen “one of the best friends of young people in the Diocese,” and she was also an early benefactor of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Her pledge ($100 monthly for five years) was one of the first that helped the museum begin to build its collection. She underwrote scholarships at the University of the South for an Episcopal student to attend college in Sewanee, Tennessee. She was active in Christ Church’s Ladies’ Parish Association and encouraged her daughter’s participation in Daughters of the King (DOK), a prayer and service organization of the Church. Rosa Allen Williams later served as a national officer of DOK.


Participation in summer camp continued to increase each year until 1928 when the Sylvan Bay property could no longer sustain the growth. Rosa Allen once again stepped forward to purchase 35 acres on Trinity Bay that would serve as home for Camp Allen until 1968. A resolution at the 1927 Diocesan Council commended her generosity: 

“It is the sense of this council that the thanks of the whole Diocese of Texas be tendered Mrs. S. E. Allen for her many generous acts in the past and for her latest gift of $10,000 to be used in the purchase of a property to be used as a permanent Camp Allen.”


Early campers to the second site of Camp Allen on Trinity Bay near Baytown arrived by motor boat, the “Ethel B,” departing from the Texaco wharf in Harrisburg, since there were no established roads to the property at the time.  More than 10,000 campers attended sessions before industrial development made the Trinity Bay area undesirable for recreation and the search began for a new site. 


The second Camp Allen location, Lawrence Brown wrote, carried over more than just the name. “The spirit of Camp Allen, inspired by Mrs. Allen’s loving interest and generous gift, persisted … and still holds on at the third Camp Allen in Grimes County, which so well serves the needs of the Diocese.”


Proceeds from the sale of the Trinity Bay site made possible the purchase of 700 acres of pine and hardwood forest amidst the rolling hills of Grimes County, north of Houston. Campers slept in tents until cabins were completed in 1972. The first two campsites, with large covered wood decks and tree house cabins built high on stilts, were an immediate hit.  Camp sessions filled quickly, and by 1976, Camp Allen was serving more than 800 young persons every summer.  The addition of a third campsite, a sports pavilion and expanded conference center in 1984 secured Camp Allen as a year-round center. Today, more than 9,000 youth attend summer camp sessions and the school-based outdoor education offering, Discovery Program. 


Subsequent construction of two hotel-style wings, a chapel and conference center, expanded dining hall, 76-acre lake, equestrian center and seven log cabins makes Camp Allen a leader in the camp, conference and retreat center ministry today. With more than 1,100 acres, Camp Allen serves 56,000 people annually in a diversity of programs. More than 400 different churches (many denominations) use the facilities for retreats and programs as well as university and corporate clients.  


Hospitality has long legacy

For many years Samuel Allen was known as the cattle king of Texas. He was also known for his hospitality, never turning the poor or needy from his door. He always provided a place for the careworn and weary traveler, Ulmer said.  Rosa Allen’s generosity and welcoming nature continued that legacy to the youth of the Diocese of Texas until her death in 1931 from pneumonia.  


At the 80th anniversary of Camp Allen, celebrated in 2001, Ulmer said she was most impressed that the very principles of Bishop Quin’s initial vision are found today at Camp Allen. “Today is just a grander, more wonderful extension of the original idea of Bishop Quin, to me it is thrilling that all this has taken place in the original spirit of Camp Allen. It’s very much a place of love. That’s just the spirit of the camp.” 


Ulmer, an acclaimed historian in her own right, continues her great-grandmother’s legacy of servant leadership in her church as well as the community. A member of Christ Church Cathedral, she has served on the vestry and as president of the Ladies’ Parish Association. She served for more than 38 years on the Harris County Historical Commission and on the Battleship Texas Commission, founded the archival collections of the Garden Club of Houston and continues to be a vocal supporter of Camp Allen. 


Rosa Allen had lived most of her life in a rural environment, as a housewife, looking after a large family. “That a [woman] could be so influential, so effective in ministry [in those days] is truly remarkable. What is important about Rosa Allen,” Ulmer said, “is her living out her deep and abiding faith. What she did, she did for her faith.”


For generations, Camp Allen has provided a place for members of the Diocese to come together as one church. It is a place of retreat, relationship and recreation, an integral part of the life of the Episcopal Church in this part of Texas and beyond. Rosa Allen’s generosity and Bishop Quin’s vision will continue to leave a lasting legacy for thousands of lives for generations to come as Camp Allen nears its centennial.