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Buffalo to Bays: Moved By Camp! --Guest Post by Jeff Wadley with Whitney Winston

02 Oct 2019 4:29 PM | Jen Burch (Administrator)

Buffalo to Bays: Moved by Camp!

by Jeff Wadley, with Whitney Winston


Ribbon-cutting at Bays Mountain, Jeff Wadley centerJust before the ribbon-cutting at Camp Bays Mountain, Director Rev. Jeff Wadley makes sure the finishing touches are in place. Hints of a beloved camp, now closed, are sprinkled throughout the newest addition to Holston Conference Camping, honoring the past and looking to a bright future. At the campfire circle are 63 stones comprising the fire ring, one for each year of ministry held at Buffalo Mountain Camp (BMC). In the dining hall, the mantel from Allison Lodge, where children gathered around the table for meals, is now mounted above the massive fireplace at the new camp. And at the center of Camp Bays Mountain, the bell, moved from BMC, is ready to ring in campers for years to come. The journey of closing one camp and opening a new one is filled with ups and downs, joy and tears, tragic endings, and beautiful new beginnings.

Standing at the Washington County courthouse steps in 1947 in Jonesborough, Tennessee, the M.H. Allison family purchased 600 acres of mountain land which fell into delinquency for unpaid property taxes by a lumber harvesting company. The Allisons presented an opportunity to the Methodist Church to create a camp for the young people of the region based upon the success of the earlier campmeeting traditions of the area. Local congregations embraced the challenge and opened Buffalo Mountain Camp two years later.


Besides developing a thriving summer camp, the Board of Directors funded and built cabins, bathhouses, a retreat center, adventure elements, off-site adventures, whitewater kayak instruction, partner collaborations, opened the facility for weekend retreat groups, and created an environmental education center for school groups. BMC was thriving. Over many years hundreds of campers made decisions to follow Jesus, and dozens of others sensed a call into ministry at the site. Marriages were performed, baptisms were conducted, and many lives were transformed by the ministry of Buffalo Mountain.


Flood at Buffalo MountainBuffalo Mountain Camp served the East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia regions faithfully until 2012 when disaster struck. A huge thunderstorm developed over the valley and dumped more than six inches of rain in less than two hours, resulting in a flash flood and several landslides. The new pool was filled with debris, several buildings were washed from their foundations, and pavement was ripped from the surface. Plumbing was pulled from the ground, electricity was interrupted, and even the creek was rerouted along its course. When the rain came to an end, the camp staff surveyed the property with broken hearts.


Former staff, congregations, businesses, and individuals from the community offered their assistance. Donations were received to help clean and repair what was remaining of BMC. However, the damage was done. Once hydro engineers, contractors, business leaders, landscape architects, and other leaders collected information, the Board of Directors decided to suspend operations and close the camp. Sixty-three years of fruitful ministry came to a screeching halt. Tears were shed, a decommissioning service was conducted, and a plan was set into motion to liquidate assets and to sell the property.


In the same year as the devastating flood, another denomination ceased operation of their nearby camp and retreat center. The BMC Board decided that camping should not cease, but could be reborn. Once the BMC property sold, assets were liquidated, and the remaining donations from the flood relief were in hand, the Board acquired the new camp property about forty-five minutes away and announced that camping in the United Methodist tradition would continue in the region. From that decision was born Camp Bays Mountain located in the foothills of the mountain by the same name, situated conveniently just outside Kingsport, Tennessee. 


A $4.1 million-dollar capital campaign, led by Director Wadley and the camp’s development team, began after consultation with Kaleidoscope, an architect firm, the City of Kingsport, church leaders, potential donors, and contractors. Now, all but 2% of capital campaign funds are secured, and the anticipation is that the effort will be fully funded by the end of 2019. Camp Bays Mountain exceeded its first two years of summer registrations, serving 578 campers, and has seen over 150 first time decisions, re-dedications, and calls into ministry. Dozens of retreat groups have made Camp Bays Mountain their new tradition. The Board has a master site plan supported by an integrated financial business plan to be a sustainable ministry into the next generation. 

Opening worship at BaysTo honor the closing of one camp and the opening of a new facility, the Board orchestrated not only a decommissioning service led by Rev. Randy Pasqua (Holston Executive Director,) but a running-of-the- flame event. Jason Onks, former director at BMC, lit a torch at the former camp and began a 35-mile run/walk which involved former staff, campers, board members and supporters. The flame was moved through the countryside and past the courthouse steps where the original BMC purchase was made in 1947. Waiting at Camp Bays Mountain were the very first campers and staff. Anticipating the arrival of the flame from Buffalo, the campers began to sing. In the distance, the flame entered camp and was passed to the director, who started the first campfire at the new site. It was a fulfillment of a dream which resulted in United Methodist camping returning to the upper East Tennessee region.

The God we serve made a way in a dismal situation and turned a disaster into something blessed and fruitful. The experience of building Camp Bays Mountain has been a faith-building adventure and an exercise in honoring the legacy which the founders of Buffalo Mountain Camp began in 1947. This new camp ministry is now entrusted to the next generation. 

Rev. Jeff Wadley is Executive Director of Camp Bays Mountain. Prior to joining UMCRM, Jeff was founding pastor of Sycamore Tree UMC in Marysville, TN. He's been instrumental in developing the ministry at Bays Mountain, alongside an outstanding Board of Directors. He welcomed the first campers to the site in the summer of 2018. 

Whitney Winston is Director of Camp In the Community for the Holston Conference. She began volunteering with the UMCRM Communications Team in fall of 2017. 

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