Amazing Grace


What’s not to love about my home state in January?  Last Monday I stepped off a plane in Orlando and saw palm trees and sunshine, not to mention a host of children sporting mouse ears.  It was home-like if not exactly home.  Disney was still quietly buying up orange groves when I spent two of my teenage summers in Central Florida.  None of us had an inkling Hurricane Mickey was on the way.

For the first time in our marriage my husband and I are trying  to decide where to spend the next part of our life without having to consider his job or school for our kids.  Florida’s winning big time, so we’re investigating. The closer we drove to Mt. Dora, where we spent three nights, the more familiar the area looked to me. 

As a young teen I’d spent two summers not far away at Camp Oklawaha, in Ocklawaha, Florida.  Recently I discovered the camp hadn’t existed under that name for years, but a newspaper article, decades old, pinpointed the location for me.  A little more effort turned up a new camp, Southwind, on the same lake, and while the photos showed a more modern facility, it was a place to start.  That camp is now run by Young Life, a Christian youth organization, and while they had never heard of Camp Oklawaha, they thought quite possibly it was the same place.  Good folks that they are, they invited me to visit.

Driving beneath live oak canopies dripping with Spanish moss, I wondered what I would find.  Most memories of those two summers are a pleasant blur.  My cabin mates and I were the Mohawks, Counselor-in-training.  We rode horses and swam, shot rifles and bows and arrows.  I learned to canoe and sing silly songs, if not to water ski (I always let go of the rope before I got to my feet.).  I sang camp ditties to Michael as we drove.  He was suitably impressed, if not with the songs, with the fact that I could still remember them.

I also remembered long, hot evenings listening to our camp director preach.  He was a Southern Baptist whose joy and mission was to bring us to Jesus.  I was an Episcopalian, long on ritual, short on sermons and patience. But I first heard Amazing Grace at one of his Sunday services.  It’s still one of my favorite hymns. 

We arrived at Southwind mid-afternoon after first taking a  gloriously beautiful dirt road to nowhere.  Minutes later I knew I’d walked back into my own history.

Have you had that experience?  Have you revisited your past and discovered how distorted your memories were?  The Camp Oklawaha of my childhood was huge and sprawling.  The reality?  Southwind has room for everything, including, apparently, the imagination of a fifteen year old girl, but it’s contained and sensible.  My cabin still stands, but did we really fit six girls inside?  Of course Mother Nature had done her part, as well.  The lake where we swam is now two shallow marshy sections which were visited by an alligator while we watched.  The island we canoed to for Indian ceremonials now has a house on it.  Horses are no longer part of the program.

I came away from the visit with warm feelings, and two strong impressions.  I remember returning home from camp all those years ago and thinking how tiny my childhood home was.  This time I returned to camp to discover the same thing. 

Life is like that, isn’t it?  We blow things out of proportion and sometimes we need to revisit them to set them to rights. Only rarely is anything as immense as we make it.

Second?  Mr. and Mrs. Chiselbrook would be so proud of what their camp has become.  The kind folks at Southwind are doing exactly what the Chiselbrooks tried to do themselves.  I had a strong sense of their presence there, still.  Sometimes there really are happy endings, even if we don’t live to see them.

I could almost hear Amazing Grace on the wind.


  1. Lynn Ross - Toledo on February 1, 2012 at 11:53 pm

    I returned to Memphis, TN and Jonesboro, AR in 2001. It had been nineteen years since I had driven around to see the old haunts. So much looked the same on he outside in Memphis but had changed drastically inside. The Arkansas countryside where I grew up was so different that it was disorienting – the woods were gone! The whole experience was so emotionally draining that I know I will never go again. Toledo is home now. Mine was not the change of a distorted memory but actual physical change. Jonesboro has grown so much it is a totally different place. I loved reading about your experience.

    • Emilie Richards on February 2, 2012 at 9:49 am

      Lynn, I understand how you must have felt. When something’s that drastically altered, it’s difficult to sink back in time. I visited a “farm” we once owned in the country outside Roanoke, VA and it wasn’t there. Not one thing stood, and trees had grown up where all the buildings had been. The Nature Conservancy had moved in and bought the property and made it into a preserve because it contained (unbeknownest to us) a weed that’s endangered. I love that they’ve done this, but I had the eeriest feeling, as if that part of my history had never existed, and I’d imagined it all. I’m guessing you had something of the same.

  2. Lisa Liu on November 28, 2013 at 4:05 pm

    Hi Emilie –
    I was so thrilled to find your blog on this topic. I am the 53 year old granddaughter of Mr. and Mrs. Chiselbrook who ran Camp Oklawaha all those years ago. Both have passed to be with the Lord now but they would have loved what you wrote – it really touched me. We have known that Young Life has had the property for years and you are right, it is so great that young people are still making memories there and my grandparents would be so pleased with the lasting legacy. We have so many wonderful memories of our time there. I am sure it would have stayed in the family for years were it not for the fact that Mr. Chiselbrook – we called him Grandy – died from a stroke shortly after trying to do roof repairs on the old rec hall after a big storm passed through there in 1968. It was way too soon for all of us but we know he went to be with the Lord. This led my grandmother to abandon ship so to speak and sell the property as soon as she could as his unexpected death was overwhelming. We have been back a few times over the years and I was online trying to see if anyone had additional pictures or memories of the camp posted and found this. So thanks again! If you have any pictures from your two visits there that you are willing to share. Please let me know. Again, thanks for a wonderful write-up. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

    Lisa Liu

    • Emilie Richards on November 29, 2013 at 8:17 am

      What a lovely surprise. I didn’t know why your family sold the camp, amd I’m so sorry your grandfather died so young and so unexpectedly. I will scout for more photos and see if I have them. Thank you so much for contacting me.

    • Bret Chiselbrook on February 18, 2015 at 10:39 am

      I agree with My cousin, Lisa…. it was very nice to find this story online. Grandy was only 53 when he passed away, I’m sure the Camp would of remained in the Chiselbrook family had it not been for his early passing at such a young age. Thank you, Bret

      • Emilie Richards on February 19, 2015 at 10:58 am

        I’m sorry it’s not in the family but I think it’s in the right hands otherwise and your grandfather would be pleased. I’m going to try to find the photos I took and I’ll send them to you for Lisa, who asked. I know they would be thrilled to have you visit and see the camp again. The new owners were lovely to us.

  3. Lisa Liu (Chiselbrook grandchild) on December 26, 2015 at 9:04 pm

    Hi again, Emilie – Time sure flies….I just wanted to touch base one more time to see if you were ever able to locate any images you can share from you time at Camp Oklawaha? My mom (The Chiselbrooks’ daughter) turns 80 in 2016 and we would like to arrange a trip there while she is still able to do such traveling. We will share old pics, etc. and would appreciate copies of any you might still have. My email is If you can help, much appreciated! Merry Christmas to you and your family and may 2016 bring you good health, peace, and happiness!

    • Emilie Richards on January 6, 2016 at 3:10 pm

      Lisa, I’ve checked all the photos on my computer and haven’t been able to turn up anything else. If at some point in the future I come across some from that time (this is doubtful) I’ll email you. I wish I could help. I will email a friend who was at camp with me to see if she has any, but that, too, is doubtful. I hope you have a wonderful birthday with your mother.

      • Lisa Liu on January 6, 2016 at 3:24 pm

        Thanks for much for the response, Emilie. No worries – please if you ever do run across them, we would love copies! We do have a number from our own family files. It was just such a nice surprise to read your blog – many great memories!

        Happy New Year to you and yours! Lisa

  4. Jonathan Mark Harris Sr. on June 15, 2021 at 10:02 pm

    I pray that you are still with us and I do hope this reaches you.

    I am Rev. J. Mark Harris Sr, one of Lisa Liu’s two older brothers and Bret Chiselbrooks cousin.

    I read your great article/blog a number of years ago and decided on a “whim” to try and contact you.

    I was only about ten years old when our grandfather “Mr. C” passed away in 1968. I and my wife of 42 years, Michele, have lived and pastored in Southern Illinois for 14 years but like me, my wife’s roots are still deep in the Florida soil.

    I don’t know if you ever came across any old pics or further info on Camp Oklawaha but please let us know if you have. Perhaps you might still be in touch with some childhood friends/fellow campers who could provide any pictures or other memorabilia from that long ago time.

    Mark Harris

    • Emilie Richards on June 17, 2021 at 5:00 pm

      I tried to send you an email with photos, but my address was rejected as someone you don’t know, and I was asked to fill out a form. So my email never made it. It was lovely to hear from you and I wish you well.

  5. J. Mark Harris Sr on April 10, 2024 at 9:21 am

    Dear Emilie,
    Very sorry your email didn’t get through.
    You could mail any items you have on the camp to:
    Mark Harris
    P. O. Box 130
    308 S. 1st Street
    Pinckneyville, IL
    I would be glad to reimburse any cost you may have.
    Mark Harris

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