Editor’s note: This is the 10th in a series of stories to commemorate Tawawa Park, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. Today: Brookside.
SIDNEY — The Brookside section of Sidney’s Tawawa Park is usually pretty quiet.
A small nature preserve within the more than 200-acre park, Brookside attracts hikers, birdwatchers, the occasional cycler.
It wasn’t always that way. It may be quiet now, but the 27-acre tract once knew the noise of farm machinery, happy campers and even artillery fire.
Most area residents today remember Brookside as Camp Brookside, the summer home of Girl Scouts for more than 60 years. But before the woods and meadows there helped youngsters earn badges in plant identification and campfire cooking, they helped World War II soldiers become expert marksmen. Nonagenarians and centenarians among us remember it from that period as Camp Swezey.
It was operated by the Ohio National Guard as a rifle range. Part of a bunker constructed then is still visible. Historian Albert B. Dickas wrote in 2010 that in 1943, the 407th Air Service Squadron, an all-Chinese-American unit, spent two weeks there before joining the war effort in support of the famed Flying Tigers. Dickas’s story was published in the August 2010 newsletter of the Shelby County Historical Society.
He quoted Pvt. Louie Woon, who wrote in December 1943 of his Sidney experience: “What sweet memories are brought to your mind when the town of Sidney is mentioned? Is it the memory of bivouac area where we won medals for our good marksmanshp? Is it the bivouac grounds where we perspired by day and froze at night?”
In 1949, four years after the war ended, Mary R. Marx sold 35 acres to 12 anonymous men who gave them to the Sidney Ohio Council of Girl Scouts. The men had already, in 1948, constructed a lodge, known as the bunkhouse, there. In the early years, Scouts would use it for meetings, as well as day- and overnight-camping sessions.
“We would sit on the steps of the old high school, by the Presbyterian Church, and mothers would come and carpool us to camp,” said Kathleen Boykin, now of Zelienople, Pennsylvania. She grew up in Sidney as Kathleen Geib — Geib Pavilion in Tawawa Park is named for her father — and has fond memories of being a Scout at Camp Brookside.
“At day camp, we would have one night where we would sleep over. We learned to make bedrolls. It was cold, but it was fun,” she said.
She especially remembers pioneer camp.
“We did everything. We dug a latrine. We made tables. We cooked our meals over a fire. We’d take a stick and strip the bark off the end, wrap hamburger around the stick and cook it in the fire. We made lots of s’mores. We made a strawberry pie in a reflector oven,” she said. “And they always told us not to touch the side of the tent when it was raining, or it wouldn’t be waterproof anymore.”
Boykin was a camper in the ’50s. Improvements at Brookside began then, too. A stand of pine trees was planted behind the lodge in 1951. The Sidney Kiwanis Club erected an Adirondack shelter in 1952, and in 1953, a kitchen and dormitory were added to the existing lodge.
By the time Deana Johnson, now of Dayton, was a camper and Wilma Gahagan, now of Scottsdale, Arizona, was a troop leader in the 1970s, ownership of the land had been transferred to the Sidney Community Foundation, a latrine building had been constructed and a shower room had been added to the lodge.
“The girls hated (the outhouse),” said Carol Hipple, of Sidney, who served as camp director more recently. “There were no doors on the stalls. My troop put up curtains on rods.”
Troop activities led to lifelong friendships. Johnson still has friends she met first at day camp. She grew through Scouting from day camper to counselor-in-training to counselor.
“Attending day camp was always fun,” she said. “You would start the day with a flag ceremony. Each group had assigned tasks for the camp. You learned to present the colors, then say the Girl Scout promise, sing a song or say the Pledge of Allegiance. You broke off into groups and went to your area. We’d always sing taps when camp was ending.”
There were three levels at Brookside: the lodge, the meadows, where Scouts rode horses, and an area farther away called High Heaven. There were platform tents at each level.
“The older girls stayed in High Heaven; the younger girls, closer to the lodge,” Johnson said. “We learned how to love the outdoors.”
Gahagan was at the camp as a troop leader.
“I remember big platform tents until they got rotten. We’d put up tents for overnight camp,” Gahagan said. Leaders appreciated that the camp was not far from town. Some girls had never been away from home before they went to overnight camp. If they got homesick, “it was close enough for parents to come get them,” Gahagan added.
Sarah Hipple, now of Findlay, has fond memories of Brookside at the turn of the 21st century.
“I was there to see and enjoy the additions of the peace pole, campfire ring with benches, the stairs next to the campfire space and the stairs in one of the hiking areas,” she wrote in an email. Several of those improvements were Eagle Scout projects completed by area Boy Scouts.
“I remember running from bees as we tried to steal berries from the mulberry tree after camp and the one time a huge snake was next to the storage shed where we needed to return cast iron skillets. I think one of the (many) cool parts of camp, that any girl who spent a number of years there can recall, was learning the trails like the back of your hand. The first couple of years when going on a hike we would usually get turned around. Eventually, after going to the camp for a few years, we could learn all the ways the paths turned and even the ‘hidden paths’ to creeks and other mysterious areas, such as ‘Dead Man’s Hill’ which was always fun to tell creepy stories to new campers on how the hill got its name,” Sarah wrote.
Carol Hipple recalled devising craft projects and “water day” events for the 200 girls at camp.
“Girls would earn four or five badges over the course of the week,” she said. “Monday and Wednesday were badge sessions. Tuesday and Thursday, you’d have group cookouts. Friday was water day.” Eventually, instead of water day, the Scouts traveled from Camp Brookside through Tawawa Park to go swimming in the city pool.
“We used to have a spring clean-up day. Troops would come in and wash stuff and help with weeding. We’d polyurethane the picnic tables,” Carol said.
Gahagan also helped some with camp maintenance. She assisted Edythe Breslin.
“Edythe was kind of a secretary for the Scouts. Ruth Morris was the caretaker for the camp. Edythe helped Ruth. Then Edythe became the caretaker. So Paul (Gahagan’s husband) and I would spend time out there to fix things we could fix,” she said.
As Girl Scout administration changed and councils merged, the organization divested itself of some camps, including Brookside. It canceled the long-term lease it had with the Community Foundation.
“When it broke up, they took all the furniture up to Appleseed Ridge (council),” Gahagan said. “We were disappointed because there was beautiful outdoor furniture of pine that had been made by someone in Shelby County and given to Brookside.”
Carol agreed that closing the camp was difficult.
“There were some hard feelings when Camp Brookside was let go,” she said. The area is still available to Scouts and other youth groups.
Duane Gaier, Sidney City Parks director, said that in 2008, camp attendance was dropping off.
“(The Girl Scout council) reached out to the Community Foundation, who reached out to the Shelby County Park District and the city. Both could submit a proposal. It was given to the city of Sidney. It’s still used quite a bit for youth,” he said. Girl Scouts camped there in 2016 and Boy Scouts have had winter camping Klondike sessions there.
A $750,000 Ohio Department of Natural Resources grant in 2009 along with a Cargill donation of $100,000 added 1 1/4 miles of paved trail and four new shelters.
“There is no vehicular traffic permitted,” Gaier said. “It’s been preserved more as a nature preserve. It’s a nice place to hike. Most of the time, wheelchairs, cyclists, hikers and runners are back there.”
He noted that such a nature preserve was something Tawawa Park didn’t have until the acquisition was made. And creating the preserve was in direct answer to feedback from the public that such a place was needed.
“There’s a lot more cover for wildlife. The butterflies and hummingbirds have a place to go,” he said. “It’s a place to sit and watch and listen to wildlife.”
Not noisy. Just nice and quiet.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.