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Floracliff to buy former girls summer camp next door

Floracliff plans to buy 60 more acres

Beverly James, preserve director for Floracliff Nature Sanctuary, discusses Trail's End, 60 acres of neighboring property.
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Beverly James, preserve director for Floracliff Nature Sanctuary, discusses Trail's End, 60 acres of neighboring property.

Floracliff Nature Sanctuary is raising money to protect a land full of history along the Kentucky River.

By the end of this year, Floracliff, a 287-acre private nature preserve, plans to buy 60 acres next to it in Fayette County. That land was once a part of Camp Trail’s End, one of the first girls summer camps in the south. It was open from 1913 to 1935. Later, the camp was used by local Scout troops and Lexington’s Central Christian Church in Lexington until the late 1970s.

The purchase will increase Floracliff’s size by 20 percent. It will be the first addition to the nature sanctuary since founder Mary E. Wharton died in 1991. The property includes the last quarter mile of Elk Lick Creek, which runs through Floracliff.

“This is an incredible opportunity for Floracliff and our community,” preserve manager Beverly James said in a news release. “This tract includes a beautiful, mature forest along Elk Lick Creek and the Kentucky River, and we are in a position to protect it. We can also expand our trail system, address invasive species on the property and incorporate the land into our educational programs.”

The camp property was owned by Ellen Snyder’s family from 1910 to the 1987, when it was sold to the current owner. The camp was named because its two main buildings — the Hill House and the lodge — were built at the end of the trail from Old Richmond Road, Synder said.

We were aware of its natural beauty and there were wildflowers, but I can’t say that we understood at the time what Mary Wharton, who owned the property right next door, understood, that we were really sitting on a wealth of botanical diversity.

John Micheler

Snyder spent a lot of time on both Riverside Stock Farm, a former Thoroughbred farm on the property, and Camp Trail’s End.

“It was always a fun place to be.” she said She would often play on the land with her siblings and cousins, looking for arrowheads and riding horses.

The camp’s goal was to help Kentucky girls become well rounded, she said. Mary DeWitt Snyder, who received the property through the family and was one of the first Thoroughbred horse breeders, and Sarah Gibson Blanding, the former dean of women at the University of Kentucky, tried to make the camp affordable for most girls. A 1927 pamphlet said activities included boating, rifle practice, horseback riding and woodcraft.

Snyder’s aunt Anne Sither attended the camp beginning at age 8 and ending in her teenage years. In an oral history, Sither said “you had to be tough enough” to be a Trail’s End camper.

“Living in those tents and putting us on that boat going down the river, that was fascinating,” Sither said. Campers traveled the Kentucky River for three or four days at a time, she said.

“It was a really wonderful place.”

After Sarah Gibson Blanding became president of Vassar College and Mary Dewitt Snyder’s father committed suicide, the camp closed in 1935. Then local Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops used the camp during the 1940s and 1950s.

After the Scouts, Lexington’s Central Christian Church leased the camp from the Snyders, using it for summer camps, retreats and other events. The Rev. Walter Hehl, a former minister at the church, began taking youth groups to the camp in 1965. Some of the youth group members that attended camp have reunions now, Hehl said.

“Lot of these kids, I have gotten the chance to work with, do overnights with and form friendships with,” he said. “It’s just a real gift.”

In 1967, Hehl said, he and some of the church’s youth group members started a day camp for inner city children. A busload of campers came in on a weekend and they would play games, pitch tents in the forest and hike the area. Counselors stayed during the week and managed the camp.

John Michler, a former counselor for the day camp and now owner of Michler’s Florist, Greenhouse and Garden Design, said it was one of the first and few times the inner city children were in nature. Michler called the camp supervised, but run by the youth, and said, “a lot of personal growth happened” at Camp Trail’s End. He said campers would come in rambunctious, but leave feeling peaceful.

“We were aware of its natural beauty and there were wildflowers, but I can’t say that we understood at the time what Mary Wharton, who owned the property right next door, understood, that we were really sitting on a wealth of botanical diversity,” Michler said.

The day camp ended when attendance fell because the city began its own camp in the late 1970s.

After Central Christian Church left the camp, the Snyders sought another tenant but were unsuccessful. The family said vandals damaged buildings on the property. In the 1970s, some University of Kentucky fraternities used to dare their members to bring back a remnant of Camp Trail’s End, Snyder said. They stole costumes and stuffed animals, she said.

“That big old moose head was one of the last things they stole,” Snyder said.

In the early 1980s, the property was passed to Mary Lee Snyder Antrim and her then-husband, Joe Stidham. They installed a water line and insulated the lodge, according to a Herald-Leader article.

The Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund and the Imperiled Bat Conservation Fund have partnered with Floracliff to buy and maintain the 60 acres. The nature sanctuary also has received private donations. Sanctuary officials are $265,000 away from their goal of $775,000.

Donations to the nature sanctuary can be made on Razoo, a fundraising website, or at Floracliff.org.

The property is home to white ash, pawpaw, tulip popular, deer, turkeys, bats and other wildlife. Floracliff staffers are still identifying species on the property, James said.

However, invasive species including bush honeysuckle, wintercreeper and garlic mustard have grown in the area and harmed food sources for the animals there, have taken over plants and even have obstructed the view of Elk Lick Creek and the Kentucky River. James said Floracliff could probably remove the invasive species at a rate of 10 acres a year.

Floracliff officials plan to include Camp Trail’s End in their restoration, education and research programs and create trails with views of the Elk Lick ravine, the Kentucky River and the historic camp.

James hopes to make the area into a junior naturalist program.

McKenna Horsley: 859-231-3197, @mckennahorsley

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