June 29, 2021 Reminiscing on the Good Old Days at Pleasant Valley Farm

Please bear with me while I stroll (literally) down memory lane at Pleasant Valley Farm near Crystal Lake and Woodstock, IL. Now it is the Pleasant Valley Conservation Area, part of the McHenry County Conservation District. They have preserved the best of what I remember of the most influential place from my youth! But before we get there, we stop at the Huntley Dairy Mart!

I can’t believe it’s still in business! As a camper at Pleasant Valley Farm in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and as a camp counselor there the summers of 1976 and 1977, this was the place to go for a treat (if you could convince someone to drive you there. We got an older counselor to drive us there in the huge dump truck once, riding in the dump bed!). Continuing on, turning onto Pleasant Valley Road, we enter the Conservation Area where North Farm used to stand. All the barns, farmhouse, chicken coops and bunkhouses are gone now and the fields have been allowed to revert and be coaxed back to nature.

We continued on the main road to what used to be the main camp area; Hilltop. There are signs and new picnic pavilions but very little of the physical structures I remember. They do have signs paying homage to the history of the place, known as Pleasant Valley Farm, then Pleasant Valley Outdoor Center.

Purchased in 1952 by the Chicago Congregational Union, it was set up to expose inner city youth of all denominations to experience life away from the city. There was a background of faith and even an outdoor ‘church’ amphitheater.

There was a beautiful huge block of wood alter where I am standing. Services of different denominations were held there early on, but eventually waned as social services and education predominated.

All that is left of the Hilltop complex that included the mess hall with fireplace, huge walk-in pantry, kitchen, cabins, shared bathroom/shower facilities, library, office, gathering patio with the bell, rung for all meals, and laundry.

A throwback picture from winter 1978-79 when Robert took me to Pleasant Valley. This is the mess hall, the kitchen is behind Robert. The previous picture is probably from this area.

This was probably done by the campers from summer of 1978, showing a compressed layout of Hilltop, the main building under the ‘Day Camp’ label. the swimming pool and nurse station to the left, the garden, south farm and I don’t know what on the right.

This beautiful tree and day lilies are near where Doen House stood. It provided housing for counselors or the Director at different times. I learned later that ‘Doen’ stood for Donation, as the house was donated to the Farm and moved to the site. That may explain why we always had problems with the plumbing!

Down the hill from Hilltop, this is all that’s left of the main picnic pavilion where we had many barbecues! We even had a whole pig roasted on a spit here! We celebrated every camping session with some kind of communal feast usually involving foods cooked by international counselors. We had counselors from Denmark, Poland, India, Goa, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Argentina, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and even some from Michigan, Iowa and Chicago! What a wonderful introduction to different cultures from around the world! The garden was nearby which we tended as campers and had to glean our lunch from during our “Food and Culture” camping sessions.

Continuing past the garden and over the creek the road headed to South Farm. Again, all the housing; the farmhouses, the pig barn converted into dorms for us campers, chicken coop and barn with the basketball court in the loft, are gone! I will forever be influenced by my time here, especially during the “Food and Culture” sessions. Besides caring for the garden we toured  a dairy, tasting milk fresh from the cows, toured a slaughter house where we witnessed a live cow brought in, killed and butchered. We also witnessed a pig killed with an electric shock and butchered (the smell of bacon prevailed), and toured a mink farm and a pheasant farm (not witnessing any harvesting there). We fed the chickens in the chicken coop, collected the eggs and then learned that we had to butcher, dress and cook the chickens at the end of the camp session for our communal feast! Boy, for inner city kids THAT was an education!

I miss the “Camp”, the buildings and the people that made them come alive, the friendships that were forged, and the experiences that shaped me, but as one of the Directors was fond of saying “There’s something in nature that doesn’t like a wall”.

I am so very glad that the spirit of Pleasant Valley Farm (Outdoor Center) continues as the Pleasant Valley Conservation Area, with education and conservation of the natural environment. As their website explains; “Within its borders exist a high-quality oak savanna, a grade ‘A’ stream, a never before plowed wetland and an impressive prairie ecosystem. This special combination of habitats creates one of the most biologically diverse, stunningly beautiful, and locally accessible sites in the county.”

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