An air-conditioned, spacious dining hall and conference center with a fully equipped, commercial kitchen, a newly graded playing field and an Olympic-sized pool are making the Harford County 4-H Camp a cool place to pass the summer.
With a name befitting its setting, Deer Creek Overlook, the newest amenity and centerpiece of the camp in Forest Hill, is providing club members with a year-round activity center and a source of revenue for the entire facility.
The 12,000-square-foot multi-purpose center, which opened last month, will be formally dedicated at 2 p.m. today and is already becoming a popular spot for receptions, business conferences and social gatherings.
With a capacity of nearly 300 people, the $1.2 million center has generated much interest from potential renters. Proceeds from rentals will help pay for future improvements, including updates to the dormitories.
"We have events booked through fall and winter," said Bill Amoss, camp board president.
Deer Creek Overlook is the culmination of eight years of planning and fundraising, Amoss said. When the facility's board of directors established a master plan to modernize the camp, which dates to the 1920s and has had no new construction in nearly 35 years, they made the center a priority.
Funding came from state and county grants, quilt raffles and cookie sales. Money also came from preserving much of the camp grounds. Nearly all the property has become part of the county's land preservation program. The sale of land easements that permanently safeguard the grounds from development helped fund the new construction.
"We left out the area where there are permanent structures, but our goal was to ensure the rest of the land will never be developed," said Amoss, Harford's land preservation manager.
Benches and rockers arrived Friday, just in time for the dedication. The comfortable seats decorate the wrap-around porch, enabling visitors to take in the rustic views or watch a lacrosse or soccer match, depending on which sports camp is in session. Inside the hall, sun streams through two rows of windows.
"We wanted a lot of natural light," said Amoss' 19-year-old son, Mike, who is in his last year of 4-H and is doing some maintenance at the camp this summer. "And we wanted a country setting."
After painters worked on the roof of a pavilion all morning, the cool hall provided them a welcome respite.
"We can use this building in multiple ways," Mike Amoss said. "It is working out great for campers, and with this kitchen, we can have a real variety of food. It's a big upgrade for us."
The cream-colored building, accented in the traditional 4-H green, fits neatly into the side of a hill, just across Route 24 from Rocks State Park. Visitors cross a one-lane bridge above the creek to reach the entrance to the 187-acre camp, most of which is tree-covered. The 4-H green clover is painted above the doorway of the center, a logo that is also inlaid into flooring in the foyer and the dining hall.
To one side of the foyer sits a sizable conference room that will also display camp history. Farm agent's books from the 1920s, a cookie tin decorated with the words "4-H helping to make the best better," and gently aging photos of camp gatherings will all find a place in the meeting room. Across the hall, a few offices are in various states of unpacking, but a posted to-do list looks to be quickly filling with names of volunteers.
The new center replaces an outdated and inadequate dining hall, so near a stream that it constantly presented environmental problems, he said. It will likely become a crafts area.
"This building is a big improvement and much better for all the kids," said Don Ockerman, the camp's resident caretaker. "The old building was built in the 1950s. It's a great lodge with a fireplace, but it's small, and most summer days, it's a hundred degrees in there."
At Deer Creek Overlook, it's a comfortable 70 degrees, and Melanie Crawford, one of several cooks at the camp, said she is eagerly breaking in the kitchen.
"I can feed 300 hungry boys from here easily," she said. "You can do 40 hamburgers at a time on the flat-top grill."