It’s a getaway in the middle of it all, a secluded, wooded patch of green just off busy Popp’s Ferry Road. It can be a place of solitude or it can be bustling with scores of squealing happy campers.
It’s Camp Wilkes, a nonprofit, 89-acre camp which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. The celebration is from 1 to 5 p.m. Aug. 13 at the camp, 2109 Camp Wilkes Road. In preparation for the celebration, organizers are seeking photos from past campers’ experiences to use in a slide presentation.
The camp’s origins actually begin in 1938. The Boys Scouts, whose building in the Tchoutacabouffa River was destroyed by fire, were able to use two buildings on a parcel of land.
It was the old Coast Guard Base, which became the northern end of Keesler Air Force Base’s runway. Fast forward a handful of years, when Keesler Air Field became a major training facility during World War II. At that point, the nation needed that parcel of land, so the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, who also used the facility, moved to the north shore of the Bay of Biloxi in 1942. A local house moving company floated the two buildings across the bay on barges.
The camp is named in honor of Eugene P. Wilkes, who for more than 50 years was editor and publisher of The Daily Herald, a predecessor of today’s Sun Herald. He also was instrumental in establishing the Scout camp.
Not long after the move, Camp Wilkes was opened to use by any organized youth or church group to conduct outdoor activities under adult leadership. The camp has a maximum capacity of 215, with bunks in seven cabins on the property.
In fact, during a recent trip to the camp, a group of youth from Louisiana had just loaded up and headed back home after a week of fun for almost 200 campers and counselors.
Phil Seymour, who grew up attending camp here, is camp manager. He oversees the grounds and coordinates groups as well as creates events to draw more Coastians to the camp. Those include Camp Way Back and Ladies’ Escape, two weekend camps for adults. Camp Way Back is to give “adults 21 and over the chance to be kids for the weekend,” and Ladies’ Escape is like girls’ camp for women, with crafts, activities and relaxation on the itinerary. The annual Camp Wilkes Woods & Water 8K Kayak and Trail Run also is held here; this year, it’s on Aug. 12.
Camp Wilkes also hosts Sea and Sun Camp, which offers a camping opportunity for visually impaired children funded by the Lions Sight Foundation of Mississippi, as well as the Mississippi Lions Deaf Camp.
Locals also use the camp for other purposes, such as weddings.
“In fact, in October, we’ll have a wedding out here. The entire wedding party has rented it,” Seymour said.
During this visit, a group of Seabees from Gulfport’s Naval Construction Battalion Center were working at the water’s edge.
“There was this log that wound up here after Tropical Storm Cindy and it had been battering the pier,” Seymour said. “We were able to get it close to the shore but they’re here cutting it up and removing it for us. The Seabees had been looking for an outlet to give back to the community. I’m ex-Navy, so it’s really great to see them here.”
There are always opportunities for groups such as civic organizations or the military to help maintain the facility. After Hurricane Katrina, a group from Lions Club members from Wisconsin make extensive repairs and helped rebuild the camp. Today, Camp Wilkes has other but just as pressing needs, such as new child-friendly mattresses, window repairs and air conditioning units for some of the oldest structures and putting a fresh coat of paint on several old military surplus bunks.
There are four trails on the property, at a little over 2 miles.
“It’s a network of trails, but they all lead back to the main camp or the water, so you won’t get lost,” Seymour said.
Swimmers can enjoy the 35-foot by 75-foot, 164,000-gallon swimming pool, built in 1950 and refinished in 2011.
In addition to adding more fun activities for locals, Seymour has a mission of making the structures themselves more appealing. That includes the pavilions, where bright colors are replacing a nondescript gray.
“Back in my childhood, when I would come out here, back in the ‘70s, everything was this dull prison color,” the Ocean Springs native said. “This is a youth camp, so we’re trying to brighten things up for a happier look. My mission is to restore the camp to its luster.”
If you go
What: Camp Wilkes 75th Anniversary Celebration
When: 1-5 p.m. Aug. 13
Where: 2109 Camp Wilkes Road, Biloxi
Details: 228-388-3736; firstname.lastname@example.org
More: If you have a photo or photos you would like to share as part of the celebration’s slide presentation, contact Phil Seymour, camp manager, at 228-388-3736.