Gypsy Camp for Girls Passes the Torch

Water activities are the monarchs of summer entertainment in Arkansas. Swimming, kayaking, canoeing, fishing, and floating are all popular in the state, and there are many places around Siloam Springs to participate in these activities. One of the area’s newest venues to enjoy water activities lies about seven miles south of Siloam on the Illinois River: Gypsy Camp and Canoe.This name will likely sound familiar to many residents of Siloam. While Gypsy Camp and Canoe only opened last week (the last Saturday in June, 2018), Gypsy Camp and its legacy have been in place longer than most Siloam Springs residents have been alive. Through a little over half of the 20th century, this area was known as Gypsy Camp for Girls and is still fondly remembered as such by many who live in Siloam. This week’s featured photo, donated to the museum in 1987, shows a line of campers at Gypsy Camp for Girls walking through the camp’s field in the 1920’s.

Campers at Gypsy Camp for Girls dressed up for several of their weekly activities.

Campers at Gypsy Camp for Girls dressed up for several of their weekly activities.

According to Maggie Smith (author of Hico, a Heritage), the story of Gypsy Camp begins with a fishing trip. Around 1921, two brothers from Tulsa, Oklahoma took a fishing trip on the Illinois River where it crosses from Oklahoma into Arkansas. They were immediately struck by the beauty of the area, and it was one of the first things they mentioned to their father when they recounted the story of the trip. Their father, J. H. McAllister, had a long standing desire to begin a girls’ summer camp with his wife, Weesie, as the camp’s director. McAllister promptly found land available in Arkansas along the Illinois River, visited it, and bought it.

Before McAllister owned the land, it was owned by Walter and Georgia Goforth. McAllister and his sons briefly boarded with the Goforths as they built on their new land. McAllister was in the lumber trade, and as such, his first construction project on the land was his own saw mill. This allowed him to cut down his own trees, cut them into boards, and build the cabins and outbuildings on the land to his own specifications. According to Maggie Smith, the first building had three floors. The top floor was a kitchen and dining room, the second floor had housing for sixteen campers and two counselors, and the bottom floor had housing for the McAllister family and a camp office.

Presently, Mr. McAllister built more cabins on the land--enough for around 120 campers. Each summer, the camp held around seventy to eighty girls. Under Weesie McAllister’s direction, the girls enjoyed arts and crafts, swimming and canoeing on the Illinois, hiking along the bluffs, riding horses, singing around the campfire, playing tennis, and more.

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The camp’s operation was presently taken over by the sons and daughters of J. H. McAllister. In 1955, the McAllisters’ grandson, Bob Coe, and his wife took ownership of the camp. Bob and his wife ran the camp from 1955 until 1978 when the camp ceased summer sessions. Campers often returned for multiple summers and formed strong bonds with their peers, so when the camp ended, campers continued to return to the area each summer for reunions. These reunions still occur every year.

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The camp was listed as a National Register Historic District in 1988, and the camp’s buildings have remained largely untouched since then. They still stand slightly back in the forest from a small alcove of the Illinois. The names of campers are still emblazoned in paint on the walls and rafters inside the cabins, a reminder of the good memories many have for the area.

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Since Bob Coe’s passing in 2017, the camp area has been purchased and renamed Gypsy Camp and Canoe. GCC opened on June 30th as a canoe rental facility, but their goals are much larger than that. According to Tracie Gelinas with GCC, canoe rentals are only the first phase. During the fall and winter, they will renovate all of the cabins and add RV and tent areas for next season’s vacationers. GCC also intends to convert the old cafeteria into an event center for hosting dances, wedding receptions, etc.

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Their eventual goal, says Gelinas, involves renovating the oldest building on the property and turning it into a museum about the history of the area. Gypsy Camp and Canoe aims to provide summer entertainment in a way that adapts to the current market while honoring and showcasing the area’s history. According to Gelinas, several people involved in the GCC project attended this summer’s annual reunion of former Gypsy campers and were inducted as “Honorary Gypsies” by the reunion attendees. The torch has been passed, and great care will be given to ensure that it stays lit.

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Written by Chuck McClary

Hico, a Heritage: Siloam Springs History by Maggie Smith
Images of America: Siloam Springs by Don Warden
Interview, Tracie Gelinas, 7/5/18

Siloam Springs Museum
Siloam Springs Museum archives