“The Lord’s work, done in the Lord’s way, in the Lord’s time will have the Lord’s supply.” This was the guiding light of Story Book Lodge Christian Camp’s founding director. Ben Tuininga, a recent graduate of Wheaton College was like so many other graduates of Bible colleges. Idealistic and a little discouraged, Ben was unsure of his life’s direction but told the Lord that whatever direction He led, as long as the Lord supplied his needs, he would be occupied with sharing the gospel.
With a friend, he traveled from place to place preaching. Neither he nor his friend were eloquent speakers, but one by one, souls were saved. At the Oak Hills Fellowship camp ground near Bemidji, MN, he met a young woman with a passion to serve the Lord. He asked her to marry him. She was taken aback. Marriage had not been on her agenda. After some soul-searching prayer, Margaret “Peggy” McPhee agreed. After their marriage, she was known by her middle name “Jean.” In 1948 Ben and Jean agreed to host a new Bible camp at Story Book Lodge, a small resort on the Iron Range of Minnesota. Then both their names were permanently changed. He became Uncle Ben and she was now Aunt Jean.
Story Book Lodge was started by Elizabeth Spriestersbach, a high school Home-Ec teacher who had endless energy, and a heart for the needy. In 1929, she purchased a 45-acre plot on Cedar Island Lake for $1,700. The land came with one 10’ by 12’ hunting shack on it. Year by year, with the help of many unemployed men, cabins were built with story book themes; the Three Bears, the Pumpkin, the Bird House, the Farm House, the Shoe, Green Gables, Noah’s Ark, and the Dream House. She transformed the hunting shack into a lodge, put in a stone fireplace, and rented the cabins out to vacationers.
In 1941, she attended a tent meeting where a Scotsman named Neil Fraser was preaching. Elizabeth learned that all her good works were of no use before a righteous God. At age 44, she took the Lord Jesus as her personal Saviour and immediately her good works took a new direction. She now had a vision to turn her little resort into a Bible camp for boys and girls.
The first camp was for one week in the summer of 1948, with eleven campers. Elizabeth (Aunt Elizabeth), was the cook, Aunt Jean was the life guard, counselor, hand crafter, and story teller. Uncle Ben was the camp director, counselor and Bible teacher. No fees were charged and several came to Christ. Elizabeth paid the total cost of $137. During the 1950’s, the camps eventually expanded to the whole summer, with each camp for two weeks. In 1954, a brand-new ranch style house became Elizabeth’s home and her basement had enough tables for the camp’s capacity of 45 people. The Ranch House had running water. What a luxury! Prior to this, all the dishes were washed outside, rain or shine.
Today at Story Book Lodge there are nine one-week camps and one two-week camp, each with around 110 campers and over fifty staff. Besides a large kitchen, dining hall, and story book themed cabins, there’s a gymnasium, chapel, playground, and two volleyball courts. The camp has three resident staff families and one bachelor caretaker.
It takes lots of volunteers, all with a spirit of humility and love to make Story Book work: the camp board, resident staff, volunteer summer staff, and passionate speakers with a gift to communicate the gospel to rambunctious kids of every background. And one more rather mundane thing – money. We had a man several years back who was so impressed with how Story Book operated; that he felt it necessary that we put in the camp’s official bylaws that we would never charge a fee for any of our camps, and that we would never make any solicitation for funds. “Story Book should always be an example to all of the Lord’s provision,” he said. But though it is the Lord who supplies, many of the Lord’s servants sacrificially give to make this principle work out.
We’ve had more kids sign up for camp this past summer than we have ever had before. We are thankful that year after year kids have not lost their enthusiasm for coming to Story Book, having been told stories by their parents, grandparents and great grandparents who also attended the camp. But every year we have a few campers who haven’t the slightest inkling of the gospel. This past summer a girl asked her counselor, “Why are they always saying ‘Jesus Christ?’ Isn’t that a bad word?”
During our teen camp this past summer we had a couple of foreign exchange students from Italy and Austria. When the Italian student with long dreadlocks but a soft heart heard the gospel message, his heart was immediately touched. After asking lots of questions, he made his decision for Christ. His gentleness was very charismatic and he was soon encouraging others to also respond to the message of salvation.
A young man came from Texas, whose Christian mother had flown him up in a last-ditch effort to save him from a life spiraling into violence and despair. Soon a cabin mate challenged him to a fight. He was ready to go home. He called his brother who persuaded him to stick it out. Over the two weeks, the gospel message got through to him. When he left Story Book, he was thinking, “I’m scared to death to get on that plane, I know I’m not yet ready to die.” Later, while at a party he knew he had to get away. He wandered about thinking and considering, before praying for salvation. He told his mom, his mom who he had heard praying for him in the wee hours; his mom who had felt led to send him to a camp that was over a thousand miles away from their home.
The daily camp schedule has remained the same from the beginning: two chapel meetings; a devotional after every meal; and an evening campfire with a story, sports report, and an enthusiastic time of singing when kids shout and listen so they can hear their echo across the lake. The day concludes with an earnest plea for campers to respond to the gospel.
So, every year we have teenagers who come to Story Book and can’t believe it – “this is like some place from an outer planet.” But every year many of those same kids respond to the message they hear at Story Book, a message much older than Story Book.