Thursday, August 5, 2010

Franke Park Day Camp and Wildcat Baseball: Two Amazing Fort Wayne Summer Traditions

My two children are wrapping up a summer in which they participated in two venerable Fort Wayne traditions - Wildcat Baseball and the day camp at Franke Park. It is easy to take these two summertime programs for granted, especially if one does not have young children or grandchildren, but collectively, we as a community shouldn't. Both are great programs that have literally defined summer for generations of Fort Wayne children, and both are an important part of the shared cultural experience of this city.

Much has been written in the news of late about the 50th anniversary of Wildcat. The story of its founding by Dale McMillen ("Mr. Mac"), founder and president of what would become Central Soya, is well-known. After meeting a group of dejected boys who had been cut from the roster of a local Little League team because their playing skills were not good enough, McMillen created the Wildcat Baseball League with the motto, "Everybody makes the team." The concept was brilliant. In addition to giving boys (and later girls) a chance to play the game and learn basic baseball skills, it did something even more profound for its time. It promoted good sportsmanship, encouraged children of diverse racial backgrounds to play together at a time when there was still widespread segregation, and it was underwritten by McMillen's foundation, making the program free and enabling children from a wide range of economic backgrounds to participate and interact. The spirit of Mr. Mac is still very much evidence, fifty years after the league's founding. As a parent watching his children develop their skills and seeing the patient, good-spirited leadership of the coaching staff, I recognize that this is something very special in our community. On September 19, Bill Derbyshire, a long-time staff member of the McMillen Foundation, will present a lecture at the History Center about Mr. Mac and Wildcat baseball. I encourage readers to attend.

Franke Park Day Camp will be celebrating its 65th anniversary next year. Founded in 1946, the camp evolved into its present form under the leadership of Dennis L. Gerlock, who became its director in 1950 and remained until his retirement in 1975. (He died in 1984). Gerlock sought to give campers an outdoor summertime experience that centered around three important themes: basic camping skills, nature education, and Native American lore. As children hiked through the impressive urban forest that comprises much of Franke Park (itself a wonderful and under-appreciated community asset), they were mentored by older, skilled campers, many of whom came up through the same program as the children they led. Such features as Bullet Hill, Bloody Gorge, and the Mud Slide became endearing experiences shared by generations of local residents. Today, Gerlock is still venerated, and his traditions are carefully preserved by Chris Freehill, long-time director of the camp. Children perform Native American dances, hear stories, and sing campfire songs - the very same ones that their parents and grandparents enjoyed. Each year the camp season culminates in a large pow-wow with a huge bonfire, and all of the campers are invited back to share the experience with their counsellors.

Speaking as one who did not grow up in Fort Wayne, it is easy for me nonetheless to see how much Wildcat and the Franke Park camp have enriched this community. They serve as local cultural markers that help define this city for young people. It is entirely appropriate for the History Center to pay homage to McMillen, Gerlock, and the Fort Wayne Parks Department for preserving them. They are the sort of programs that help forge a shared community memory. As local historians, we need to acknowledge their importance.


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  2. Hi, I enjoyed your blog about Franke Day Camp. I only lived in Fort Wayne 3 years (1979-1982), while I was in junior high at Holy Cross Lutheran school. I got to spend 2 summers at the camp and I loved every minute of them! They still do the same activities at the camp as they did 30 years ago. What wonderful memories! Jennifer Kayser, Mount Clemens, MI

  3. I went to Franke Park Day Camp several years in the 1960s and it remains a favorite memory of days in the woods, learning camping lore, riotously fun afternoons at Bloody George, and being a Potawatomi and Shawnee plus the pow wow dancing. Joyful memories and empowering experiences. My thanks to those that made it possible. Ky Kohler Ostler