Nobody would ever have called it a resort, although the St. Louis Post-Dispatch did once refer to it as a “poor man’s country club.”
Camp Solidarity has the amenities of a vacation getaway and is available only to a privileged few, but rather than think of it as a place of luxury, its members see it as a place of renewal and community.
The Meramec River enclave south of Pacific with its own private beach, lake, clubhouse and miles of walking trails began as a weekend getaway for working class immigrant families.
Over a 70-year period, Camp Solidarity grew into a haven of snug country homes and pristine wilderness where families of the original founders live year-round or can still vacation. It has a long history.
The idea for a place in the country began in 1886 with the Workmen’s Sick and Death Benefit Fund (WBF).
“Solidarity was their motto,” according to Janet Sladek, Camp Solidarity historian. “It meant brotherly help to less fortunate workers who fell sick, or support to their families in case of death.”
Sladek and her husband Henry offered a slide presentation and history of the camp at the July meeting of the Meramec Valley Genealogical and Historical Society. They are among 13 full-time residents of the 250-acre camp.
In the 1880s it was very easy for immigrants to get a job in America, but disastrous when illness or an accident happened. For a few cents a week, the WBF provided insurance.
Believing that outdoor life was essential to health, the idea for camps emerged where recuperating persons could go for a while. For poor immigrant families, collective ownership, sharing what they had, was the means of establishing a camp and by the turn of the last century camps were organized in Illinois and Wisconsin.
In July 1937, a group of South St. Louis WBF members, mostly Austrian immigrants, found the farm on the Meramec River south of Pacific that was for sale for $6,000. The site had no roads, buildings or drinking water, but it was beautiful. By August, they had bought the land, rented an existing rock house at the end of the road and set up their camp.
WBF members came out on the weekend to build roads and dig a well.
On Memorial Day 1938, they set up tables and benches, offered hot dogs, beer and soft drinks, and began the practice that is still associated with the camp today. A band played German waltzes and polkas that could be heard in the surrounding countryside.
To protect visitors from the elements, WBF members built a shelter that doubled as a dance hall. They later added a bar and rented the structure out to groups to raise money.
Wurst Markt pillow socials were held as fundraisers. Illinois Day brought out a large number of visitors.
Members built a floating raft in the river off the beach, where as many as 100 people gathered to swim on some weekends. Fly-fishing, boating and ice skating when the river froze were popular. Tennis courts also were added and a bowling alley.
Sladek said she asked early members why they worked so hard in the early years.
“It was still the Depression when they began and money was scarce,” she said. “To have a place to come to, work together in creating, to play, sing and dance together for very little cost was like an undreamed of miracle to them.”
Even hampered by the rationing of the World War II years, when members couldn’t get enough eggs for an Easter Egg hunt, members broadened the vision of their camp. Early organizer Ed Petrikovitsch began to research children’s camps.
By 1944, members built cabins and residents offered the use of their homes so children could spend a week at camp, swimming, ball games and organizing scavenger hunts.
In 1950, an additional 80 acres was added to the camp. Members also embarked on a planting program to repair timber-harvested land.
One lady, at age 81, was said to plant an average of 150 10-inch trees each Sunday.
Hayrides were organized with local farmer Billy Murphy providing the rides, which went all the way to Robertsville or to Pacific.
In 1960, the camp was again expanded and Billy Murphy and Junior Gephardt helped members build a dam to create Camp Solidarity Lake.
Newer events include a pig roast with recorded country music that became a huge success and a recent tradition.
Although the river has edged the Camp Solidarity beach slightly to the north and floating debris created a break that caused the beach water to be shallower, the beach is still popular with residents and members.
The pavilion is no longer open to the public but today is used for Christmas parties and turkey shoots, one of the camp’s most successful fundraisers.
Sladek said the camp today is still a place of unbelievable peace and beauty. Five generations of her family have been associated with the camp.
“The trees that shade us in many cases were planted by our founders,” she said, “sometimes beautiful groves of pines where woodland creatures scurry.”