|City/Town: • Siloam Springs|
|Location Class: • Amusement|
|Built: • 1921 | Abandoned: • 1978|
|Historic Designation: • National Register of Historic Places|
|Status: • Abandoned|
|Photojournalist: • James Kirkendall|
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 McAlister’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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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 — Campers spent their summers at the Gypsy Camp for Girls, making friends, spending
time in nature and enjoying the water of the Illinois River for more than 50 years. The legacy will continue at Gypsy Camp and Canoe, which hopes to keep the history of the camp alive while also providing family friendly float trips on the Illinois River. The historic camp went up for sale last fall after former owner Bob Coe died at the age of 96. Coe and his late wife, Daisy, operated the camp since the 1960s.
Three local couples — David and Jill Ellingson, Jerrid and Tracie Gelinas, and Nathan and Mandi Reed —
purchased the camp and opened their new business June 30.The camp is about 7 miles south of Siloam Springs on the northwest side of the Arkansas 59 bridge over the Illinois River. It served as a girls summer camp from 1923 until 1978, Jerrid Gelinas said. The camp has been used for summer get-togethers, events and reunions since.
The camp has 11 original buildings, including two houses, a recreation center, four cabins, two bath houses and a well-house, all nestled between towering limestone bluffs and the riverbank. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Gypsy Camp Historic District.
Girls came from all over the region, including from states such as Texas, Kansas, Missouri, Louisiana and Oklahoma, to attend the camp. Campers would often arrive by train in Tulsa, Okla., or Fayetteville and be transported by bus. They were divided into two teams — red and orange — that competed with each other.
Former campers still meet for reunions each summer. Some became well-known, such as actress Natalie Canerday who was in Sling Blade, October Sky and Walk the Line; actress Mary Martin, who starred in Peter Pan in 1960; and Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton. Gelinas started floating local rivers with his family when he was 1-year-old and has kept it up every summer since.
He dreamed of opening a float trip business one day and purchased property near the Siloam Springs Kayak Park. He was floating the river in September when the old buildings caught his eye, and he stopped to take a look. He learned the property was for sale in October. “Jerrid and I came out here and looked at it, and obviously we fell in love with it,” Nathan Reed said. Gelinas asked his friend David, who owns a construction business, to inspect the buildings.
“David came out here, and he fell in love with it, and here we are,” Reed said. The new owners plan to preserve the original camp’s history. “I think we’re all just excited to be able to offer a float business, yes, but also kind of preserve a piece of history. All we advertise right now is the boats, but there is more to it that I think we will get to showcase one day, and I think we’ve all got a piece of our hearts in this,” Gelinas said.
Gypsy Camp and Canoe offers float trips in canoes, single or tandem kayaks and rafts starting at the Siloam Springs Kayak Park and ending at the camp. The camp offers a shuttle service. The owners hope to add tent and RV camping spaces, restore the original structures and make them available for overnight rentals and perhaps even create a space for weddings and events. “That’s one of our big goals, to keep it very historic, very natural like it is,” Gelinas said.
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