Change Comes to Timeless Olney & Friends Music Camp

First posted, July 2015

Change Comes to Timeless Olney & Friends Music Camp

Or, You Can Beat The Band, But Not . . .

The headline on the right-hand column of this Wheeling, West Virginia newspaper caught my eye the other day:


“Oil City,” as the paper explains, is not a new town; and “OV” means Ohio Valley. Instead, “Oil City” is a makeshift community of over a  hundred RVs & camper vans, clustered near a large eastern Ohio mall about 15 miles from Olney & Barnesville. The drivers/residents are not on vacation: they’re working in the burgeoning shale oil and gas fields spreading across the region.

Yes, fracking.

“Oil City” is growing, and will be there til — when?

Probably a long time. The shale oil/gas drillers are aggressively seeking out and buying up mineral rights to properties near and far in this long-depressed, but shale-rich region.

Including Barnesville.

Including Olney Friends School.

A nighttime gas fire at a fracking site near Barnesville, OH about a week ago.

And thus has crumbled the strongest, most comforting illusion I have nourished about this Quietist Quaker oasis, perched on its ridge, but shielded on three sides by woods, and facing a pond like a moat on the other.

Here the school has stood at one end for five generations, clinging to its past while being pushed into a turbulent present; and at the other end of the long green lawn is the big, venerable Stillwater Meetinghouse, the seat of Ohio Yearly Meeting- Conservative.

Both have seemed serene and timeless to me, since I first came here in 1981.

But I learned this past week that both the yearly meeting & the school have repeatedly been offered money –big money– for fracking rights here under their ridge. Both have said no.

So far.

The yearly meeting is likely the most able to resist the temptation: it has a couple million dollars in trust funds, and without pastors or paid staff, its expenses are low.

The school is a different matter: it has long subsisted near the edge of a financial cliff. And just now, enrollment is down, and with it,  projected income. The  school may be teetering on the edge again.

Olney Friends School has hundreds of fiercely loyal alumni; but while many of them are financially comfortable, it does not seem as if among them are any who are the deep-pocket moguls that, in our age of vast income inequality, are needed as the “angels” which keep small, threatened nonprofits afloat.

So let’s review all those horror stories that good urban liberals have absorbed about the evils of fracking: earthquakes; contamination of water supplies;  air pollution;  and more.

The rebuttal to these charges is easy to see around Barnesville this summer. In sum the argument goes like this:

Earthquakes?  JOBS.

Toxics in the Water? JOBS.

Air pollution? Cash. And Did I mention, JOBS?

And more! See Above.

But without the fracking windfall, or an Angel in sight, the Olney Friends school has had to look for new revenue elsewhere.

And it decided to look at the Friends Music Camp for some. This year, the school bumped up the camp’s rents by a sizable amount. (Hey — whose costs haven’t gone up?)

Olney and the sky, with diamonds. Timeless? Unchanging? Not anymore.

In turn, the camp had to raise its fees; which resulted in lower camper enrollment. And despite having run its successful program here since its founding in 1980, this experience led the camp staff and directors to begin thinking the unthinkable . . . .

Which suddenly became more thinkable, when Earlham, a Quaker college in Indiana, unveiled a brand-new, shiny arts center, and started courting  Friends Music Camp (FMC for short) to fill it for a chunk of summers to come. The college’s proposed rent seemed high before; now it’s just about competitive with Olney.

So this summer, in addition to making music and having fun, the camp community is doing an unexpected, unwelcome, and very weighty work of discernment: stay at Olney? Or move?

This is a VERY loaded question.  Many campers return for several years, and as with other good summer camps, the experience sinks deeply into their young minds, hearts — and as is often testified to here, their spirits as well.

It certainly has been like that for me. While never a camper, I’ve visited the camp every year for most of its history. I come and, for an evening program, read short stories.

My stories. The campers seem to like them; I’ve been reading annually for more than 25 years. (A book of these stories is here.) These pilgrimages  have spurred my creative work as a short story author. And my own son spent six important summers there.

In theory, I know change is everywhere and always; I’m familiar with  the I Ching, and Ecclesiastes. But the tranquil Olney setting had hovered in both memory and expectation as an exception: a kind of personal retreat center, just for me despite all the others around. For more than 25 years, it’s been there: timeless; ever the same.

A myth for sure; but it was mine, and I needed it.

So this time, with the prospect of change on every side, my myth felt  particularly threatened. Despite another successful reading, the days at  FMC/Olney became an occasion for grieving: the earth was moving under my feet, in this, the most immovable place I (thought I) knew.

Further, veteran camp staffers confirmed another aspect of all this, one not easy to talk about — Olney is a place uniquely freighted with character, with spirit — even perhaps with (Friendly) ghosts.  So would leaving it be simply a “business” decision? Or might it be tampering with something more?

What does “character” mean? Here’s an example: this tile composition is in the Boy’s Dorm at Olney Friends School. The wall of a first-floor bathroom was tiled with homemade designs, the work of students in 1978. it’s an unusual art venue, but striking, almost ghostly, just the same.

Well, in any case, the decision is not expected til the fall, and to be sure, the FMC board members are devoted to it and will do their best. I don’t mean these notes to be lobbying them toward either option.

The question remains, tho:  come next summer, if I’m favored to read my stories at FMC yet again, where will it be? Will the tales sound the same in a different venue?

Another of the Olney tile designs.

And if we’re not at Olney, what will be happening on the green ridge in Barnesville? Will the school be the same? Or will the big drills be burrowing deep beneath it, staving off bankruptcy, but undermining the rock on which it has stood solidly for so long? And the yearly meeting?

I don’t want to think about it. (I can’t stop thinking about it.)

All will be revealed in time. Which cliche reminds me of another, in fact, a series:

You can beat the other team;

You can beat the band;

You can beat the drum;

Hang tough and you can beat the devil;

Sometimes you can even beat city hall.

But you can’t, no you can’t, beat the clock.

And maybe you can’t beat Oil City either.

[Update  FMC moved to Earlham. And in July 2019, stories in hand, I paid my 30th summer visit to the camp.]

A sign near Barnesville, Ohio.

2 thoughts on “Change Comes to Timeless Olney & Friends Music Camp”

  1. This reminds me of the fiasco caused by Mellon and his steel mill in the Monongahela Valley where his company town was choked with sulfuric dioxide in 1948. Nearly 20 people died and hundreds were sickened when a weather inversion trapped the toxic gasses in the river valley. It was the ecological disaster that forced the “Clean Air Act.” I was one year old and thousands of pets died in the pollution.

    The mills poured out so much pollution that the tall stacks of the mill had the brick at the top were eaten away to the tune of 6 feet a year. My grandfather was the steeple chase that climbed the stacks to build scaffolding for the brick layers.

    The nieghboring farmers had livestock born with deformities and pasture land on the ridges around the area became worthless and bald. When i asked my mother why on earth the citizens didn’t force the Mellon to clean up his act, she shrugged and said, “The men had work.” When I said, “At what cost?” She shrugged.

  2. Useful blog post – I Appreciate the info ! Does anyone know where I can access a fillable a form form to fill in ?

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