Researched by Marti Buckner and expanded by Ken Green and Nathan Vick. Special thanks to Lucien Rice.
The history of Camp McKee is rich in diversity. American Indians occupied east-central Kentucky before the early European settlers arrived; in fact, the Shawnee settlement of Eskippakithiki was less than 5 miles from the present day McKee. Grape Knob would have offered a good observation point from which Daniel Boone or a Shawnee could view the surrounding land. The courthouse in Mt. Sterling was built with stone that was mined from Grape Knob when it served as a rock quarry.
Mrs. Gertrude P. McKee began piecing together the land that became known as the McKee Scout Reservation on June 1, 1920. On March 31, 1945, seven tracts of land totaling more than 300 acres were deeded over to the Blue Grass Council of the Boy Scouts of America by P. L. and Gertrude McKee for one dollar. There were certain stipulations, one of which said that the land was to be used for Scouting events and not “…cease to be used for the purposes herein set forth…” The first official camporee on the property was held in 1946, and for several years after, fall camporees were held. Additional parcels of land were added in the late 1950s. This land is well situated on the borders of Montgomery and Powell Counties, and now consists of more than 800 acres.
Early in 1958, the executive board and professional staff of the Blue Grass Council recognized the need for developing the property. At that time, W. T. Bishop was council president. Mr. Clair F. Vough, vice president of IBM, was chairman of the long range study which led to the Capital Campaign of 1958-59 that financed McKee’s early growth.
The National Scout Council studied the reservation and recommended a layout for its development. The proposed plan divided the reservation into two distinct camps, one on either side of the central lake: Camp Bishop and Camp Lee. Each camp was designed to support a capacity of 200 boys in ten unit campsites. Each unit site was to be developed as a separate functional unit with its own latrines, tents, washstands, patrol cooking facilities, and activity area. Although development began on both camps, the plans for Camp Lee were soon set aside, and Camp Bishop became the primary camp. Eventually, the old name was dropped, and the former Camp Bishop became known simply as Camp McKee.
In early April 1959, clearing and lumbering for the nearly 17-acre lake began as soon as weather permitted. The construction was done largely with donated time, materials and equipment. Work on the waterfront, activity areas, campsites, administration lodge, health lodge, trading post and Keeneland Dining Hall processed concurrently with the other projects and was well advanced by early 1960. The estimated construction cost for the development of the camp was $270,000.
Employees of the Soil Conservation Service accomplished the site survey and engineering for the lake and dam construction, with L. E. Gregg and John Burns providing engineering assistance. H. C. Adams of Carey and Adams Construction Company undertook the lake, dam and road construction. Marion Welch was instrumental in building the water treatment and sewage disposal system. John Burke took charge of constructing Keeneland Hall; Charlie Shoemaker took the campsites, activity areas, waterfront and health lodge. Gene Heilbron procured and installed the kitchen equipment.
The first camp ranger, Walt Ferrell, took up residence in his new home at the camp entrance early in 1960. Most of the projects were completed while others were started, such as the camp arena and rifle range. On June 10, 1960, the first of 1300 boys, who were to use the facility during its initial summer camping season, arrived. The camp fee was $14.50, with the fifty cents paying for insurance on the camper.
Early in 1960, Mr. Vough was elected president of the Blue Grass Council and Charlie Shoemaker became vice-president in charge of camp development. In 1961, Mr. Vough was again elected president and appointed an IBM engineer, Ed Druschel, to the position of camp development. Mr. Druschel left IBM and did not return until his work at McKee was completed.
Between 1960 and 1961, Scouts laid out and hiked the Pioneer Mountain Trail. Walt Ferrell led the group, and members included Hugh Miller, Harry Clover, John Young and Lucien Rice, among others. The chapel and picnic area were the next items built. Byron Romanowitz designed the chapel, which was constructed at a total cost of $5,534.96 and dedicated on June 28, 1962. Churches in the Blue Grass Council donated nearly half the funds for the project.
As the number of Scouts in the Blue Grass Council increased, so did the need for more and better camping facilities. In 1976, the number of campsites increased by five. Showers and a pedestrian bridge were built. Forrset McKloskey prepared construction drawings for the renovation of Keeneland Hall, with Lexington restaurateur Mr. Levis assisting him as a kitchen consultant. During the same era, Helm Roberts designed and constructed the OA Building (Douglas Winn Cox Order of the Arrow Pavilion).
On March 31, 2001, a groundbreaking took place to celebrate a new beginning of construction for Camp McKee. Architect Terry B. Simmons, along with Central Associated Engineers, were selected to design a new dining hall at Camp McKee. The Walker Company of Mount Sterling was the general contractor. The resulting building, Stamler Dining Hall, opened for service in July of 2003. That summer, it hosted about 360 campers and staff in air conditioned comfort, a first for Camp McKee.
The next decade was one of the busiest times for construction in McKee’s history. In 2002, the Karrick Retreat Lodge was constructed and swiftly became one of the nicest areas on camp. Also in 2002, the 50-foot Square D Climbing Tower was built, followed a year later by a new high ropes COPE course. The Phil Fox Handicraft Pavilion and the adjoining trading post were constructed in 2006, and the Orion Aquatics Tower, dedicated in memory of longtime Scouter Kevin O’Canna, was built in 2007.
In 2008, the main camp flagpoles were replaced, and a central flag pavilion was added in memory of Scout Murphy Jones. The Ramey Ecology Shelter was built in 2009 to replace the former shelter, which had been damaged by an ice storm. The Adirondack Shelters were renovated in 2013, with new fireplaces and a new picnic shelter. Most recently, the McKee Aquatics Pavilion was built in 2015.
Camp McKee has a long and storied history, but perhaps more important than listing the buildings constructed is remembering the hundreds of thousands of Scouts whose lives were changed by the time they spent at McKee. It is to them, and to the Scouts who will experience Camp McKee in the years to come, that this history is dedicated.