Group Camp and Retreat Center
Building Camp Thunderbird was no easy task; it was hard work. Pine logs for the lodge were cut from the forest, hauled to the lumber company, and moved to camp to be trimmed. Along with the many volunteers, there were also many businesses and organizations who donated time, money, and supplies. Donations included everything from trucks, cranes, bulldozers, professional expertise, surplus tents, and wood to the dinner bell, the water tank, and the heat-o-later in the fireplace. Everything was used to build what would become and still is Camp Thunderbird.
In the early 1980's, the camp board approached the U.S. Forest Service, who still owned the campsite land, to begin negotiations for a trade. Henry and Ewell Stewart, who owned nearby property, deeded two portions of their land to the camp which was then traded for the land on which Camp Thunderbird was located. The property transfer was not completed until 1990. On August 25, 1991, the land was dedicated to the memory of Ewell S. Stewart who passed away before the trade was finalized. The camp continues to own and operate the land and the facilities on it. Improvements have been made as they were needed and wanted, but the camp still remains very much the same - a warm reminder of how it all started.
At Camp Thunderbird, we are extremely proud of who we are and where it all started. We believe it is because of our rich and diverse history that we have been able to offer meaningful camping experiences in God's great outdoors for more than 65 years ... and why we look forward to many more years to come.
The history of Camp Thunderbird is one of rich tradition and diversity. It starts almost a thousand years ago when the Mimbres people made this site and many other locations along the Mimbres River and throughout the valley their home.
Many years later, in the 1930's and early 1940's, this same site was the location for a Civilian Conservation Corps, CCC, camp known as Camp Sully. It was this campsite among the beautiful pine trees of the Gila National Forest that Reverend Harold Johnson, later known as "The Father of Camp Thunderbird", believed to be the ideal place for a Christian youth camp.
Rev. Johnson, pastor of the Santa Rita Church, presented his idea for a youth camp to the congregational churches of New Mexico and El Paso at their annual meeting in Gallup, New Mexico on October 9, 1947. Decisions at this meeting empowered a newly formed Camp Thunderbird Board to proceed with plans for the camp.
In order to take the camp from the planning stages to the building stages, it was necessary to lease the land from the U.S. Forest Service. The lease was personally issued to Harold Johnson on January 10, 1948. From here, construction began. The lodge was among the first of the buildings to be constructed. At approximately the same time, the original bathhouse know as the Alden Building was also built. Both of these buildings, along with other beginning construction, were completed entirely by voluteer labor from the churches and communities in the area.
On June 18, 1950, two years after construction began, the dedication ceremony for the lodge was held. The service included this quote from John Ruskin:
"When we build, let us think that we build forever ... That men will say as they look upon the labor. 'See! This our Fathers did for us.' "
The main lodge was later dedicated to Sgt. William B. Hensen, a member of a B-29 crew lost over the Pacific Ocean during WWII.
After the building of the lodge and Alden Building, designs for a manager's residence began. House #53 from Santa Rita and the old Manhattan Bar were moved to form the caretaker's cottage and were completed into "a delightful lovely home" in the summer of 1954. Mr. Peper was named the first on-site caretaker of Camp Thunderbird. The Peper Cottage still serves as the manager's residence and over the years has housed many caretakers and their families.
Over time, other buildings and necessary changes were added to the campsite. These included three dormitories known as Brewster, Mayflower, and Pilgrim, as well as a new bathhouse and basketball court. The camp was prosperous and Rev. Johnson's vision to create a Christian youth camp was fulfilled. Records show, that in the first eight years the camp was open, more than 6,000 people came to Camp Thunderbird either for the day or for overnight events
Reverend Harold Johnson