Our Camp History In East Texas
When Camp Fern first opened in 1931, it was a cooperative effort among parents and friends of the children who spent their summers on the banks of the pine tree-lined lake in East Texas. It was the Depression, and the only residential summer camps were in the hill country of Central Texas. Peggy Hilliard was an only child, born 13 years after her parents married, and although she had no siblings, she had many cousins, and her parents loved to entertain children.
The Hilliards wanted their only child, Peggy, then 6, to have a camp experience, so they had other girls around the private lake come over for two days of arts and crafts, hikes, nature study, swimming, and horseback riding. They brought their own horses from home and spent the night at the summer log cabin (with a dog trot through the middle). As interest in the little camp grew, mothers who had memberships on the lake looked forward to it when the warm weather came around. It became evident that a summer camp was forming, and with the encouragement of many, Vernon and Maggie Hilliard decided to make the endeavor official in 1934, and Camp Fern was born.
They promptly decided to find another location across the lake to actually build a camp. No longer a cooperative endeavor, it became a registered business, and the Dining Hall and Recreation Hall were built; one for serving meals, the other for housing bunks. Over the next several years, logs were floated across the lake from adjacent property, and cabins were built to house campers.
"Uncle Vernon" and "Aunt Mag" were mom and dad to hundreds of children from Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, and his gentle spirit and her contagious laughter were known far and wide. They always attributed their success to the good Lord who supplied all their needs. Many cousins and an outstanding director, Rita Pilkey, were also invaluable as well as keeper, Daris Wells, who began work at Fern in the '50's (and stayed until he passed away in the spring of 1979).
Uncle Vernon died in 1951—and Aunt Mag, in 1961. Fern was then operated by Peggy and her husband, Bill Rotzler, a chemical engineer with Monsanto Chemical Company. Mr. Bill took movies of the campers every year and served as a consultant on safety and business aspects. He passed away in August 1993, at Camp Fern, and although ill during that summer, he never slowed down or gave in to his disease.
“Miss Peggy,” as she was affectionately called, passed away in July 1999, at Camp Fern. A director for many years, she became the nurturing and influential “grandmother” of Fern’s campers in her later years. Her love of the Lord was evident in her daily Vespers talks, leading “Joy, Joy, Joy,” and in her joyful, selfless attitude.
Margaret Rotzler Lee, the Rotzler’s daughter, became program director in 1978 and assumed full ownership at her parents’ passing. In 2008, she married Drake Lee whose 3 children, Sarah Bess Hudson, McHugh, and Wesley, spent a total of 35 years at Fern. A lawyer in Shreveport, LA and previous camper, Drake adds personal support and serves as a consultant. Margaret and Drake became grandparents for the first time in December 2009.
Camp Fern, the first summer camp in East Texas, is one of the few third generation camps in all of Texas. Campers have come from as far away as Austria, South America, Alaska and Hawaii. Many of them are grandchildren of Camp Fern veterans. It remains an outstanding camp because of the input of all who have given of themselves to others while there. Like the founders, subsequent owners have always given credit to the good Lord for Fern’s success and consider it His. The owners feel privileged to be in the company of the special people who pass through Fern and who undoubtedly leave a part of themselves behind.