Why do people come to the Epworth Forest? Many full time residents and visitors who return to Epworth Forest year after year describe it as an experience rather than a vacation -- a place for rest and relaxation, fun and recreation, meaningful connection with family and friends, renewal and spiritual growth. How did Epworth Forest come into existence?
In 1921 the following appeared in the a publication of the Western Advocate: "District Superintendents of the North Indiana Conference, have closed a deal for the purchase of 240 acres, including the entire north shore of Lake Webster, for the purpose of establishing a Methodist Assembly, similar to the one at Lakeside, Ohio. It is the intention to construct a tabernacle with a seating capacity of 5,000 (!) and build a hotel. The grounds will be platted and offered for sale in lots."
These 240 acres soon became known as Epworth Forest.
Epworth Forest was founded in the wake of was is known as the Chautauqua Movement. Around the beginning of the 19th Century a religious revival spread across the United States of America. Central to this movement was the Protestant Christian camp meetings. In the south, the camp meetings were a common part of the life of the Baptists, and in the North, the Methodists made good use of the camp meeting idea.
At the same time a new idea was emerging in the American Protestant church known as Sunday School. In 1870 a summer training camp for Sunday school teachers was established on Lake Chautauqua in New York. This camp would become known as the Chautauqua Institute. This was the first chautauqua. In just a couple of years the training sessions grew from a having a few dozen to a few hundred people in attendance.
Many Protestants started their own chautauquas patterned after the New York Chautauqua Institution, and by the end of the 19th Century, between 200 and 300 community chautauquas had been established. These combination religious assembly grounds and summer vacation communities became very popular. Methodists formed many chautauquas including the following, which are still in existence:
At the end of the 19th Century and into the 20th Century in the Midwest and Indiana there was a growing movement among Methodist youth. These youth gathered in their local church in groups called Epworth Leagues. In the summer these groups would gather for their own "camp meetings" called Institute. The Institutes finally grew to the point where they needed a permanent home.
So in 1921 the North Indiana Conference of the Methodist church began to search for land. That same year they found just what they were looking for and took an option on a piece of land just a short distance north and east of what would later become North Webster, Indiana resting on the shores of Lake Webster. Final payment for this land was made in 1923.
In 1922 a charter set forth for "The Epworth Forest League Institute of the North Indiana Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church." The Conference set aside church property, which included:
The remaining land was divided into lots that were sold to private individuals and United Methodist churches beginning in 1923.
The community began to take shape as the Conference built a hotel and auditorium. More church camp buildings soon followed. Trees were planted. Many private cottages were constructed. And the first Institute was held on Aug 10, 1924.
The next official organization of Epworth Forest was the Lot Owners Association formed in the early to mid 1920's. The Lot Owners Association was composed of individual property owners. The name later changed to the Epworth Forest Improvement Association, The Property Owners Association of Epworth Forest, and finally to its current name Epworth Forest Property Owners' Association.
For many years those who cared about Epworth Forest joined hands to help with projects and fundraising to improve facilities, better the community, and encourage the ministries. As the 50th anniversary of Epworth Forest approached, they decided to launch an organization to carry out this function. In 1974 the Friends of Epworth Forest was founded. Their name later changed to the Epworth Forest Alumni Association, and finally to its current name, the Friends and Alumni of Epworth Forest.
Over the years Epworth Forest has grown from undeveloped acreage to a place of beauty.
The Conference program has increased from one institute in 1924 to multiple youth institutes each year as well as year around programs of Christian education, missions, leadership development, choir, and special camps for children, the handicapped, older adults, and many more. The camp or assembly grounds are known as the Epworth Forest Conference Center. The arm of church that runs the programs on these grounds is called Impact2818.
The residential community in the early days was made up primarily of church groups attending camp and Methodist families who wanted to cool off and get away in the hot summer months. Today many cottages continue to be owned by the descendants of the original families that built them in earliest days of Epworth Forest. But by the end of the 1940's and early 1950's, many cottages had been sold and resold and the community became what it is today - a place enjoyed by a wide variety of families and individuals who come for overnight or live here year around. The Property Owners Association remains active as it organizes community events and leads projects to improve the community.
The Friends and Alumni Association of Epworth Forest has grown from an organization doing a few small property improvements to a vital force for ministry. Their mose significant project to date was the complete renovation of the Epworth Forest Hotel, now known as Freeland House.
Over the years, thousands of individuals have been influenced by the Epworth Forest setting. Epworth Forest continues to be a place where a wide variety of people enjoy vacationing, recreating, learning, growing, and worshiping.
Come and visit us soon on the shores of Epworth Forest. We look forward to your visit and we'll see you at The Lake!