The story of the camp begins with a married couple who wanted to provide outdoor experiences for children and families who might otherwise never have the opportunity.
That couple was Mary Holdsworth Butt and her husband, Howard E. Butt. Many will recognize the family name: Howard took his mother’s small grocery store, which she started in 1905 in Kerrville, and through decades of hard work, built a chain of grocery stores across Texas. We know those stores as H-E-B today.
Back in 1954, though, the chain was still comparatively small. Though the stores were successful, the company was nowhere as large as it is today. In the 1950s it was still a regional operation.
In 1954, when the couple purchased the 1900-acre Wolfe Ranch, the land which would become the H. E. Butt Foundation Camps, Howard was 59, and Mary was 51. Both were in that season of life when one wonders what might yet be accomplished in the years to come.
A small portion of Mary’s diary from those days was recently published, which includes these thoughts, from February 1954:
“Today, I am fifty-one,” Mary Butt wrote. “Howard and I have been wondering what we want most to do with the remaining years of our life. We want to further the cause of the Christian faith; to improve educational opportunities for children; to encourage all character-building activities; to help provide recreational opportunities for children… we want, if possible, to establish a camp somewhere in the Texas hills where groups of children can go… where a hundred years from now deer, turkey, squirrels, and rabbits can still be seen.”
Over the years since its purchase, five campsites were constructed on the property: Echo Valley, Singing Hills, Linnet’s Wings, Wind Song, and Comanche Outpost (which has been replaced by Headwaters), forming the foundation camps. Two other programs were also established: Laity Lodge, and Laity Lodge Youth Camp.
Laity Lodge hosted its first retreat in June 1961, when a group of people met on the banks of the Frio River in a newly constructed hall. The featured speaker was Elton Trueblood, a Quaker philosopher, who emphasized “the ministry of common life.” Mary and Howard Butt’s eldest son, Howard Butt, Jr., a gifted Christian speaker, encouraged the development of Laity Lodge, and it became a family project. “My mother worked tirelessly,” Howard Butt Jr. wrote recently, “and we spent long hours planning the design of the retreat center, the design of the buildings, the building locations, the interior design, and even the location of the parking lot. She felt compelled to build the camps; building Laity Lodge in particular gave her great satisfaction, and she was pleased when the buildings were ready for the first retreat.”
Keith Miller served as the first director of Laity Lodge, from 1962 to 1965. He was followed by Bill Cody, who served until 1979. My long-time friend Dr. Howard Hovde served from 1981 until 1999; Eddie Sears, another long-time friend, served during the same time as Associate Director. In 1997 Don Murdock took the executive director’s post, and in 1999 the title of director was held by Dr. David Williamson. The current director, Steven Purcell, was hired in 2006, and the current Director of Operations, the talented Tim Blanks, was hired in 2003.
Mary Butt’s diary from the earliest days of the camps expressed the hope to provide a camping experience for “maybe 100 boys and girls at one time.” A recent newsletter from the foundation estimates since 1954 “one million boys and girls and men and women have benefited from free use of the foundation camps.”
This special place, in a stark canyon overlooking the crystal Frio River, has been an active part of a greater spiritual community for sixty very good years. Laity Lodge and the H. E. Butt Foundation Camps has its beginnings here in Kerrville, starting when a woman of faith prayerfully opened a little grocery store and taught her children (and their children) the importance of hard work and spiritual values. Those lessons continue to this day at Laity Lodge, Laity Lodge Youth Camp, and the H. E. Butt Foundation.