Editor’s note: In this multi-part series the Leesville Daily Leader, with the help of guest contributor Billy Crawford, will explore the history of the well-known Lions Camp rodeo and how it came to be. In part one, we celebrate how the camp got its roots in Leesville and why the Rodeo was started.
Since Lions Clubs International was founded in 1917, Lions have worked on projects designed to prevent blindness, restore eyesight and improve eye care for hundreds of millions of people worldwide.
In 1958, the Louisiana Lions took on another vital humanitarian project: to build a summer camp for children with handicapping conditions.
On March 2, 1958, a meeting was held with Secretary of State Wade O. Martin Jr. in Baton Rouge in which the Directorate of the Louisiana League for Crippled Children, Inc. (LLLCC) received its charter.
Plans were quickly made to hold the first annual crippled children’s summer camp, which would be a non-profit residential summer camp owned and operated by the LLLCC, Inc. and funded by the Lions Clubs of Louisiana.
The site of the first summer camp was held at Camp Windy Wood near Alexandria.
For the first three years, the Lions operated camp sessions for children with physically handicapping conditions at the Camp Windy Wood on a trial basis.
Later it became apparent there was a real need for facilities that would enable these special children to enjoy the usual childhood pleasures of cookouts, swimming, horseback riding and ball games.
Other camps lacked the trained personnel and the equipment to allow children who were blind or challenged by other handicapping conditions to take part in a camping program.
In September a meeting of the approximately twenty-five members of the League’s state-site selection committee met in Alexandria. The purpose was to select a permanent site for the League’s summer camp. More than 36 sites from various parts of Louisiana were offered.
The choice narrowed to the Esler Field site offered by the Alexandria Lions Club and the Leesville Lions site. The campsite was awarded to the Leesville Lions Club.
At that meeting, the Leesville Lions who made a presentation of the advantages of the local site included C.E. Lawrence, President, W.H. Morris, local chairman of site committee, Jack L. Simms, Hoyt Hays, Van O. West, Dr. J.O. McCrery and Gene Copeland.
The Leesville campsite, just north of Leesville, sat on appropriately 100 acres of land, including a 300-foot frontage on Anacoco Lake.
The land was donated through the cooperation of local landowners Curry Ford, owner of Leesville Leader and W.C. Wood, a local attorney, who sold the land to the club at a very nominal sum for the civic project.
The land was adjacent to a 640-acre section of land owned by Nona Mills Company that offered its use for outdoor activities of the campers.
Other services pledged to the camp included: a black-topped road from the U. S. Highway 171, a sandy beach, utilities, bookmobile service, police protection, medical services by Leesville doctors, and full support from civic and governmental groups throughout the area.
Following the selection of the campsite, the Leesville Lions arranged for an inspection tour, led by LLLCC State Chairman Warren H. Zuelk, Sr. After completing the tour, the club members hosted a dinner at the Leesville First United Methodist Church.
Maps, charts, letters from other civic organizations, individuals and agencies were presented by Chairman W.H. Morris, Jack L. Simms and club President Claude Lawrence. W.H Morris, the local chairman, presented a $100 donation from each of the 51 members of the Leesville Lions to State Chairman Warren H. Zuelk, Sr. Otto Hood, representing the DeRidder Lions, also presented a life membership for their club.
The Leesville Daily Leader reported on the construction of the new camp writing, “Much remains to be done,” according to the Lions, “and every citizen is urged to contribute to the success of the project. This is a big thing for Leesville and Vernon Parish. It may well be the first industry. There will be construction work on the buildings. There will be a number of attendants that care for the children—last year there was one attendant for each two campers at Camp Windy Wood. Parents, relatives and friends will visit the children.”
On July 9, 1961, the camp was ready for occupancy with two dormitories, a dining room and kitchen, a swimming pool, canteen building, arts & crafts shelter, stable and bridle path, and many pieces of equipment.
Each Louisiana Lions Club was to sponsor a camper.
The first camper sponsored by the Leesville club was named Judy, according to Van O. West, club president. The first session for campers was July 9, 1961.
Since its inception, the camp has been the recipient of continuous funds from Lions Clubs throughout the state through many types of fundraisers.
In order to help finance these worthy projects, the Leesville Lions Club took on a number of fundraising projects.
In 1951 the Leesville Lions began sponsoring the local Rodeo, which had been previously sponsored by the VFW.
The rodeo became a major fundraising event for the club and its important projects.
Today, the Lion’s Club Pro Rodeo is in its sixth decade of being hosted and is still the primary fundraiser for the Leesville Lions club.
The rodeo takes place in correlation with the West Louisiana Forestry Festival and the Vernon Parish Fair and takes place at 7:30 p.m. on the Thursday-Saturday following the first Wednesday in October at the Vernon Parish Arena.