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Summer camp at Sibley State Park, New London, Minn.

Strumming their guitars in an impromptu get-together after lunch are Ryan Bruns of Olivia, from left, and Matthew Anderson of Trail, Minn. Levi Koenen of Clara City is standing at right. In the background is one of the cabins with bunks in the park's group center. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

NEW LONDON - Without a doubt, tears were shed at Sibley State Park on Friday morning.

It's a ritual that goes back a few decades. Since possibly sometime in the 1970s, Sibley State Park's group center has been host to summer camps offered by the Minnesota Farmers Union. The annual camps are an opportunity for young people to build leadership skills, make new friends and enjoy the outdoors.

It's the saying goodbye to new-found friends at the end of camp that is the cause of the Friday morning tears, according to Glen Schmidt, education director for the MFU. He attended his first MFU summer camp as a participant when he was a seventh grader. Now he is leading them.

"The friendships,'' said Schmidt when asked what he and other campers value most about the experience.

Sibley State Park is among only a handful of state parks with the facilities to make possible large group, summer camps such as this. The park's group center offers seven cabins with bunks, along with a main dining facility equipped with a full kitchen. There are also quarters for the counselors, a craft center and modern sanitation building. The group center can accommodate up to 128 guests.

The MFU offers separate camps for elementary and junior high students at Sibley State Park and at Lake Sarah Farmers Union Park and Campground near Erskine. It concludes its summer camping program with the senior high camp at Sibley.

This year's senior high camp brought 70 young people, grades 9 through 12, from all over the state. They arrived last Sunday in sultry heat, and retreated indoors when storms darkened the skies the next morning.

Better weather followed. Until they broke camp on Friday morning, they were planning to enjoy all Sibley State Park has to offer, said Schmidt earlier this week.

A short hiking trail from camp led the students to the refreshing waters of Lake Andrew for daily swims. They also enjoyed hikes through the park and especially, making the observation tower on Mt. Tom a destination.

Holding the camp at the park and in the great outdoors means that students have few distractions, and is a definite advantage, said Schmidt. Students check in their cell phones when they arrive at camp and say adios to most electrical devices for the week.

The emphasis is on "face-to-face'' social skills in place of Facebook, said Schmidt.

"I don't really notice when I'm here,'' said Lindsey Atchinson of Maplewood when asked if she missed her cell phone.

Her family made Benson their home when she was in elementary school. Her parents do not farm, but are members of the MFU. Everyone else in their family farms, and agriculture is very important to the family, she noted.

The camps began as an opportunity for young people to take a summer break from farm chores and meet other youth. Times are changing. Schmidt said about one-half of camp participants today do not live on farms and have urban addresses. The only requirement is that the family is a member of the MFU.

The fees are kept affordable, thanks in part to the availability of the Sibley State Park location. The fees are $75 for elementary school age and $95 for senior high participants.

The senior high camp is about building the skills for "leadership by example,'' according to Schmidt. Students elect a Youth Advisory Council at camp's end and pass the torch to new leaders to plan the next year's camp.

The camp includes many of the traditional, summer camp types of activities, everything from crafts to kick ball games. There are nightly camp fires, sing-alongs, S'mores to enjoy and evening dances in the dining room.

There are also lessons on cooperatives, the Minnesota Farmer's Union and agricultural issues.

Every day starts with the raising of the American flag. Students join in the dining hall for their meals, and share KP duties afterward.

Traditionally, more girls than boys attend the camp, and this year is no exception, said Schmidt.

Also, most of those attending senior high camp are repeat campers. They were introduced to the experience in elementary school and have kept coming back.

They include Cedric Ford of Shakopee, who just attended his ninth year of MFU summer camp.

It's easy to explain why. There's fun to be had and friends to make, said Ford. He said he looks forward most of all to being re-united with the friends he's made at previous camps.

Thanks to Facebook and other social media, Ford said he also keeps in contact through the year with his camp friends.

It's no different for Schmidt. He has kept in contact with the camp friends he made years ago.

After this camp broke, he and three friends he first made at MFU camps years ago were preparing to take off on their own camping trip.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335