YMCA Camp Onyahsa

Camp History

The sound of reveille cuts through the cool early morning mist as it rises from a warm Lake Chautauqua. Silhouetted against the fog that catches the first warm rays of dawn, moored sailboats gently lap the cool and gentle waves. Slowly, the sounds of waking children excitedly fill the peaceful campsite as the dew on the field sparkles in the light of the rising sun. Another day has begun at YMCA Camp Onyahsa, and today, like any other in its 120-year history, children will experience the friendships, create the memories, and learn the values that will shape the rest of their lives.

First Onyahsa Camp

In the summer of 1898, along the shores of Lake Chautauqua, a group of boys and their leaders from the Jamestown YMCA experienced the first season of YMCA camping in the area, and thereby established one of the three oldest "Y" Camps in the nation. At the time, the camp was known only as the Jamestown YMCA Boys' Camp. The primary goal of the experience was to give local boys and young men a respite from the city and factory through a values-based program, which was conducted in the Great Outdoors. The Camp was one of the first such programs in North America, founded during an era colored by the Progressive movement, early conservationist concerns, and the closing of the frontier. The mission and self-perceived responsibility of these local visionaries who founded the Camp was to develop the spiritual, intellectual, physical, and social well-being of the youth of the community who would become its future leaders.

During the first half-century of Camp Onyahsa's proud history, the program was informal, consisting largely of character-building programs, Bible study, and recreational activities. The original YMCA Boys Camp was located at the southern end of Chautauqua Lake, but new property was acquired in Dewittville in the early 1920s from the Colgrove Estate. Known for a short time as Camp Mason, in 1924 the name of camp was changed to Onyahsa by Roy Wagner, its long-time Director. According to legend, this name was taken from the Iroquois term for the shape of the lake and the camp's bay.

Roy Wagner served as the Camp Director and YMCA Boy's Work Secretary (Youth Director) from 1924 to 1946. Today "Wag," as he was known, is fondly remembered by elder Onyahsa alumni- as are other favorite staff, such as perennial Camp Cook Ashley Belcher, activities such as the "Tarzan Swing," mascots such as the camp monkey, and facilities such as "Shadyside." Wagner built the Camp and program, but more importantly, he also built the character of its campers and staff. A very pious man, Roy Wagner was greatly saddened as many of the young men he developed were sent into harm's way in World War II. He left the Camp in 1946 and passed away in 1975. The Camp grew considerably under Wagner's leadership, and through the experience he made possible, many boys and young men who would one day serve their communities and nation learned the values that would shape the rest of their lives.

Spiro Bello

Among them was a child from Jamestown's Albanian-American community, who attended Onyahsa on a scholarship in 1932, Spiro Bello. Like many of "Wag's Boys," Spiro was sent to the war in the early 1940s. After service as a Marine in the South Pacific, he was eager to put the conflict behind him, and returned to Jamestown. After supervising young paper carriers at the Jamestown Sun, he became the Camp Onyahsa Chairman, and soon thereafter, its Director.

Under Spiro's leadership, Onyahsa acquired more property; and through his determination and a network of dedicated volunteer supporters, old camp tents were replaced with wooden cabins and other major physical improvements were made. Moreover, important programmatic changes were implemented; family camping was initiated, handicapped youth were served, and the summer program went co-educational.

As Camp Onyahsa Director and YMCA Youth Director, Spiro was a father figure to many boys and girls who affectionately called themselves "Spiro's Kids." Like Wagner, Bello has a very positive and lasting impression on the children he nurtured and guided. He retired due to a disability in 1984, but remained actively involved in the Camp, including serving as the Chair for the first meeting of its Centennial Development Committee in 1992. Sadly, he passed away in 1996, before these plans could come to full fruition, but a memorial camp scholarship fund has been created in his honor, which provides camp experiences to deserving youths who display leadership potential. In 1985, Mark Eckendorf, a YMCA Youth Director from Ohio became Camp Director and worked to provide new and innovative programming. Two years later, he became the YMCA's Executive Director, a role in which he still serves the community and guides the Camp.

One of Spiro's many "kids," and Eckendorf's Assistant Camp Director, Jon O'Brian took the helm in 1987, and will celebrate his thirtieth year as Camp Director this summer. O'Brian began at Onyahsa as a child in the 1970s, and he has not missed a summer at the Camp since he was seven years old. Under his leadership, the Camp has come to serve children from a wide variety of backgrounds, and those who attend with various abilities. Handicapped youth now enjoy an integrated program, and foreign campers share the Onyahsa experience with local kids from all walks of life.

Over the last decade, Camp Onyahsa has sought to renew its purpose by combining a restored sense of tradition with innovative and exciting programming. Dedicated, quality staff and volunteers have been developed, the program has expanded, camper enrollment has grown to capacity, new facilities and properties have been added.


Today, with an excellent program, location, staff, volunteer board, reputation, enrollment, and a stable financial situation; the remaining challenge of making vital major facility improvements is being addressed through the Onyahsa Master Development Plan. The goal of this endeavor is to renew the Camp's Proud Past and to enable its Fantastic Future for a new century. The Plan calls for new, appropriate and accessible, extended-season lodging; expanded program offerings, new restroom and utilities, renovations to major existing structures, and improvements to functional areas. These major renovations will enable superb summer youth camping, special programs for "at-risk" youth, family outings, group camping, extended-season community use of the facility and much more.

A major fund raising effort to fulfill this vital goal, the Onyahsa Centennial Campaign was launched in celebration of the Camp's Centennial achievement, in 1998. By 2003, the fund drive had reached $1.5 million. The success of this effort, which was chaired by Onyahsa alumnus David Dawson with the assistance of Honorary Co-Chairs and Camp alumni Charles Price and Miles Lasser, has enabled the creation of a premier summer resident camp for the Youth and Families of our Community.

Camp Renovations and Expansion

From 2000 to 2003, major renovations and expansions created new lodges, a winterized program center, new program areas including a sports court and nature pavilion, and an amazing refurbishment and addition to our 1938 Darrah-Hultquist Dining Hall. Much of this work was planned by Sr. Property Manager Rick DelCalzo, Director Jon O'Brian, and the Camp Board in consultation with the architectural firm of Habiterra Associates. Most of the construction was performed by Tom Appelbe Builders of Mayville, his crew, and subcontractors.

In addition to creating a premier, year-round facility, Camp's development will also preserve a beautiful, wooded natural asset on Chautauqua Lake, and an historical landmark for the region. From 1997 - 2005, Onyahsa acquired over 200 wooded acres to preserve the natural beauty of the area. In 2002-2003, year-round programming began to serve the youth and families of our community.

Onyahsa, one of the very oldest and proudest YMCA resident camps in North America seeks to continue its program and facility development and protection to become a premier children's' summer camp for the people of our region. It strives to be the pride of its community, a community whose youth and families deserve the positive growth experiences that can be offered through a quality resident camp. A renewed Camp Onyahsa will provide participants with a safe, appropriate, caring physical environment and a program led by committed staff members who conduct healthy, educational, meaningful, and values-based programs.

The full implementation of Onyahsa's Master Development Plan, though a successful Centennial Campaign will enable Onyahsa to continue to fulfill its crucial mission into the next century: To foster the Spiritual, Mental, and Physical well being of Camp Participants of diverse backgrounds and abilities within a nurturing outdoor environment, while creating a meaningful sense of Community among them.

Camp Onyahsa has had an immeasurable impact upon countless individuals in its century of service to the community. Today the torch of responsibility has been passed to a new generation of leaders and visionaries. The challenges posed by our modern society are no less daunting than those faced by our predecessors one hundred years ago. We must have their same conviction to meet the present and future needs of our community. It is now our responsibility, as its stewards, to take up the mantle of leadership, to renew their vision, to perpetuate their values, and to revive the proud heritage they created, for the youth and families of our community and beyond by revitalizing YMCA Camp Onyahsa for the next century. We welcome your support.