Camp Kern: The history of Ohio’s largest YMCA camp and summer nostalgia since 1910

For 114 years, kids from southwestern Ohio and beyond have attended Camp Kern for a chance to get away from home for a week and enjoy the outdoors.

What started as a three-day primitive camping trip for 28 boys has turned into a year-round facility in Oregonia for all to enjoy. As many as 2,000 campers in the summer months now do weeklong stays filled with traditional camp activities such as climbing, swimming, archery, canoeing, kayaking, riflery, sports, drama, team games like capture the flag and much more.

Summer camp is not the only thing that happens at Camp Kern. Thousands of visitors fill the facilities each year for corporate retreats and outdoor education programs.

Here’s a look at the camp’s modest beginnings and how it grew to be Ohio’s largest YMCA camp.

Camp Ozone

In 1909, Carl B. Kern arrived as Work Secretary at the Dayton YMCA. His dream was to take some of the boys out in nature and give them a chance to experience camping. The following summer, along with Christ F. Kunz of the Piqua YMCA, Kern took a group of 28 boys to Fort Ancient for a three-day camping trip.

It was up to the boys to name the site and, they came up with “Camp Ozone.”

The third year, in 1912, was a 12-day camping trip which, according to a Dayton Daily News article, included “swimming, baseball, canoeing, cross-country hikes, fishing and so forth.”

A wisdom contest for the boys was also part of the camp experience. In the contest, each boy was asked to “recite ten Bible verses, name ten different trees, name five different birds and make a satisfactory report on the topic ‘From youth to mankind.’”

In 1913, with plans to expand the camping opportunities, the Dayton YMCA purchased a 68-acre farm along the Little Miami River as a permanent home for “Camp Ozone.”

Tragedy struck in 1917 when Carl B. Kern was killed in a car accident at the age of 37. Camp Ozone was renamed Camp Kern in his memory.

Even without Kern, the camp continued to grow, with cabins and lodges being added over the next couple of decades.

Camp Kern expands

By the late 1930s the camp was running out of room and needed to expand. So the search began for a new home for Camp Kern.

Sites as far away as Michigan and Indiana were considered, but in the end, Camp Kern was able to acquire more adjacent land.

In the late 1940s an Olympic-size pool was constructed at the top of the hill and the main camp moved near the pool in the early 1950s.

A 50-foot observation tower, Pete’s Tower, was constructed in 1954.

The camp grew over the years and now consists of 485 acres.

Former Camp Kern director Jack Singerman said in a 1973 Dayton Daily News interview: “For many of the kids who come to Camp Kern, it is their first camping experience. Many are away from home for the first time. For some, it is a very frightening experience. ... All of the staff members at the camp try to remove the frightening aspect and make it a meaningful experience.”

Cross Keys Tavern

The camp is also the site of Warren County’s oldest standing building, the Cross Keys Tavern. Built in the 1700s, it sits on the old stagecoach trail that is now State Route 305.

A stone house that operated as the Cross Keys Tavern in the early 1800s came with property purchased for Camp Kern. It was once owned by Capt. Benjamin Rue and later owned by several farmers over the years.

In 1941, the property was purchased by YMCA Camp Kern and the house was restored during the the 1960s. Years later, in 1992, the Cross Keys Tavern building was restored again.

Today, the old tavern is used as the check-in site for the Ozone Zip-Line Adventures.


For horse lovers, Camp Kern offers week-long Horse Camp and equestrian programs for beginning through advanced riders.

In 1965, a ranch camp was established at Camp Kern that focused on equestrian activities.

Camp Kern now has around 60 horses, with three outdoor and one indoor riding arenas. Several horse trails also can be found on site.

Rapid growth and expansion

The late 1990s saw construction of the Brisben Family Center, and improvements to the John S. Moore building, turning the Old Pool Bathhouse into the Boda Welcome Center, new tennis courts and renovations to the main kitchen.

In the 2000s, the Singerman Lodge was renovated. Tango Tower and Schiewetz Assembly Hall were built, along with an indoor climbing space.

In 2007, Camp Kern purchased the Clark Farm, expanding its boundaries once again. A new wetland habitat was introduced in that area.

Ozone Zipline Adventures opened in 2009, becoming the YMCA’s first educational canopy tour in the country.

After 2010, Wilderness Pavilion and Yurt Village were added to Camp Kern.

Credit: Greg Lynch

Credit: Greg Lynch

About the Author