Tom was born in Jersey Shore, PA, in 1938. In 1945 they moved to Baltimore, and in 1952 they moved to Carroll County. Tom shares about River Valley Ranch, based in Manchester, MD, and how the camp started.
SAM PIAZZA: This is Sam Piazza interviewing Mr. Tom Bissett on October 17th, 2009. Good morning, sir. How are you?
TOM BISSETT: Good morning. I’m fine, thank you, Sam.
SAM PIAZZA: Um, sir, where were you born?
TOM BISSETT: I was born in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania. That’d be about four hours due north of here.
SAM PIAZZA: And when were you born?
TOM BISSETT: On November 27, 1938.
SAM PIAZZA: Now, did you and your family move out of Pennsylvania at some point?
TOM BISSETT: Yes. Actually, my family moved first to Chicago. My father was in ministry there– pastoral ministry– and then he and my mother decided that they would like to go to the foreign missions field, and went to Chicago for training. And as it happened, that was during the Second World War. When they got all done their training, they couldn’t get their passports.
SAM PIAZZA: Oh, OK.
TOM BISSETT: So then they came to Baltimore, and that’s kind of how we got into this area.
SAM PIAZZA: Now, you– when did you move into Baltimore?
TOM BISSETT: 1945.
SAM PIAZZA: Now, did your– did your family move to Carroll County at some point?
TOM BISSETT: Yes. We moved in 1952.
SAM PIAZZA: And how long did you live in Carroll County?
TOM BISSETT: I lived there from ’52 to ’64, although parts of those years I was away at college. But basically, that was my home until I got married in ’64.
SAM PIAZZA: Now, other members of your family also lived in Carroll County?
TOM BISSETT: Yes. My entire family did. In fact, my mother– who died in ’06– was the last of our family members who lived on the ranch. So we don’t really actually have family members living there anymore. My son, who directs the ranch, is there every day, but he lives in Hunt Valley.
SAM PIAZZA: Now, now– did everyone basically move to Carroll County at the same time, or is it just a coincidence everyone eventually got to Carroll County?
TOM BISSETT: You mean everyone family members?
SAM PIAZZA: Uncle– your uncles.
TOM BISSETT: Oh, my uncle– my uncle Peter– of Peter and John– never actually lived there, moved there. He was there a number of summers with his family, but he– that was not his residence. He was a pastor of a church in Baltimore through this entire period.
SAM PIAZZA: How did it come about that River Valley Ranch came into existence?
TOM BISSETT: Well, actually, River Valley Ranch was a dream, I guess you would say, of my father principally, but my uncle as well, in a kind of, I would say, very insightful foresightful understanding of what was coming in the culture, that kids were going to really be struggling. And they both wanted to do something that would be attractive to kids.
And my father from Scotland– both from Scotland– my father always loved cowboys. And even when he was a pastor in Baltimore, he had a horse. We had a couple horses in a rented barn. And his vision and his passion was to start this Western ranch and have kids come to it. That was back in the days when the cowboys were big-time on TV– you know, Lone Ranger, and what have you– and he thought that would attract kids.
He understood as a pastor that church was kind of losing its attraction to young people, and I think he looked over the horizon and saw that there would have to be another slightly outside of the box way of reaching these kids. And the camp came out of that.
SAM PIAZZA: Now, we’re talking about the late 1940s when they start thinking about this?
TOM BISSETT: Uh, yeah. I would say seriously thinking about it in the late 1940s. I can remember going out to that barn where we had these horses. And after we had a great ride– there were a couple other friends who were horse lovers there– we’d sit around on the bales– actually kneel on the bales– and pray that God would open the way for a Western camp for kids. And lo and behold, it happened.
SAM PIAZZA: Were these horses, uh, bar– bar– in a barn in Carroll County?
TOM BISSETT: No. They– that was in Baltimore County. I actually don’t know what the connection was to Carroll County, other than that a real estate agent was looking for them, and found this farm in Carroll County, which is where we are now.
SAM PIAZZA: Because I was going to ask you– why Carroll County?
TOM BISSETT: Yeah, I think– I– I don’t know why they chose– I’m not even sure they chose it. I think they were just looking for something that was right for this camp that they visualized, envisioned. And when they saw the farm down in that beautiful valley and the river going through it, and– actually, there are several rivers that go through there. I think they just knew immediately that it was the place.
And so the owner, Mr. Reed– who was a very, very devout Catholic man, with his family there– actually agreed to hold the mortgage for a while to see if it would work out. And yeah. I think the deal was struck for $100.
SAM PIAZZA: For how many acres?
TOM BISSETT: For– I mean, that was $100 down.
SAM PIAZZA: OK.
TOM BISSETT: And there were 300 acres at that time. It was a farm– a slightly run-down farm.
SAM PIAZZA: At that point, though, Carroll County was in the middle of nowhere.
TOM BISSETT: Absolutely.
SAM PIAZZA: And– but your father and your uncle took the chance that they could build a successful camp there?
TOM BISSETT: They– they wanted to be away from the city. They wanted to get– they wanted a place for kids could come out of the city, and where they could start paying attention to what was going on there at the camp, and certainly being out there in God’s beautiful creation, and that having a part, an effect on this too. And then the ability to have riding trails, and raise, you know, some crops to feed the horses.
SAM PIAZZA: Now, this is actually in Manchester, or where they call Manchester now?
TOM BISSETT: Uh, it’s Manchester post office now. It used to be Millers’ post office, but it’s not really even in Millers’. It’s closer to Alesia. You know where that is?
SAM PIAZZA: Yes.
TOM BISSETT: It’s over the hill from Alesia, east– east over the hill from Alesia. So it’s now– man, I still have trouble writing Manchester for River Valley Ranch.
SAM PIAZZA: OK.
TOM BISSETT: Manchester’s where I went to high school. I know how far that is from the ranch. But it’s not in Manchester.
SAM PIAZZA: You say your– your uncle’s also a preacher?
TOM BISSETT: Yes.
SAM PIAZZA: So let me ask you– two– two preachers decide to do something they’ve never done before.
TOM BISSETT: Exactly.
SAM PIAZZA: To set up this cowboy ranch.
TOM BISSETT: Exactly.
SAM PIAZZA: Did they have any experience in doing that?
TOM BISSETT: They– they– um. Well, I think their church experience helped them understand how to do things with kids and how to do things with groups of people. But they never– they had never run a camp before. Believe me– they were as green as grass. And they– they just went out there. I guess you kind of have to understand them– men of real great passion to do this, as pioneer types are– and just believed that with God’s help, they could do it. It was very hard at first. Very hard, and came very close to going under.
SAM PIAZZA: But you were– you were a young teenager at the time?
TOM BISSETT: Yeah, I was about 14.
SAM PIAZZA: 14 at the time when they started– when it was actually up and running.
TOM BISSETT: When we actually moved there. The first summer, we– we did– in ’52, we only held some meetings in the big barn. I’ve got a lot of pictures. I don’t know if that’s of any value to you, but– we had Sunday meetings afternoon meetings in the big barn. And that they had a tradition of Sunday afternoon meetings.
We did that for a while at the camp, and I think that kinda– that kinda wore itself out pretty quickly, but they held the meetings in ’52. And then in ’53, they opened as a camp. So I mean, it was very rough, very rugged.
SAM PIAZZA: Let me understand this, because you said the farm was not in good shape when it was purchased by your uncle and father.
TOM BISSETT: It was– I would call it somewhat run-down. There was– there were a number of homes on the property and buildings. And they were– I’d say the home that the Reed family lived in, which was 18-something home, a mid-18’s triple-story home, actually, was in the best shape. And the other ones– I’m not saying they were run-down, but they certainly were not in, you know, prime condition.
SAM PIAZZA: Now, by 1953, the Reed family had moved off the premises?
TOM BISSETT: No, they were still there for that year. And then when we were able to get the loan for the– for buying the camp, mortgaging the camp, then they received the money then, and moved away.
SAM PIAZZA: That was in 1953?
TOM BISSETT: ’53.
SAM PIAZZA: So where–
TOM BISSETT: If memory serves, ’53.
SAM PIAZZA: Where did you– where did your family live?
TOM BISSETT: There was another home– as you enter the ranch now– the farm then– on the left, there was a big, well, it was a white home. And it was probably, well, it probably had four bedrooms in it. An old farmhouse, but nice.
And it was part of the– it was actually a little town called Roller there. And there was a little– there was the little store and actually a post office before we got there. And the road was dirt until– I mean, right up til a year or two before we came in. It’s gravel.
And so we moved into that home. That’s actually where I grew up at the– I lived all my years in that home. Curiously, there’s a woman in my church in Baltimore now who also lived in that home, went to school there, at that– there’s a little white building. That was a school on the property now. It was up the road a bit.
So it was– and then right across the street was a big flour mill, run by the gunpowder river. We had the, you know, the turbine. And that was all there when we got there. All that building was just full of all this old equipment. We had to clean that out.
SAM PIAZZA: Now, you said the funding came from a bank. Was that all the funding came from a bank, or was there– did the church try to raise money to do it also?
TOM BISSETT: No. We raised money as we went along. We tried to raise money all the time. Still trying. But in order to sign a contract and buy it, we had to have the money. We didn’t have it, so we borrowed the money from a bank, I think in either Manchester or Westminster. Or it may have been Baltimore. I’m not clear on that.
But we borrowed the money, and it was $35,000, which today is laughable. But back then, it was money. And so that allowed us to take possession of the property. And then of course, we were responsible for making those payments.
So we did– my father and uncle by this time had a radio program in Baltimore. And that radio program was really the primary source of income for that ranch, for that camping ministry, for many years.
Slowly the friends of the camp, the constituents, and then the camping fees– which never pay. That’s– I mean, camps are like colleges, I guess. The fees never pay. You have to have– you have to have a constituency that’s helping you. And so that combination allowed us to– survive is the only word for it. And of course, as you go along, you get a little stronger, a little wider base of support.
And I mean the camp has never, ever made money. It’s– we’re up to about 78% of what it costs us to operate, and the rest is made up by friends.
SAM PIAZZA: What was the name of the radio program?
TOM BISSETT: It was– it was Peter– it was simply– well, it started as “Peter, Paul, and John.” Paul– Paul left– received a call to a church at just about the time the camp got started. So it started as “Peter, Paul, and John,” three Baltimore pastors who were doing a radio program on the side.
Once again, very visionary– there was almost nobody else doing it anywhere. And then Peter– and then it became the “Peter and John” program, which it became quite well-known in the Christian community and church community. Even today, in a little older demographics, a lot of people know immediately what that is.
SAM PIAZZA: So the pastors’ names just happened to be names of disciples and the book of figures?
TOM BISSETT: Yes, that– yes, that was just amazing. When they did the audition for the program, they didn’t even have a name for it yet. They just went to FBR in Baltimore and auditioned to buy time.
And the– either the manager or program director, somebody, said, well, what are you going to call it? And they looked at each other, and he said, I have a name for you. How about “Peter, Paul, and John”? Well, that was just one step behind Peter, Paul, and Mary.
SAM PIAZZA: Yes.
TOM BISSETT: I mean, it was only 20 years ahead of its day. So that just stuck, man. That was– that was a winner. So they took that, and that became their corporate name. And they just had the program, called it “Peter and John”– first “Peter, Paul, and John,” then “Peter and John.” And that’s what it has been for these many years, know as, really.
SAM PIAZZA: And then that– the Peter and John Fellowship Incorporated actually owns the ranch?
TOM BISSETT: Peter and John Radio Fellowship is the corporate name for our entire ministry. We actually have a radio sta– actually two radio stations of our own now– WRBS AM and FM in Baltimore. And that was a little later after.
The ranch was the first in a series of sort of faith ventures, I guess you would call them, where they had in their corporate– original corporate documents that they wanted a camp for kids, a Christian bookstore, and a radio station. And all of that came to pass. We had the bookstore for, oh, 25 years. Sold it five or six years ago. And then the radio station came in at– in 1964. So that’s been in existence for many years as well.
SAM PIAZZA: Was the bookstore ever located on River Valley Ranch property?
TOM BISSETT: Ah, we had just a little one there, but the main bookstore was on Liberty Road.
SAM PIAZZA: In Randallstown?
TOM BISSETT: In Randallstown, in one of the strip malls there.
SAM PIAZZA: What was it called?
TOM BISSETT: Uh, Peter and John Trustworthy Bookstore.
SAM PIAZZA: Now, let’s go back to the origination of the camp. What was the mission, the original mission of the camp?
TOM BISSETT: That’s exactly the right word, Sam. It was a– it was a mission, a calling, and you’d have to appreciate how real that was, and how committed my father were to that sense of calling and mission. The mission was to reach kids– in that day, they thought of like seven to 17. They had a junior camp and a teen camp. And they thought in terms of mainly the summertime, when kids were out of school. But today it’s year-round.
And they– their determination was to take the gospel to the kids at a little different level, in a way that would be very attractive to them, that they wouldn’t have to crawl over a couple barriers to get to the message. And that really did resonate. Horses to this day are the key attraction at the camp. Kids and horses just– I mean, humans and horses just go together.
And so they had– we had a scraggly bunch of horses and a couple of guys that were half-decent riders– cowboys, if you will. It was very Western-themed then. I mean, my father would not allow you to go around that camp– especially in the summertime– without Western gear on. You came in the place with full hats and boots. Not quite so much today anymore, but the theme, the basic theme, is still there.
SAM PIAZZA: Now, was that innovative at the time to take a camp atmosphere– which back then was, I think, basically kids come there and just have fun– and incorporate into that also religious messages?
TOM BISSETT: Uh, it was new. This was the first Chris– Western-themed Christian camp in America. They’ve spread all over the world now. You can find ’em everywhere. So you can see that it by itself was innovative, but to add the message– there were other Christian camps then, up in– Percy Crawford, who was a real pioneer, up in Philly was their inspiration. And he had the Pinebrook camps up there. And so it was not entirely new or unheard of.
I’m sure– I’m sure there were church camps that did the same thing that are older than River Valley. But it was– the concept of putting up a Western camp in with the Gospel was very strange. There were a lot of church people who thought Peter and John had left the planet, you know, lost it or something.
And it took a little while to go away, but people quickly saw that this was really– this was the real thing. And the kids loved it, and they were going to it, and responding to it. So it didn’t take long to really become part of sort of the Christian community, largely of Baltimore and the surrounding counties, but once it got into Carroll County, that became a focus for them.
SAM PIAZZA: But let me just understand– at first, was it a day camp, or was it overnight camp?
TOM BISSETT: It was immediately an overnight camp. It never had day camping. Strangely enough, just last summer we initiated day camping um as part of what we do. But they had the concept of a camp where kids came for six weeks– six days– actually, it was seven to start. You came on a Sunday and you left on a Sunday. It’s a little different today.
But it was a residential camp. Parents came and left their kids there. And we had dorms, or bunkhouses, or facilities in this old mill. And we had platform tents, and we had some rooms in barns. I mean, it was very rough at the outset.
SAM PIAZZA: Was there a chapel there too at the time?
TOM BISSETT: The barn was the chapel at first. But by ’54 we had built what we call the Tabernacle, which is now called the OTM, the Old Town Meeting House. And that still exists today. That’s still at the center of the camp. We still use that for meetings, but for other things as well. And it’s been sort of remodeled a little bit.
SAM PIAZZA: At first, were both your father and your uncle trying to attract poor kids to the camp, and how– did they charge the kids at first to come to the camp?
TOM BISSETT: Actually, they did charge. From that day to this, we’ve always been underpriced, but that was a basic philosophy of ministry for my father and uncle, that they should not price this camp– they may not price this camp beyond what middle America kids and down could come.
There are high– there are high-end camps even today, high-end Christian camps, that these kids that come to River Valley Ranch couldn’t go to. They just simply can’t afford that. But they always wanted the camp to be affordable so that price wouldn’t be a barrier for kids coming and having a great week at camp, you know, enjoying that, and hearing the Gospel there.
SAM PIAZZA: Now, did you attend the camp, or did you work on the camp– work at the camp?
TOM BISSETT: I did– I did both and more. I worked– I mean, immediately when we got there, all of our family just went to work cleaning. And my mother– I mean, it was unbelievable. When I think about it, that old mill had dirt within a foot of the ceiling. I don’t know how it got in there, of the basement of it. We cleaned that all out and made that the dining room.
So we were all just working. I guess we felt we were part of the– part of the– vision of what was happening. And then I eventually got into working in the summertimes. Fairly shortly I began to work in the camp, everything from taking the tractor and wagon, and taking the garbage out, to eventually being a camp counsellor, and then a director of the junior camp. That was the last real activity I had there. And I was– I was– I had just been married at that point. So–
SAM PIAZZA: How long were you a director of the camp?
TOM BISSETT: I was only the director of the younger camp for about three years. Then they brought others in. I was working at the radio station at the time, so it was kind of double duty for me. But I couldn’t keep doing that.
So they have– they have– like today, they bring in counselors from colleges, and mostly Christian colleges, but they go into some of the other schools and find kids that are pretty committed Christians, and they come. But they find the right kids for camp, the directors of the camps. And then my son is the executive director of the camp, so he’s responsible for them.
SAM PIAZZA: But you touched on this a minute ago– but that first $35,000, that was not enough to hire contractors to come in–
TOM BISSETT: Oh, no.
SAM PIAZZA: And fix up the camp.
TOM BISSETT: Oh, no.
SAM PIAZZA: So how did you– how did you get this camp together and ready within that one year period?
TOM BISSETT: I don’t really know how we did that. But we had some volunteers, some church– some volunteers from both my father’s church and my uncle’s church that came those first couple of years. Um, some were just wonderful. To this day, they still come by and help out once in awhile, friends.
But we did all that ourselves. We went in the woods and cut the trees down and took ’em up to the sawmill up around the corner. Rolled ’em up on a wagon, got ’em sawed up. Old Dalton Schaeffer had a– Schaeffer Mill Road– had a sawmill up there, and just took the wood down there.
And I don’t know why all the buildings just didn’t fold up from green wood. But they are. We cut that wood. And the posts in the Tabernacle– Old Town Meeting House– you go in there, those came right out of our woods.
SAM PIAZZA: So you used that to build the building, not to generate income?
TOM BISSETT: No, we didn’t– we didn’t generate income from it. I mean, we had materials given to us. And you can come there today and look at elements of the main part of the teen camp– what’s it called now? Anyhow, it’s for the older kids and where most of the guests come– that front facade that’s very Western looking, you go along and I can show you chunks of windows and some of them that came in those first few years and are still there.
SAM PIAZZA: And you and your family helped build those buildings?
TOM BISSETT: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. We did. I mean, we had a couple of people who are handier than– my family was never real good with carpentry and that. They were always good at writing and speaking and evangelizing, but for some reason, the gene for carpentry isn’t real high in our family.
SAM PIAZZA: Now, did the mission change for the camp over the years, or has it stayed the same since 1952?
TOM BISSETT: Well, I like to tell people– that’s a very good question, Sam, because in anything, and especially in Christian ministry, as you make changes, people begin to get nervous and feel either left out or feel that something’s going wrong here, because they are not in the middle of what needs to be changed, and so forth.
And I can say without any sense of hesitation, personally, that our mission is unchanged, to present the Gospel to these kids. And our message is unchanged– we know what it is we’re saying. But the methodologies have changed. And today the camp is different in that sense.
In those days, it was a Western– it was– we offered one thing– a Western camp, horses, and then some activities that the kids did in the morning, or whenever it was. And then we had a swimming pool. But today, my son has moved the camp to what they call in the camping field decentralized camping, where you have skateboard camp, and you have outdoor camps, four or five different camps that attract their own little groups.
And also take part in what we call classic camp, the horse thing. They all get a piece of it, but there are kids that come there more for the skateboarding than– well, skateboarding and horses, but the skateboarding is a part of that appeal.
So that was done really because camping– if you will, camping has gone through a period when it’s slightly out of style. When you and I grew up, you went to camp in the summertime. That’s not true anymore. Kids do a dozen different things, from working to whatever.
So we’ve had to really work hard to recruit camping. You have your clientele for about two or three years, and then you need to have a continuous supply of new kids coming in. So it’s been, you know, really trying to be visionary about how to do that, and how to get kids in there, and how to get the camp, you know, full for purposes of operating, and full for purposes of ministry.
SAM PIAZZA: So although the world changed around you, your central mission stayed the same?
TOM BISSETT: It has stayed the same.
SAM PIAZZA: However, you had to adapt, for example, to the technology that kids use nowadays. That a part of what some of these mini-camps are as part of the larger camp?
TOM BISSETT: Yeah. Yeah. They’re all– they’re part of the camp. And there are probably some old timers who would say, what does skateboarding have to do with a ranch? Well, it is part of– it is part of what we’re doing. In their day, they would have gone out in the field and played softball after dinner. Today, kids are skateboarding in the morning instead of playing softball, or making little leather things in the shop, or whatever.
So it’s still– River Valley Ranch– the mission is unchanged, the message is unchanged, but the methods and methodologies are definitely changed. Stylistically, it’s changed.
I mean, the kids that came to camp in the ’50s were restrained in what they could and couldn’t wear, quite– I mean, they still are. We still have clothes dress codes, and everything. But in those days, I mean, we had just had dress– I mean, you had to dress up to go to church at night, including girls wearing skirts and dresses at a camp. And that was true of other camps back in that day.
But my son was the first to say, we’re just putting up barriers to these kids, telling ’em to put [INAUDIBLE] and the kids are wearing jeans to church. And that’s church almost anywhere. But that’s change in the culture, that if you don’t adapt to that, you are going to have a real struggle to exist.
SAM PIAZZA: That’s camp meant for only a one week experience, or do some of these kids come there for the entire summer?
TOM BISSETT: At the beginning, they came for two or three weeks. Or even a couple of kids just got parked there for the summer, which probably wasn’t the best thing, but a lot of those kids were profoundly affected by that positively. But most of the kids that come today stay for a week.
And in fact, there is a– I think there’s a state law, or is it a county law, where they can’t stay– they can only– they can’t stay over the weekend. They have to go home and break there. So we have kids that come for two weeks, but they’re not sequential. Or they can be, but you have to go and come. So we don’t have any of the long-term campers anymore in terms of here’s a check for four weeks. We’re going on vacation. Take care of our kids, you know.
SAM PIAZZA: Oh, so that makes it even harder for you to generate people coming and going through the camp.
TOM BISSETT: Yeah. Every– every week you have– have to have kids that you have recruited, if you will, encouraged, you know, invited to come to camp.
SAM PIAZZA: Is the camp, then, almost like a play? You have three acts to it– it’d be a first act, second act, a third act, and it leads to– that the beginning, you start teaching something. At the end, you finish the teaching of something.
TOM BISSETT: Yeah. I’m not sure that play is the right word, but there is a sequence to what they’re doing now, especially– and it was true then. It wasn’t quite as intentional then, but by the time you got toward the end of the week, you really had an understanding as a camper of what the Gospel was and what it called for, in terms of response to it.
And that could be a decision that was made early in the week or later in the week, but today they have a little more intentionality to the way they bring the kids to that point where they’re really going to start addressing what they have to– what the response– what response is asked for, invited for.
So they start with a fun night on the first night they come. They just have this big wild, crazy night in the gym. And I mean, it’s all under control, but the kids just– often you will hear the kids coming in, perhaps under duress from their parents or something, and you’ll hear the kids saying “This place is pretty cool.”
You know, on a first day, well, that’s exactly what you want. You want the kids feeling comfortable right away. Down the barriers come. The second day, things start getting a little more focused. And by the third day, they’re really talking to these kids. All along the counselors are working with them and connecting with them.
But by mid-week, by Wednesday, from this day on– it’s fine if kids want to get serious spiritually in the first few days. That’s fine with us. But by this day, we want something. We are purposeful about this. And then by the next couple of days, you want these kids to know what this is really about.
They do when they come, most of them, but sometimes you have kids that come there that are– ever see that TV program Cash Cab? They’re like– what is it? But we try to– I mean, the younger generation of leaders in camping today are very aware of what’s going on with kids. They’ve been trained. They understand.
I mean, in my father’s day, it was just like, we know what kids want. They want to have a good time and ride horses, you know? And then fundamentally, that was right. And you go back to those kids and they’ll say, yeah, I had a great time at camp.
But now, they– I mean, these kids come there, and their not allowed to bring their boom boxes. They’re not allowed to bring their cellphones or their radios. We just want them to let that go for a week, and here you are at the camp to have another kind of experience. But they know that these kids– they know where they are and how to address their needs and interests.
SAM PIAZZA: So do you think that kids in the last 50 years are still seeking the same things, but that the world has changed around them?
TOM BISSETT: Yep. I have no question about that. I think the essential longings of the human heart and mind are unchanged. They’ve been deeply influenced by television, in particular. Very pervasive influence on kids, and they’ve got the wrong idea about what life is.
But way down deep, you dig beneath all the problems that our kids are facing today via drugs or violence or whatever it is, you will find that longing for love, and that longing to be accepted. Even a longing for some boundaries to their life so they have somebody that’s trying to– they can look to how should I make this decision, or which way should I?
That down underneath it all, that’s there. And we know that is a fact. We know that’s what the Scriptures teaches us about human beings, that they’re all the same and created in the image of God.
And so I mean, they’re different now. They’re much more worldly– worldly wise. I mean, these kids that come now– it’s like, thinking back to the school in the ’50s. Back in those days, the problems were chewing gum and talking in class. And you name it, now it’s like the problems are getting shot and killed in school. I mean, that’s just– or drugs.
So I mean, everything just keeps moving like that. We understand that, but we’re not going cave to that. We think we can find what– you can touch the spot of the thing they want.
SAM PIAZZA: Does that make the mission harder now than it was in the ’50s?
TOM BISSETT: I think the world is more complex, and I think kids are certainly more mature at their age. They say 12 going on 17 as a joke, but it’s kind of more like that. And I’d say back in those days, you didn’t have to contend with as much anxiety, and you didn’t have as much intellectual doubt.
There was more consensus in the culture. We don’t have that consensus anymore. So we have to go by a lot of things before you can really start making the message connect with the kids. So yeah, it is– it is harder today. You have to know more about what you’re doing.
SAM PIAZZA: Let’s talk about how the camp physically has changed and the activities have changed since the ’50s. Now, you start with 300 acres, but today you have 500 acres?
TOM BISSETT: Right.
SAM PIAZZA: When did you purchase– or did you purchase in parcels?
TOM BISSETT: Parcels, yeah. We had– there were some adjoining farms, and along the way, farmers would become to us and actually ask if we were interested. And if only they knew how– and it’s amazing. There’s a little 12 and 15 and 20 acre farms with homes on ’em that have bought the ranch, and my father’s– my father’s perception was that the day would come that if we didn’t have enough property, we wouldn’t be able to use the horses, that people would just come and do that to us.
So he begged, borrowed– didn’t steal, but did all the other stuff– and just every time there was a place that we could get, we did. And back in that day, we bought the farm next to us think for $11,000. I know. And a few others, and it kind of wound up being that.
And the amazing thing– of course, we do farming, which is part of the ministry too. And the Bible is– Old and New Testaments are just full of analogies to the Earth and the growing of seeds and life coming up from the Earth. And we see that as– kids that come in as workers go out there in the fields and work and so on. So see what was your question?
SAM PIAZZA: Although that fact you physically have grown up from 300 to 500 acres, and you’re saying that’s because you wanted to have room for the horses to be able to roam?
TOM BISSETT: That was the principal motivator, to make sure that a day in the future when he was gone, when they were gone, there would be enough land to operate this camp. And now we’re using most of it in– we have Arrowhead Woods, which is a tee-pee Indian themed camp.
And we have the junior– the Fort Roller up on the hill now. And back in the woods where there was nothing but woods in that day, cook outs and camping out and all that, we don’t have to go off property to do all the things that we– all the activities that we do.
SAM PIAZZA: When did you to move from just a purely summer camp to a year-round facility?
TOM BISSETT: Uh, we started doing that a number of years ago. I would say even in the late ’60s we were having weekend retreats providing the facility for church groups. and we would just take whatever churches wanted to come. We’d provide the food, and they’d do their programs.
SAM PIAZZA: That was for adults, or for teenagers?
TOM BISSETT: That was for adults as well as teens, yeah. Youth groups. And I’d say in the last 10 years, we’ve become very progressive and aggressive in trying to fill the camp year-round.
I mean, it is a large facility, and you can do about as much with it as you’re able. And so we have just tried to utilize the place more– good stewardship, I guess we would call it– and create continuing growth and sources of revenue, which is something that’s always an issue for camps, and has been for us as well, so.
SAM PIAZZA: What type of activities do you do other than summer camp?
TOM BISSETT: Um, well, we provide– we provide activities for groups that come– that outdoor school. We have this– you have my blank mind at this moment, but the training program where a company would come and climb up walls, and work through things together.
SAM PIAZZA: Oh, it’s a way to have them work together and meet– and meet the same challenges and work as a group together.
TOM BISSETT: Yeah, and there’s a name for that. We also have these big zip lines. And that’s part of what these people come there for too. The people that come often find that they’re afraid of things, you know, and they’re afraid to try something new. Climbing up a tree and going across a wire up there, or climbing up this thing and getting on a zip line and going a couple of yards flying through the air. I haven’t done that yet. Don’t know if I can.
But I mean, all of these things have been incorporated into what we can do for groups. We can do it for your group if you come as a church. We can do it if you’re just coming for a day, or an overnight, or whatever. But the idea of course is to be there and serve people that have needs.
Everybody that comes there knows what it is. It’s a Christian camp. And they know what our parameters are in terms of what they may and may not do. Obviously, it’s not a party town. And so people know that. That’s upfront. And it’s never been a problem for us.
SAM PIAZZA: You have thematic things too, such as– well, I don’t know if it’s called Halloween or a fall fest of activities.
TOM BISSETT: Oh yeah. We have Maizefest, which was supposed to happen today. It’s rain-storming. We depend on Maizefest as a place where parents can bring their kids, and they just have a great time. But also we depend on the revenue that comes from Maizefest. The Lord saw fit to give us a little rain today, and we’ll say thank you.
SAM PIAZZA: You grow pumpkins on the ranch also?
TOM BISSETT: Ah, no. Actually, the pumpkins, if you can imagine, are given to us. And then they come, and we’re able to sell them for probably a little less than market value, but we try not to. And we’re not supposed to sell them at, you know, back-breaker prices for everybody else. We’re sort of in the same range, so.
SAM PIAZZA: Do you– do you also have something around the Christmas holidays there, especially?
TOM BISSETT: We do not. I mean, the place is decorated up a bit for Christmas, and we have Christmas parties for groups that come. We will have occasional wedding there, and so on. But the main off-season– I mean, coming for horseback or chuck wagon breakfast or dinner, horseback rides, that’s themed along the Western line. It is Western.
And these other things, they don’t really, I suppose, care if you come wearing a cowboy hat or not. Just get us up on the trees, or down the zip line. They even come to use the skateboard camp.
Kids come– we do have, I just remembered, we have a skating expo in the spring for kids. That’s a whole culture by itself. We’re trying to reach into that culture.
And they have Christian pros, professional skaters, that come, and they share their faith with these kids. They do all these wild and crazy– kids know them already from television. The first one we did had 500 kids came there, and then the second one we did had 700 kids, and we had to stop doing that, because we couldn’t even manage that.
SAM PIAZZA: You have– what do you have? One– I don’t know even the name for it– you have a skating park?
TOM BISSETT: Yeah, we have a skating park.
SAM PIAZZA: It’s like skating bowls, they’re called?
TOM BISSETT: Uh, skate– I don’t want they’re called, either. We have– we’ve actually three of them in the same area. The original one, and then there’s others with all the various– I don’t know what they’re called. But the kids in the summer use it.
And then church groups come and use it. Once we even had a little motocross thing in our rodeo arena. A church put it on. That was a now step too far. That was a little too dangerous for us, really.
SAM PIAZZA: So you never thought of actually holding like a skate– skating– skateboard competition, which is very big in this country now.
TOM BISSETT: Yeah, you mean for kids?
SAM PIAZZA: For kids, or for professionals to come out and do skateboard competitions.
TOM BISSETT: I don’t know if that conversation has been had. I’m sure the idea is floating around somewhere, but to this point we haven’t done it.
SAM PIAZZA: What would you say have been the successes of River Valley Ranch in the last 50 years, if you had to name the top three successes?
TOM BISSETT: Well, I think I’d put right at the top, obviously in concert with our mission there, that there’ve been a lot of changed lives. A lot of kids come there messed up and go away different, changed, by the message of the Gospel, and live their whole lives, and raise their families and their children and their grandchildren. And you can find them all over in Maryland now, the ripple effect of the camp. And I will call that probably our signature success.
SAM PIAZZA: Let me ask you this– did you have an experience with a young person back in the ’50s or ’60s, and 20 or 30 years later, you had the opportunity to meet up with that person again?
TOM BISSETT: Oh yeah. That happens all the time.
SAM PIAZZA: And you’ve seen that they’re living a good life?
TOM BISSETT: Absolutely. These people– I mean, not everybody, obviously. I don’t think you’re going to have everybody that comes to camp and makes a confession of faith in Christ that are going to be totally on message for the rest of their lives.
But I can tell you that most of these kids are missionaries, and there are pastors out there and Christian families and individuals whose lives were profoundly changed at the camp and have gone away and carried that– come back, you know– and then finally they’re gone from us. And some of them haven’t been around for years.
But every Saturday, we are open to the– not every Saturday. Now it’s every other Saturday– we have these rodeos. And I’m just bumping into people, you know, from years ago, and there they are. They’re still walking the walk and talking the talk.
SAM PIAZZA: Any other– any other successes that you can think about?
TOM BISSETT: Uh, I would say– I would say probably the success that the camp has become really become a part of Carroll County, accepted by all the neighbors. And at first, they were a little doubtful about what we were trying to do there, and expressed that too. And now our neighbors are our friends.
And the county– we are part of that problem, because my father and uncle had a mildly adversarial relationship with the world. They were separate from the world. That was their deep understanding. And so we did spend some years kind of staying back from Carroll– I mean, we did all the things the county wanted. We always had good relationships with the inspectors, and what have you.
But now we really– in fact, this interview grew out of the fact that we are now involved in something else that my daughter got connected with. So we are not only happy to be part of the county. We show up in– we show up in state, as well I think county publications, as a place to visit. And we’ve become really a part of the county. And I’m very happy about that.
I’m happy to move past the idea that somehow the county might try to restrict us doing our ministry. And that was always the deep fear. It was never– I mean, when they were free food programs, my father said, OK, but we have to be careful, because they’ll have us doing their program. And sure enough, in the first summer, that was a state– that was a federal thing– in the middle of the summer, we were required to fill out these things. And at that point, my father just pulled the plug on that.
So I mean, you could see that as one reason why we were standoffish a bit. But we’re past that. I’m happy about that, and happy to be part of the county in a sense that there are people here still don’t know about River Valley Ranch in Westminster or parts of the county.
SAM PIAZZA: So that was one of your challenges too, the challenge to try to incorporate your mission into the governmental requirements.
TOM BISSETT: Yeah. We had to do that. But we have felt that we have been hard to get to know by the county. And they’ve told us that eventually, as we became friends. And friends of ours who were in the county system said people have got the wrong idea about what you’re doing. So I’m just happy that that’s something that’s passed now. And so I’d consider that a success, an achievement, that I’m very pleased about.
And I guess just to have a beautiful facility there that we can use to accomplish our mission. I mean, Sam, that is a gorgeous place. I love that place, and the land. And what’s been done with it is beautiful. We take care of the grounds, and people come there. And it’s this beautiful place where they can come with their families and have a picnic.
And you know, and so to me, that’s the package right there, if you want one, two, three. I guess there are others, but I would say those are the three ones that I’d be most pleased about.
SAM PIAZZA: Of course, you’ve had some challenges too, especially recently with a major flood you had this summer?
TOM BISSETT: Yeah, we’ve had a couple of floods. We had Agnes. Agnes really hurt the ranch more than this flood did, because the dam broke at Agnes, and all that back-up water came rushing through.
SAM PIAZZA: That was in ’72?
TOM BISSETT: ’72. This flood was actually more severe. In fact, the county– who are now our friends– from resource management came out to look around and talk with us, I guess hold our hand or something. But we welcomed them to come, and they told us that this was a thousand year flood. And we were like, oh boy, no more floods.
And it doesn’t work like that. You could be at the end of the first thousand years and at the beginning of the second thousand years. So it was kind of like cautious encouragement for valley dwellers, or something, from the county.
But it was a massive– it had a silver lining. That was all the volunteers, and all the people today– today there are people there working in this weather. And we’ve had– I mean, in that first week, we just had hundreds of people come and clean it up. So much so that one week after the flood, it was clean. The buildings were clean, clean enough to hold our first retreat.
In Agnes, we didn’t have the internet. We didn’t have all this network– social networking, and all the friends that we have now. And it was a wonderful and humbling thing to see all the people you’ve been trying to help suddenly back at ya, you know? They just rushed in there to help us and call us.
And friends from all over the country who saw this thing on YouTube and all these other social networking sites and our own website were just deeply moved and have sent support for us. It’s just been truly the silver lining behind the clouds.
SAM PIAZZA: Did the flood destroy any buildings, or it was just so much debris got pushed into the camp?
TOM BISSETT: Yeah. It was debris was everywhere. I mean, everything that stood up that didn’t get knocked down had debris, you know, this high. And then we lost a home completely, and we lost the building, the storage building that went with the home.
The county, bless their hearts, have come to say that they would try to help us speed up the permits program, and that we could just go up the hill and build its replacement up on this hill. Right where it was, but not down in the floodplain. The whole valley is actually a flood plain.
And then, you know, it got in all the buildings– not all, but many of the buildings– and up comes the carpet. And you know, the water– if the wood in these buildings is ruined– that flood, they have the graph of that flood.
We have these devices in the river– we’re cooperating with the county on that– they’re testing the river quality, water quality. And that also shows what the river does, when it does it. And you can see it. They gave us the graph where it’s going like this and all of the sudden it goes like this, and then for about five hours, it’s up here, and then it just goes straight down.
SAM PIAZZA: So that was within a 24 hour period?
TOM BISSETT: The reason it was a thousand year flood is because 15 inches of rain fell in 24 hours. Not right on the camp, but all around, all those feeder streams. And that was part of it. And all the ground was soaked. So this graph shows what we experienced.
We had people in the house that got ruined– just got out in time by phone call from somebody else seeing this come. And they– that river was over its banks by then. That’s three and one-half feet, and then it went up six more feet in an instant. So it was like nine to 10 feet of water that came through there.
So it was a mess. If you went there today, you would wonder what happened. It’s that fixed up already. So we’re very grateful for all of that.
SAM PIAZZA: Even with that, you have some fundraisers going on, including the Run for the Ranch at the end of this month?
TOM BISSETT: Yes. We have a friend of the ranch who– we already have a run every August after camp closes, and that has been very, very well received. And that’s in conjunction with well, official running organization. Can’t think of the name.
SAM PIAZZA: But 800 people.
TOM BISSETT: Yeah. We had 800 people this year. It’s just been doubling every year.
SAM PIAZZA: Is it a 5K, or is it a marathon?
TOM BISSETT: It started out as a 3K and a 5K. Last year it was a 3– there was a 3k– there was a 5K, or what was it? A 5 and a 10. Or maybe there was a short run for the kids. And the guys come, run all over the hills, you know. Crazy.
But and then this person called up and said, I want to organize a run for the ranch. All proceeds will go to the relief fund, flood relief fund. So we don’t have insurance for the– I mean, the flood insurance, you might as well try to save your money and hope for a thousand years, you know. We looked at it again, and–
SAM PIAZZA: It’s very expensive for flood plains.
TOM BISSETT: Yes. It was beyond us. I mean, we might be able to squeak it out now, but you could– we’ve probably got $180,000 to $200,000 losses there, in repair and refurbish and rebuild. But we have received to this date about $120,000 from people just giving. I mean, we haven’t done any more and say, we need your help with the relief fund.
And that shows all the friends turning around and saying, you know, here you are. Thank you for everything. So yeah, it’s been– it’s been a wonderful experience. And we’ve got the run coming up. And people continue to give, so.
SAM PIAZZA: That’s October 31st?
TOM BISSETT: 31st, yeah.
SAM PIAZZA: Do you now draw mostly still from Carroll County residents and businesses, or is it expanded beyond that?
TOM BISSETT: Are you talking about the kids?
SAM PIAZZA: The camp– the camp altogether– the adults coming for businesses, with the kids for the camps?
TOM BISSETT: Um, actually, Carroll County is probably not the biggest source of campers and people. It’s more so now than ever. That’s part of what I was talking about earlier. And again, that’s partly our fault.
But we have received– most of our campers have come more in the suburbs of the city. And that’s where the population has been anyhow, but now all the Hartford and Carroll and Frederick and Baltimore and the city. These are our main sources of campers and supporters and friends. I mean, it’s mostly all of that.
SAM PIAZZA: How has Carroll County changed in the last 50 years, and do you think it’s a good thing, or a bad thing, or it’s a mix?
TOM BISSETT: Yeah, it’s probably a mix. I would say it has changed basically, because when we came to the camp in ’52, that was a really rural there. I mean, that was– you were out there. That road had just been paved wide enough for about a car and a half a year or two before we got there. Paved being paved, and it was gravel before that. In fact, till the last 10 years, it was gravel still farther on Grave Run Road.
Um, and there was very little traffic. Today, it’s just like everywhere out– everywhere else on the suburbs. The suburban areas are just– and to me, I think, sort of well, everybody would like to live out there in this beautiful place, you know. And as long as it doesn’t turn into a zoo, I think everybody’s certainly welcome to come.
And we try to help our neighbors. We try to do the things. We have work staff that comes in. We go out in the summertime with this and go do good deeds for people. Woman’s husband died, we get in there and clean her whole place up and mow everything down. That goes ongoing.
So I can’t argue with people wanting to move to Carroll County. If they want to come, it’s beautiful, and why wouldn’t you want to live there? So I guess I would say it is a mix. I don’t like all that traffic going through the middle of camp. That’s scared– has scared us for years. And I mean, thank God nobody’s ever been hit, no horse has ever been hit.
SAM PIAZZA: So it’s a public road going through the camp?
TOM BISSETT: It’s a public road, yeah. And we have strict rules about people not walking on the road. But when our friends come on Saturdays, you can’t keep ’em off the road, you know. They think it belongs to the camp. They walk on it.
So I feel for the county there, because our neighbors scream, get these people off the road. I can’t drive through here. We do our best, believe me. We have posted people to keep the kids off and visitors off. But we’re OK with a suburban Carroll County. Hope it doesn’t get too more suburban, but it’s fine.
SAM PIAZZA: Well, sir, well, thank you for your time today, and thank you for coming in and spending some time with us.
TOM BISSETT: Thanks, Sam. I appreciate it.