Waldheim Park still spiritual retreat 100 years later

ALLENTOWN (AP) — Early each morning, a herd of deer visited Barbara Daneker’s cabin, tucked away in secluded Waldheim Park in Salisbury Township.

“This eight-point buck was a heartthrob for me,” Daneker said. “He would come and stand among the doe.”

Her husband, Bob, who was seriously ill, couldn’t get up early enough to see the deer. Bob died in November before he had his chance. The day after he died, Barbara Daneker walked to her favorite spot in the park.

“I am praying and I open my eyes and there’s the eight-point buck,” Barbara Daneker said. “We sat there and looked at each and he slowly walked into the woods. All I could think was that God was telling me that Bob was OK. His pain and suffering was gone.”

Privately owned Waldheim Park, just yards off traffic-clogged Emmaus Avenue, has been a place for Christians to connect with God and enjoy the unplugged beauty of nature over the summer months for more than a century. Waldheim, in German, means “a home in the woods.” Its roots are connected to the early chautauqua movement, a popular Christian education movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Just a short walk into the open 50-acre park and it’s like you stepped into a different world, one that’s more like the Poconos, with a thick umbrella of woods, abundant wildlife and more than 80 charming cottages. At the center of it all is an open-air tabernacle for church services, talks and concerts.

That bubble of wooded beauty, away from city life, has drawn generations of people to worship, relax and gather as families and friends in a wholesome, nature-filled environment over the summer. Despite being open for the public to visit, it remains a bit of a mystery.

‘Vacation with a purpose’

Waldheim Park’s history began in the early evangelical camp meeting movement. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Christian denominations sought summer places to gather their small congregations together in larger meetings to share ideas, get inspired to share their messages of faith, enrich themselves spiritually — and escape the summer heat.

Seeking a permanent summer spot for longer camp meetings, the United Evangelical Church organized and incorporated Waldheim Park in 1904, with the park opening for its first season in 1905.

Prompted by an editorial in The Morning Call in 1912, Waldheim administrators were encouraged to establish a chautauqua, a form of programming that blended Christian education with entertainment such as lectures, musical concerts and plays, said Harold Scanlin, a retired Evangelical Congregational Church minister and informal keeper of park history. It was a national movement that started in the late 19th century at the Chautauqua Institution of western New York.

While the chautauqua movement mostly petered out by the ’30s, some throughout the country still keep the tradition going, including in Mount Gretna, Lebanon County, and Ocean Grove, N.J., just south of Asbury Park.

Scanlin said Waldheim established its first chautauqua in June 1913 and continued these programs every year through 1916.

Waldheim was billed as the perfect escape from nearby urban life. Even the fresh water was touted.

“Basically the idea was that it provided a spiritually oriented summer vacation place,” Scanlin said. “It was a vacation with a purpose. It gave you an opportunity to have a variety of activities including preaching and Bible study.”

A summer home in the woods

Each of the approximately 80 Waldheim Park cottages is unique. Most are cozy and small.

Take a stroll through Waldheim and you’ll find cottages that are brightly painted, with glorious gardens and patios, featuring comfy chairs to enjoy the view. One lime-green cottage has rainbow letters that read “God keeps his promises.”

Others are more traditional in appearance, with beige siding and white trim.

Many of the people who have cottages in Waldheim Park came as children themselves. One of those is Kathy Canfield, who grew up in the EC Church. She came to Waldheim with her family in the ’70s and ’80s, enjoying youth events and Sunday services.

“My uncle had a cottage, and we could go and hang out with my cousins,” Canfield said. “Summer was for hanging out and having fun.”

About 10 years ago, Canfield and her husband, Mike, bought a 480-square foot cottage of their own. It’s a charming place that the couple has restored, with wood floors and a view of a baseball field.

They rent a home in Emmaus for the rest of the year. Kathy spends most of the summer in the park while her husband commutes to his job in New Jersey. But she’s surrounded by family: Her brother, daughter and mother also own cottages.

Some, like Barbara Daneker, found love at Waldheim. She met her future husband at the park’s pavilion in 1957.

They felt a spark when they were introduced at age 18 during a camp meeting. They dated for three years and were married in 1960. After 50 years in ministry, Bob Daneker retired and the couple bought a Waldheim cottage in 2015.

Those who want to buy a cottage must apply and be interviewed by the Cottages Committee and either be a member of the EC Church or another Christian denomination. Buyers own the building, not the property. The land is leased on a yearly basis from the Waldheim Park Association, which maintains the park. Cottage owners also have to buy Waldheim Association stock and pay property and school taxes to Salisbury Township and Lehigh County.

Waldheim’s season is May 1 to Oct. 31, which is when the cottages can be occupied. Water for the park’s residents is turned off at the end of the season.

Most cottages are for summer use, but Waldheim does have about 15 year-round residents. Those cabins are winterized, with storm windows and better insulation, along with their own access to the park’s water.

Waldheim today

Most of the folks who own cottages stay for a week here or there or come on the weekends. Only 10 percent of those who own cottages stay for the full season, Scanlin estimates.

Fewer people attend Sunday services, too. Up to a thousand people would pack the open-air tabernacle for Sunday night services in the ’40s. Now the services draw about 100, Scanlin said.

So is a place like Waldheim still relevant?

“I think it does still have a place,” Scanlin said. “The programming has been changing, and has to change.”

The park’s civic association, led by Canfield, has been working to keep families coming back every summer. The park’s website shows a full list of events and activities to get people together, such as a Christmas in July dinner to potlucks and community breakfasts.

Concerts, which date back to Waldheim’s chautauqua roots, continue to be held in the tabernacle. The Allentown Band, the oldest civilian concert band in the United States, began performing at the park in the early 1900s. Its popular annual performance at Waldheim, open to the public, is scheduled for 7 p.m. Aug. 14. Visitors park at the entrance of Waldheim, and take a short walk to the tabernacle.

The tabernacle — rebuilt after it collapsed in a snowstorm in 1994 — offers programming through the summer. On Saturdays, the park has a Bible brunch in the mornings and a coffeehouse event at night, featuring Christian music. Sunday nights there are ministry programs, speakers on topics such as “evangelism and growth” and musical worship.

The public is welcome to explore and enjoy the surroundings, as well as buy a membership to use the pool.

The park is seeing new faces, too, like Clover Fasolka. She grew up two minutes away from the park, and her brothers would swim at the Waldheim pool. She and her husband, Joe, in 2014 bought a two-story cottage that’s about 850 square feet. The couple have been restoring it since.

“We saw an opportunity to pour ourselves into something,” she said.

The couple, who belong to Life Church in Macungie, look at their time at Waldheim as a way to take a step back from modern life. Their cottage is TV-free and just yards away from a covered playground area that’s perfect for their children, Abe, who is 4, and Juniper, 2.

“It’s just simple pleasures here,” Fasolka said. “It’s such a blessing to sit on our porch and let your mind and body relax.”

A stay-at-home mom, Fasolka and her family live in the cottage for the full season and live with her in-laws the rest of the year.

For Fasolka, the park provides her with a perfect family environment.

“We are Christian, and the idea of having a community of believers around us is so important,” Fasolka said.

Waldheim residents realize that newcomers may wonder about the people who stay there.

“They knew Waldheim is here and they come back and walk their dogs through the park and they think this is a cult,” Daneker said. “We are just a group of people who believe in the basics of Christianity. I can trust the Lord with our lives. Nobody can challenge the faith that my family has, and I can honestly say it comes from Waldheim.”





Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press.