Mrs. Swift's Heaven on Earth

Mrs. Swift's Heaven on Earth

Mrs. Gustafvus Swift, wife of the famous Chicago meatpacking millionaire, had joined the outrage of the 1890s. Thousands of people were crowding into Chicago, resulting in enormous moral and physical poverty, unemployment, corruption, and environmental pollution.

One of the city's reformers, Reverend George W. Gray, believed that the lives of the poor children and young people could be transformed by experiencing the beauty and moral worth of God's landscape. The stillness of the woods, dunes, and lake at Saugatuck was to be the place.

Gray's project, called Forward Movement Park, remade 160 acres of lakeshore and woods into a village of cottages, tents, outdoor worship areas, hiking trails, and beaches - introducing the idea of a spiritual and communal life through "camping." By the summer of 1900 there were 500 young people playing and singing in the woods where once there had been only lumberjacks.

Reverend Gray found an ally in Mrs. Swift. She provided the funding for the Swift Villa -  a grand lodge with a dining hall and a hotel for 100 guests - complete with a lobby with "Michigan-made" bentwood chairs. It also had a soda lounge, called "Ye Tumble Inn" that offered souvenirs, chocolate sodas and the makings for marshmallow roasts.

The Villa was first opened for poor city kids who could pay only $2.50 per week for room and board. The boys were taught to organize a camp government, and girls were taught crafts. They were brought by their teachers and by church leaders - some came by steamship, some by train, and later, some by car. Within time, people by the thousands passed through Swift Villa and returned to the city having experienced friendships, spiritual growth, and amusements - and for some, a night or two at Saugatuck's Big Pavilion dance hall.

The story of Swift Villa ended with a fire in 1954, but the idea of merging outdoor pleasures and the understanding of God lives on.

Mrs. Swift's Heaven on Earth
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