Old Kia Kima youth camp near Hardy, Arkansas

History of Old Kia Kima

Through the years, the area surrounding Hardy, Arkansas in the foothills of the Ozarks, became a center of camping and outdoor activity as many Memphis families vacationed there to escape the oppressive summer heat in the city. It was a short four-hour train ride from Memphis.

In 1916, shortly after the Chickasaw Council of the Boy Scouts of America was organized in Memphis, Tennessee, Kia Kima was founded. The name chosen for the new camp was Kia Kima which could hardly have been more fitting. Kia Kima, in the Chickasaw Indian native language, means "Nest of the Eagles". The main campsite was situated on a bluff overlooking a pristine riverfront on the South Fork of the Spring River, a three-mile hike from Hardy.

As one of the first camps in the area, Kia Kima attracted other camps and was instrumental in the continued development of north central Arkansas.

Kia Kima operated as a Boy Scout camp through 1963 with a brief closure during World War II. Increased attendance at Kia Kima and continued development in the surrounding area put a strain on the camp. The Boy Scouts, in a land swap with the developer of Cherokee Village, relocated their summer camp some eight miles upstream and Kia Kima closed. The new Scout camp, with over 540 acres and two separate camps, is known as the Kia Kima Scout Reservation.

For more details about the early years of Kia Kima see Kia Kima at the Beginnings of Scouting in Memphis

Cherokee Village continued to be developed in the 1960's, 70's and 80's and became a popular retirement community as well as an exciting summer vacation destination. The original Kia Kima cabins and buildings were abandoned and the immediate property surrounding the buildings was soon surrounded by the advancing development of retirement and resort properties.

Weather and age took their toll on the wooden roof structures and support beams and by the early 1990's the cabin roofs were caved in and the remaining natural field stone base foundation mortar was beginning to deteriorate. The old camp property became an eyesore due to its use as a popular dumping site for trash and old appliances. Evidence of vandalism was apparent.

In the summer of 1993, four former camp staff members visited Kia Kima, thirty years after the camp had closed. It was the Spirit of Kia Kima that brought them back, drawing them like a magnet to rekindle the fond memories of another time and another place that still burned brightly in their hearts after so many years. It was forty years from when they were first at camp, yet they came back to remember when they were young men and shared the unique common bond of this camp on the South Fork River.

Yes, it was also an opportunity to renew friendships, but the real draw was to pay homage to the magic place that turned boys into men. It was a place that had taught the values of Integrity, Achievement, Responsibility and Courage with experiences that wrote in indelible ink on the fabric of their character -- just as had been the case for so many that came before and would come after them.

Listen to Perry Gaither's description of that fateful day when he returned to Kia Kima.

Two of the original four, David Fleming and Gordon "Scotty" Monteath, returned to the old camp again in 1994. This time they were joined by Roy Riddick, John Hurt and Lofton "Buddy" Keltner. All were appalled at the deterioration of the property and its misuse over the years. The camp lay in ruins. The roofs of the cabins and Thunderbird Lodge had succumbed to the ravages of time and neglect, having caved in long in the past. Tangles of trees and vines grew up from the decayed wood on the floors. Old refrigerators and discarded washing machines littered the grounds.

Cabins in 1993

Thunderbird Lodge in 1993

It was heartbreaking, but it was also inspiring because they saw clearly in their mind's eye exactly how the camp used to be - and how it could be once again! Haunted by what they saw that fall day in 1993 and the return trip in 1994, these five former staff members began recruiting other former staff members and laying out their dream and vision for a resurrected camp that could impart the experiences they had at this special place to today’s youth. In August 1996, Old Kia Kima Preservation Association was incorporated in Arkansas as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. However, OKKPA did not at that time own the property!

A watershed event occurred in 1998 with the purchase and donation by Boyce and George Billingsley of forty-three acres of land that had been the core of the old campground. With the land under the ownership of OKKPA, the dream of a restored and once again fully functioning Kia Kima easily spread from the original founders to "work parties" for cleaning up the grounds. From there the excitement spread to an active and vibrant Board of Directors and Restoration Committees that worked hard to make the dream come true. The dream grew stronger and was quickly taken up by the OKKPA membership who pitched in with donations, encouragement and moral support.

One of the first things needed to restore and reopen the camp was a bathhouse. A new bathhouse facility was built and restoration began on the 16 original native stone cabins flanking the Quadrangle in the spring of 1999. By the fall of 2000, the cabins were fully restored and work began on restoration of the Thunderbird Lodge. A group Cooking and Dining Pavilion was built in early 2001 along with a camp Office, walk-in cooler/freezer and a storage area built around the original old pump house.

Bathhouse with separate facilities
for men and women

16 Native Stone Cabins Fully Restored

Cooking and Dining Pavilion

These restoration efforts were quickly followed by a restored Camp Staff cabin, known as the "Rat's Nest". By the spring of 2002, restoration of the Thunderbird Lodge was nearing completion and a new covered bridge over Spirit Creek was taking shape to connect the Quadrangle with the majority of the property to the east.

"Rat's Nest" overlooking the South Fork River

"Ole '97" covered bridge over Spirit Creek

On May 17, 2002, Old Kia Kima was officially opened to camping for the first time in 39 years. Two Boy Scout Troops marched into history late on that Friday evening. Troop 190 from Southaven, Mississippi arrived first with Keith Keel in charge. They had 9 leaders and 11 Scouts occupying cabins 2-6. Troop 457 from Memphis, Tennessee arrived later with Steve Taylor in command with 7 leaders and 22 Scouts. They stayed in cabins 7-10 and 12-15.

On June 16, 2002, David Logan's Troop 55 from Nashville, Tennessee became the first Boy Scout Troop in 39 years to spend a week at Old Kia Kima, followed on August 4, 2002, by Steve Demster's Troop 187 from Clarkson, Michigan. Many additional Troops came to Old Kia Kima that first year while the restoration efforts continued on a new campfire area with natural "amphitheater" seating and a Totem Pole. A Pioneering Project "Barn" was built near the newly developed camp activity area on the east side of Spirit Creek.

The restored Thunderbird Lodge on
June 16, 2002 with David Logan's
Troop 55 from Nashville, TN

Campfire Circle

While the dream continued so the youth of today can experience the Spirit of Kia Kima, there was still much to be done. Camp needed a chapel to replace the Church in the Wildwood that had existed. A location was selected on the east side of Spirit Creek and the chapel was completed in 2005. The chapel is dedicated to Martha and Ralph Young, long associated with Kia Kima as Camp Director for many years dating back into the early 1950's.

Access to the Chapel was initially via a footbridge across Spirit Creek. However, the need for better access became apparent and in 2015 a new bridge was built so wheeled vehicles such as ATV's and our golf cart could have access to the chapel. The Spirit Creek bridge was completed that summer.

OKK Chapel

Spirit Creek Bridge

After Kia Kima closed in 1963, the dining hall was converted into a theater where the Cherokee Village Community Players put on various plays. In addition, a two-story metal structure was added to the west end of the building. The building was completely enclosed and several sections of the stone walls were knocked down. The Community Players ceased using the dining hall by the late 1980's and the building fell into disrepair.

When OKKPA obtained ownership of the core of old camp Kia Kima it did not include the property occupied by the dining hall and old trading post. When the Cherokee Village Community Players no longer used the old dining hall, this piece of property was given to the Cherokee Village Suburban Improvement District (SID) who could not sell it. In 2006, OKKPA was able to negotiate a land swap with the Cherokee Village SID trading ten acres just across the road for the five acres that included the dining hall, trading post and access to the Rat's Nest cabin.

With the approach of Kia Kima's 100th Anniversary, OKKPA set a goal of restoring the dining hall to its original footprint and converting it into an Activities Pavilion, providing a place for crafts, training or to just get out of the weather. Work began in 2015 with the construction of restroom facilities adjacent to the building and the dining hall itself. Construction on the Activities Pavilion was accomplished almost entirely by OKK volunteers!

Activities Pavilion

Inside the Activities Pavilion

With the completion of the Activities Pavilion there was one last project, the old trading post. Initially the plan was to restore the trading post. However, the structure was too far gone and had to be demolished. With Old Kia Kima growing and increasing utilization, there was a need for a maintenance and storage facility which was constructed on the site of the old trading post. Construction started in 2018 and was completed in 2019. Once again, the bulk of the project was done by OKK volunteers!

Maintenance and Storage Building

Today, members of the Old Kia Kima Preservation Association remain proud of what has been accomplished in such a short period of time. Working together with that old Kia Kima Spirit the OKKPA Board Members, Officers, Committee Members, donors and the membership at large have made the dream come true! Their vision and hard work ensure that as many of the Youth of Tomorrow as possible will have that special experience now known as Old Kia Kima.

View a Timeline of Old Kia Kima's history.

Old Kia Kima is not associated with the Boy Scouts of America or Chickasaw Council, BSA.
Old Kia Kima Preservation Association is responsible for Old Kia Kima and this website.