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Old West Lives on at Camp for Kids


Rawhide Ranch, a 40-acre spread sitting on the outskirts of Bonsall, looks like it came straight out of a spaghetti Western. There is a livery stable, a blacksmith's shop, a "hotel" that serves as an office, bunkhouses to sleep in and the "Last Chance Saloon," to eat in.

The summer camp for 7- to 16-year-olds advocates love of God and country and parents, not necessarily in that order. It is Knotts Berry Farm minus the amusement rides and the jelly.

Clarence Chown, the owner and head buckaroo at Rawhide, likes to think the buildings have personality.

"It's the appearance here that just grabs the kids," he said. "The buildings are just smiling at you, the place is pretty and green and it has the things it takes to feel homey."

Twenty-seven years ago, Chown had a vision to create a camp for kids that would teach them a practicality they couldn't find in a classroom and a balance between mind and body. He wanted to teach city kids how to care for animals, ride horses, give them a sense of purpose.

"I think the biggest thing we teach at Rawhide is self-accomplishment and creativity," Chown said. "One of the reasons you send a kid to camp is so he or she can learn how to hoe their own corn row."

Chown transformed the one-time abandoned hog ranch into what it is today: a summer camp with an 80% return of business every year, a quarter horse ranch, and a state accredited vocational college.

It's a natural for Chown, who has trained horses and worked with livestock since he was 12 years old. He lives on the ranch and is very active in the day-to-day business of the camp and college.

More than 100,000 kids have romped through Rawhide over the years. They come from as far away as Australia, Japan and Switzerland, and as close as Orange County.

They come from moneyed families as well as from families that can scarcely afford the $250 weekly camp fee.

"We have a lot of kids who come here who don't have a family to speak of," Chown said. "To an unreal number of kids, this place is their first home."

The summer program at Rawhide starts in June and runs 11 weeks. A child can come for a weekend, a week, or stay through the end of summer. The cost of a three-day weekend stay is $75.

The counselor-to-buckaroo ratio is about one to seven, Chown said. Many of the counselors are graduates of the Rawhide Vocational College, and have as much as two years of teacher training and farm and ranch management, he said.

"Sending a kid to Rawhide is like sending him to stay on Uncle Louie's ranch in Iowa or Texas," Chown said. "He or she has regular ranch chores like milking the cows or cleaning out the horse pen, and is made to feel like an important member of the family," he said.

Check-in is Sunday between 1 and 4:30 p.m. Parents are treated to a country-Western concert and parade, then sent on their way.

A camper's day starts at 7:15 a.m. like a blast out of a cannon and doesn't end until the lights are doused in the bunkhouses at 9 p.m. Crammed in between are the camp staples of swimming, archery, riflery, arts and crafts and daily horseback rides. Once a week, there is a deep-sea fishing expedition.

The key to a happy camper, free from any misty thoughts of mom or dad or the television back home, is a busy camper, said Chown. A child doesn't have time to get homesick at Rawhide.

One thing Chown insists on is no visits or phone calls from parents during a child's stay.

"We're trying to set these kids into a routine and get them started on a new life adventure," Chown said. "If you've got a kid who's never been away from home, and all of a sudden the mother calls and has the kid pulled out of class to find out how he is, it's monkeying with the routine.

"Some kids walk along dragging their feet the first couple days they get here, but, within three days, those kids have got fire in their boiler, and they're moving through here," Chown said.

"They've got a place to go, things to do. They're important. They're excited about their work."

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