A story of one man’s calling to ministry and a town’s enthusiastic response

By David Lewis

Fruitland, WA – In early summer of 1943, a young boy named Dale Carpenter was riding with his father Vernon to the general store in nearby Fruitland, Washington. He saw a large tent being erected by the side of the road and became very excited as he envisioned a circus coming to the area just down the road from his family ranch. He imagined seeing exotic animals, daredevil high wire acts, clowns and more. Much to his disappointment, he learned that the tent would be used for a large Christian revival. Little did he know that the tent would be the beginning of the Fruitland Bible Camp — a place that would impact thousands of lives for the better. The Carpenter family had no religious background at the time. 

Dale’s sister, Kaye, walked two miles every day to that tent for their first VBS (Vacation Bible School) and accepted the Lord by the end of week two. Then, by the end of that first revival in 1943, her Mom, Dad, and brother had all accepted Jesus as their savior.

Three years earlier, in the 1940s, Edwin J. Torgerson and his wife Mary were living in Deer Park, Washington. He was working at Deer Park lumber and living a comfortable life; his daughters were married and his son had joined the Navy. While living in Deer Park and raising their family, they conducted religious services for three years at the Enterprise Grange Hall in Enterprise, Washington, a few miles south of Fruitland. A good number of people attended those services. The Torgersons became familiar with the area and knew many of the farmers and ranchers. Then, in 1942, Edwin told his wife it was time he quit resisting the call of the Lord on his life to go into full-time ministry. He quit his job at the lumber yard, sold their home and set out on his new calling.

The Torgersons traveled around that year and assisted in several ministries throughout the Inland Northwest. When he stopped at a garage for some repairs on the car, he noticed a sign on the building that read: “We can repair anything but a broken heart.” He knew right then that he was going to have a ministry that would mend broken hearts. In the spring of 1943, they conducted a Bible school in Ford, Washington with about 60 in attendance. Then they traveled to Wellpinit and conducted another Bible school at a Presbyterian church with a revival meeting every evening during the camp. People would come and set up their tents and stay on the grounds; many stayed the entire two weeks.

Torgerson then decided to start a vacation Bible school in Fruitland similar to the ones in Ford and Wellpinit. They were led to purchase a one and a half acre parcel of land in the middle of nowhere. He obtained a tent from the regional office of the Assembly of God. People brought their children from all over the area. They traveled by foot, horseback, bicycle, motorcycle, car and camper to attend this new event in the area. The Torgersons procured benches, song books and a piano from a Kettle Falls church. They operated out of a travel trailer, which was their living quarters, and folks from Wellpinit put up their tents and assisted with the camp. 

As the Bible school was coming to a close, Edwin felt led to start a revival meeting. Everything was already in place, and the large tent was right off the highway.

Signs were made and placed throughout the area. Many came out of curiosity to see what was going on. From the very first night, the tent was filled to capacity. Many attendees gave their hearts to the Lord during that two-week revival. Near the end of the last night, community members were concerned that the Torgersons would leave the area and the community of believers would be left with no church. But the Lord had other ideas. 

Following an earlier vision, Edwin announced in a meeting that they were going to build a church at that location. He said, “Their faces were brightened and they just lit up. Brother Carpenter walked right up to me and handed me $10 and said, “That is for the building fund.” The community members attending were excited to be building the church they had been praying for. Construction began almost immediately. History was in the making.

In 1943, the world was embroiled in WWII, and no lumber was available for things like building churches. How was a permanent church ever going to be built? A member of the congregation heard that the government was taking bids for some buildings at old Fort Spokane. There was $55 in the building fund at the time. A group of men went and looked at the buildings available and picked out Number 6 – one of the officers quarters. They sent in their bid of $55, and to their astonishment, it was accepted. A work party carefully deconstructed the building (the lumber was A-1). Bertha Brisbois from the Spokane Tribe of Indians paid for all the costs associated with moving the building to the land in Fruitland. Many tribal members were very involved in the overall development of the camp over the years.

A basement was dug and the church was re-assembled. Services were held in the large tent until November, and a Christmas program was held in the building’s basement in December 1943. All services were held in the basement until the new church building was finished in early 1944. The first service in the church building was a funeral for a beloved Sunday School teacher, Sister Brishean.

With the church complete, Torgerson was going to move on and let someone else take it over, or so he thought. Again divine intervention disrupted his plans. He heard a word from the Lord that said “Now get to work.” He thought to himself, “I have been doing nothing but work for the past year.” But he heard the Lord prompt him to build a campground.

His immediate thoughts were: “Here? A campground?” There was no lake, no river, no attraction of any kind. Just a bunch of pine trees in a quiet secluded piece of land in southwest Stevens County, Washington. But Edwin heard the Lord say, “I will be the attraction.”

The first planned camp meeting was in June 1944. Torgerson never went into debt to build the camp. Unless there were firm commitments for money, labor, equipment and other necessities that a particular project needed, it would not go forward. By spring of 1945, necessary facilities were nearing completion. A large tent was used for services and over 500 people attended that year. Pledges for food supplied 60 to 70 percent of the food required for such a large gathering. One such pledge was made by 14-year-old Jon Lathem who pledged his steer! When he told his folks, they were not very happy about it. That steer would be the income for his own winter clothing. His father said that he could give half of it. Well, that steer grew and grew until it was larger than all the others in the herd. When the half was sold it netted slightly more than the other whole steers. Nothing is impossible for God, thought Torgerson.

In 1953, Torgerson sold the camp to the Fruitland Camp Meeting Association and the camp continued to improve under new owners.

The camp has had challenges. During the winter of 1964, a combination of very heavy snow and ice storms collapsed the tabernacle. It was built like a Quonset hut, but the heavy snow did not slide off. On April 5, 1972, a very powerful brief wind storm tore through the camp. Forty trees were blown down and 15 on the tabernacle, but by a miracle, not one cabin was damaged or destroyed. However the tabernacle roof collapsed under the weight of the trees. So the Tabernacle was rebuilt a second time.

The first forty years saw positive growth and some heartaches. The tabernacle replaced the big tent. Many new restrooms were upgraded or rebuilt. The kitchens were upgraded and improved to accommodate the hundreds of camp attendees. Dormitories and cabins were constructed. Camping spots for tents and RVs became available. And hundreds continued to be baptized in the nearby Columbia river.

As years passed, many continued attending the camp as it was a must for summer adventure plans. The camp grew in land size and facilities and became more modern. It was a destination for many to return to the solace and resting time, and to draw close to the main attraction, “quality time with God.”

Author note: All events and dates depicted here were taken from over 150 letters submitted by people who shared their special memories in the 40th anniversary edition of the Fruitland Camp Meeting Association “Celebrating Forty Years of Progress.” It was produced by Trudy Hansen, secretary in 1983.

All pictures courtesy of Fruitland Bible Camp.