James E. Van Peursem founded the Stephen Collins Foster Music Camp in the midst of the Depression in 1936. Balding, mustachioed, and wiry, "Mr. Van" (as contemporaries called him) exuded an impish charm when he smiled or a pugnacious will when the occasion demanded. And nothing demanded in Mr. Van's opinion more pugnacity than to find in 1936 a solution to the problems he faced as chairman of the Department of Music at the small and unpretentious Eastern Kentucky State Teacher's College in Richmond, Kentucky. As chair of the music area, Mr. Van was constantly faced with the reality that the music programs in the public schools of the Commonwealth were sparse and often did not produce the trained young musicians needed to develop a strong program at the college level. As a result, Mr. Van founded the Stephen Collins Foster Music Camp following the concepts promulgated a year earlier with the founding of the famous Interlochen Music Camp. The concept was simple: Teenage musicians would be invited to campus where college faculty could instruct them with lessons and provide them with performance experiences in band and orchestra; the campers would return to their homes and help improve the local school program; high schools would graduate better musicians who, in turn, would enter college and thus improve that program; the college would graduate higher caliber music educators who would secure positions in county schools, and onward and upward the ascending spiral would go!
Thus, in the summer of 1936 the camp opened for the first season with Henri Schnabl, a former member of Kaiser Wilhelm's personal band as camp director. With Prussian rigor, Schnabl handled the 100 or so energetic and active teenagers during a five-week summer camping period. Mr. Schnabl continued as camp director until 1940 when Mr. Van took personal charge of the camp. Experiences in the early days included concert band, orchestra, small ensemble and private lesson opportunities as well as social activities such as a 30 minute, early morning period of marching. Violinists and other string players who had signed up for orchestra were not exempt from this stimulating early morning activity! Mr. Van served as Camp Director from 1940-1963 followed by Nick Koenigstein, 1964-1967, Dr. Robert Hartwell from 1968-1999, Dr. Joseph Allison from 2000-2007, and Benjamin Walker 2008-present.
One of the factors which permeates the Stephen Collins Foster Music Camp is the number of students returning year after year to attend the camp. It is not unusual for students to enter the camp as a sixth grader to attend the Middle School Instrumental Camp and to find that student attending the High School Instrumental Camp five or six years later! Certainly, one of the reasons campers return is because faculty and staff are picked for their patience in dealing with teenagers as well as for their proficiency in music.
Occasionally, this tradition of kindness and warmth has been augmented by the nonhuman realm. Between 1948 and 1964 every Foster camper was greeted by the wag of a tail or a watery lick from the music department's mascot, named appropriately, Mozart, whose grave is located immediately behind the outdoor pavilion used for many concerts and named after the founder of the camp, Mr. James E. Van Peursem.
The fact that even the local mascot (a dog named *Mozart!) carried the name of a famous composer highlights the longest and strongest tradition associated with Foster -- MUSIC! The original concept of the camps has been expanded and modernized to fit today's young musicians. But, the spirit and the purpose of the Stephen Collins Foster Music Camp remains the same outstanding musical experiences for the young musicians of the Commonwealth and surrounding states.