Pastor Richard Wager felt the call to leave the youth pastorate and take the senior pastor position at a church in the Lawndale area of Chicago. He hesitated to leave because of the fruitful ministries he had started which included the founding of an inner-city school in Chicago, and a camp, Phantom Ranch, in southern Wisconsin. He, along with his wife, Joyce, and faithful secretary, Roberta Berggren, could not imagine leading a church without the ministry opportunities provided at a summer camp. In November 1967, Rich found a camp for sale, borrowed the down payment, and began the camping ministry called Silver Birch Ranch.
The land he found was an abandoned girls' camp ideally located on a nice lake and just minutes away from the raging white water activities available on the Wolf River. There was not only lake and river access, but the camp was nestled in the massive Nicolet National Forest, making future horse and ski trails affordable and available. Upon seeing this land and dreaming of what could come, he borrowed the down payment, and the rest is a testament to God’s grace and faithfulness.
The first summer camps, held in 1968, were quite rustic. Many cabins consisted of wood platforms with canvas roofs. Water was taken from the lake for showers, and indoor plumbing was a rarity. Rich not only involved his wife, family, and Roberta, but recruited his good friend and partner, Roy Tosch, to help build the new cabins.
In those early days, volunteers did all of the work, the dreams fueled the vision, and the expenses were far greater than the income. In that day, before strategic plans and mega-ministries, there were only hearts that hoped for a place where children would understand and respond to God’s love, and where leaders could be trained in service for our King.
Silver Birch Ranch operated as a summer camp (with some very rustic winter camping attempts) until the summer of 1981, when six former SBR workers quit their full-time jobs and started the year-round work. In those early years there were buildings to winterize, winter equipment to purchase, salaries to pay, and a dream of a camp that could serve the local church year-round by offering excellent teaching and retreats, conferences, and schooling.
Today Silver Birch Ranch’s home campus has expanded to 100 acres and has about 50 buildings. Water no longer comes from the lake but is supplied by several wells. The year-round retreats are as large as our summer programs. The dream of having a one-year college has been realized in the creation of Nicolet Bible Institute, and our youth and family camps are often filled to capacity.
Our President, Dave Wager, the son of Rich and Joyce, continues to lead the ministry with the same passion and certitudes of his father. The ministry, now decades old, continues fervently, driven “To Know Christ And To Make Him Known.”
We also continue to receive the benefits of our God-fearing founders. It is because of their lives and continued presence that we benefit daily from God’s blessing. By God’s hand, the past faithfulness of Rich and Joyce, and continued faithfulness of Berta, the ministry has become what it is today.
Now, we not only focus on our serving opportunities, but we also have our eyes on the future. Our current facility is being stretched to capacity. The old is being reborn and refurbished. We have plans for a new desperately needed Chapel, and a possible high ropes course, and a new NBI student center. We are continually updating our housing units, and God continues to provide faithful staff and resources for SBR. We would love the opportunity to be able to partner with and begin other camps - to spread our God-given focus, to train and disciple others in Christian camping, and to see our programs expand as God leads.
We are passionate about being the most effective tool in the ministry toolbox of the local church. The future is determined: It is our desire to grow and strengthen local churches by producing dedicated God-fearing believers through the evangelism and training of children, leaders, and families. God has done some incredible things here in the Northwoods of Wisconsin to change the lives and destiny of thousands. We invite you to come and dream with us about what can be done to help you grow your church. We invite you to come and join in on what God will accomplish.