The Not So Happy Campers

For more than seventy years, Camp Mystic has been a sparkling oasis in the Hill Country for Texas girls to escape the heat and learn archery, kayaking, etiquette, and sisterhood. But rising land values, old rivalries, and lawsuits have now hurled the camp’s owners into a four-year, multimillion-dollar family feud that is viciously pitting siblings, cousins, and even former campers against one another. What will become of this fairy-tale summer paradise?

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include three corrections: (1) George and Philip Stacy did not sue Dick and Tweety Eastland in January 2007, as previously reported. (2) Stacy Eastland and Nancy Leaton did not get any additional interest in other Eastland properties to compensate for Dick’s getting more of Camp Mystic, as originally stated. (3) Stacy alerted the IRS to the family’s potential problems with the Bass deal in October 2009, not November 2006.

There is a point on the long drive to Hunt from Dallas or Houston or even San Antonio where the cities and suburbs fall away, and the limestone hills dotted with cedar and mountain laurel reveal the emerald-­green Guadalupe River. Pass through Kerr­ville, turn south on Texas Highway 39, and follow the river until you see, on your left, the iron gate with the initials “ CM,” the entrance to Camp Mystic. Here, on about 725 acres, the sky is an almost blinding blue, flecked with red-tailed hawks; herons nestle in the cypress trees by the water. Atop Sky High, one of the camp’s highest points, you can see for miles and miles while your horse nibbles the grass. The river on scalding afternoons is warm on top and a cool plunge below. At night it’s chilly enough to need a blanket and bright enough to read by moonlight, and a girl lying in her bunk in Hangover Cabin might see, written on the ceiling above her, the name of her mother or aunt or grandmother.

Ask almost any woman who has attended Camp Mystic for her memories of summer, and she will respond with, well, mystical joy. For those whose recollections of camp involve bullying and blood-sucking insects, this may be a baffling sentiment. But for the generations of females, aged eight to seventeen, who have crowded the unair-conditioned cabins of the girls-only camp since 1939, Mystic is a haven. There is fried chicken every Sunday. The cabins have names like Wiggle Inn and Chatter Box. The word “Mystic” is emblazoned on Sky High with jury-rigged lightbulbs. The meanest thing someone can do is put Saran Wrap over the toilet seat. And there is always someone to listen, and to figure out what makes a particular girl tick: Even if she can’t shoot a bow and arrow or pull the team to victory in War Canoe, she might, at the end of session, be chosen Most Improved.

The camp has always served as a near-flawless training ground for archetypal Texas 
women. For the current fee of $4,375 for a thirty-day session, Mystic girls learn to shoot rifles, ride horses, catch bass, hike in the August sun without complaint, and face down a rattlesnake or two. In blistering tribe competitions—campers are divided into Kiowas and Tonkawas—they learn the value of teamwork. A long line of notable alumnae reveals the kind of girl that Mystic attracts: Mary Martin, who famously played a sprightly, tirelessly cheerful boy, was the first celebrity camper; she was followed by the daughters of governors Price Daniel, Dan Moody, and John Connally. LBJ’s daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters attended; James Baker sent a daughter and a granddaughter. Laura Bush worked as a counselor between terms at Southern Methodist University. Mystic girls say their camp days prepare them for the real world: They become executives for Neiman Marcus, dance with London’s Royal Ballet, own a Gymboree franchise in the former Soviet Union, or marry well and become the kind of intensely focused volunteers who would probably be happier as CEOs.

But most important, Mystic girls make friendships that last forever. Not only do they form a “Mystic mafia” that stretches all over the world, but they also help one another get into Kappa Kappa Gamma at the University of Texas, the Junior League, and, if need be, a clinical trial at MD Anderson. These bonds are forged in no small part by the history and ethos of the camp itself. The current incarnation of Mystic was founded on the eve of World War II by Agnes Stacy and has been owned by the same family for three generations. There’s a legacy of strong women: Campers remember how Agnes swam nearly a mile each morning in the Guadalupe; or how her successor, Inez Harrison, insisted that “the spirit of Camp Mystic is love”; or how Tweety Eastland, who has operated the camp with her husband, Dick, since the eighties, comforted them when they were homesick. And then there is a pervading sense of togetherness: Dick’s brother, Stacy, has helped guide the camp’s legal decisions over the years; his sister, Nancy, was once a counselor. Three of Dick and Tweety’s four sons now work at the camp, as do two daughters-in-law.

There are other, equal
ly famous camps in Tex
as, for boys as well as girls. Camp Waldemar, Camp Longhorn, and Camp Champions, to name a few, all welcome the seasonal migration of heat-addled city kids. But for those women most attached to ­Mystic—and there are a lot of them—theirs was a primeval oasis that offered the time, love, and space to find themselves. “I don’t care where my goddaughter goes to college, but I do care where she goes to camp,” Mystic alum Catherine Jones told me. The camp motto, “Be ye kind, one to another,” embodied its timeless values. Summer to summer, Mystic was always there, a simple, peaceful realm in a complicated and strife-ridden world. The same buildings, the same river, the same hills, and the same people running the show. You could count on it.

And then, suddenly, you couldn’t.

Anyone who visited the Kerr County courthouse this past winter and spring would have witnessed a trial characterized by anything but Mystic love. Upstairs, in a sun-washed courtroom, spectators chose their seats like guests at a wedding in which the groom’s family had cooties. On one side, the benches were nearly full to bursting, crammed mostly with well-turned-out middle-­aged women who whispered, clucked, gasped, or violently shook their heads, depending on the testimony. These

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