In 1928 Robert E. Hicks purchased 185 acres of land overlooking Philips Inlet, where he built a summer home for his wife, Margaret, who named the compound Loch Lomond. Construction of the historic lodge and associated buildings was completed before the 1940s. In 1945 Avondale Textile Mills of Sylacauga, Alabama purchased Loch Lomond from the Hicks family, renamed the property Camp Helen, and for 39 years operated a resort destination for their vacationing employees. During that time, 12 duplex cottages and a recreation hall were built. These historic buildings still exist today.
The Rainbow Cottages, originally built by the Hicks Family during the 1930s, are best known for their use during the Avondale Mills years. Avondale Mills bought the Camp Helen property from Mrs. Hicks with the intention of creating a recreational area for their company employees. Avondale Mills began using the Rainbow Cottages and then added other cottages and duplexes for lodgings for their employees. The Rainbow Cottages were so named because they were painted a variety of rainbow colors, each one different. All were furnished simply and colorful handmade octagonal stones created the sidewalk in front of the cottages. Sitting on the bluff overlooking Lake Powell, the cottages were the most sought-after lodgings at Camp Helen, sleeping two to four people in each. The smallest cottage was basically a 291 square-foot studio; the largest cottage had two small bedrooms. The Rainbow Cottages were the only buildings on the property that retained their original purpose as guest houses welcoming the vacationing visitor. Employees at Avondale Mills¿ various locations throughout the Southeast waited anxiously each year for the lottery results announcing who had been picked to go to Camp Helen that year. Transportation was provided to Camp Helen and all recreational activities were free, including boating, water skiing and fishing trips for loads of family fun.
Robert and Margaret Hicks purchased the Camp Helen property in the 1930s. Mrs. Hicks called their home Loch Lomond. The lodge itself was started in 1931 and completed about a year later. Originally intending to make it their summer home, Mrs. Hicks made it her permanent home a year later when her husband died. She meant for it to be her private residence but the death of her husband accompanied, by the Great Depression forced her to accommodate paying guests on her property. She maintained the lodge as her private residence but employed a caretaker to manage the newly-built Rainbow Cottages for guests. Mrs. Hicks sold the property to Avondale Mills in 1945 and with the transfer of ownership also came the transfer of use. The lodge became a public space housing top-level Avondale Mills management personnel and others. Avondale Mills operated Camp Helen as a recreation area from 1945 through 1987. The Camp Helen story might have ended there were it not for persistent area residents who believed the space should become a state park. In 1996, their dream became a reality and today the Big House, as it is affectionately called now, welcomes visitors to Camp Helen State Park.
Rising above surrounding vegetation, the Camp Helen Water Tower has served as a landmark, both by sea and by land, for Camp Helen for more than 70 years. The Hicks family originally built the large water tower and accompanying pump house in the 1930s to provide additional water needed by guests at the Rainbow Cottages. The tower, standing 40 feet above the level of the pump house, housed a cistern tank capable of holding 1,000 gallons of water and ensuring adequate water pressure for all who needed it. Two large electric generators, located in the pump house, powered the well pump and produced electricity for the entire property. In the years since the tower was first erected, the tank has sported many new coats of paint. The entire structure was renovated and refurbished when the state of Florida purchased the property, preserving this icon for future generations.
The Hicks family built a gazebo on the edge of the bluff in front of their house in the 1930s, matching the design of the gazebo to that of the lodge. When Avondale Mills purchased the property, they removed the log-siding to create an open gazebo and made it the entrance to the steps leading to the boathouse and dock. Although the gazebo still stands, the boathouse, dock and staircase were destroyed by hurricanes in 1975 and 1995. Today remnants can be seen of the original pilings that supported the boathouse and the concrete staircase has been replaced with a new wooden one. The boathouse was the starting point for many a fun activity since Avondale Mills maintained a variety of boats for their guests. They offered activities such as fishing, sailing, motor boating and water skiing on Lake Powell, the coastal dune lake surrounding Camp Helen on two sides. The dock was also the departure point for many fishing trips in the Gulf of Mexico. Philips Inlet connects Lake Powell to the Gulf, allowing visitors to go directly from the lake to the Gulf when the inlet is open.
One of Camp Helen's other best known landmarks was the pier on the Gulf. Built by Avondale Mills for its guests, visitors enjoyed fishing for sharks from the pier as well as taking leisurely sunset strolls. Though badly ravaged by time, the historic pier still partially stands today as a reminder of another time in Florida's past. As you can see by this historic photo from a 1956 edition of the Avondale Sun, a company newspaper, the pier stood proud and ready to welcome the season's guests back to Camp Helen. It is said that people who visited Camp Helen came as strangers but left as friends. Though it is quieter now, Camp Helen State Park is proud to carry on the tradition today by welcoming scores of visitors to the park to fish, hike, bird watch and kayak, as well as learn about a little-known time and place in Florida's recreational history.