LIVE FREE USA 50TH ANNIVERSARY
Looking back and Looking Ahead, by James C. Jones, Founder and President
Most significant organizations are formally created with the involvement and support of financially stable, business and professional founders. Live Free USA evolved from a group of poor city kids who liked to go camping. We have established the year nineteen-sixty-eight as the formal start of Live Free USA because that’s about when we started practicing, advocating and educating for survival and self-reliance. The organization started as an NRA affiliated shooting sports club and expanded into other outdoor sports including rock climbing, caving, river rafting, primitive camping and archery. The potential for injuries and the need for first aid and safety training brought us to focus on survival related issues. Membership was primarily limited to the South-side of Chicago in the 1960’s and the draconian gun laws and vehement anti-gun sentiments (much greater than today) made operations as a “gun club’ unsustainable so we evolved into a “sports club” but continued to do shooting activities out of town. The political turbulence of the late 1960’s combined with the growing threats of the Cold War drew the organization into the broader aspects of emergency preparedness and self-reliance while we continued to conduct outdoor survival training as well. We also began to attract membership beyond the Chicago area. At this time we started publishing our survival newsletter. Originally titled “Directions” and mimeographed it became todays “American Survivor” a respected source of survival information for over 40-years.
In the late 1960’s we started doing annual training programs at Tippecanoe River State Park in norther Indiana. The park offered cabins and a huge training area for a reasonable price. This event evolved it what became the annual “Camp Independence” survival education event. We first rented just one cabin, but by the late 1970’s we were renting the entire, 50 building facility including dining halls, shelters, an infirmary, showers and housing for hundreds of participants. We were able to conduct combination indoor and outdoor training programs, drills and scenarios that were beyond anything being done today by any survival organization. Camp Independence continued until 2015 when the Indiana Department of Resources elected to close the facilities. This was a major blow to our training programs, since no equivalent facilities existed. It is sad to note that the reason for closure was primarily that very few groups used it. The organizations that had previously held events and gatherings there have either disbanded or become less willing to cope without heat, AC and lights. To many folks Tippecanoe and Live Free were synonyms.
We really hoped to develop our own version of the facilities at Tippecanoe River State Park in the 1970’s. We started selling shares of our “land fund” and doing car washes to raise money to buy some land. Against all odds, we managed to get sufficient funds to purchase 20-acres of beautiful wooded property in Wisconsin. We set up a camp area, rifle range, and other facilities and eventually acquired an adjoining 20- acres. We called it “The American Survival Center” (I still have the sign), but a combination of events forced us to sell it off in the mid 80’s. One of the reasons that we do the paperwork to maintain our current not-for-profit, tax deductible status is the hope that we might receive a contribution, bequest or grant that would revive the dream of a true “American Survival Center.” Certainly there is a greater need than ever for such a facility with so many camp facilities closing.
The 1980’s brought Live Free USA into the national and even international spotlight. We noted that the media was suddenly interested in “survivalists” but had been attracted to extreme political and religious groups who may have been practicing survival skills, but were not (in our view) real survivalists. Having been at it for two decades, we were far ahead of others in actual practices. For several years we worked to promote the true philosophies and practices of survivalism. Media helicopters landed at Tippecanoe and at the American Survival Center. We did dozens of interviews for radio, TV and major publications. We even talked on the BBC and Dutch TV. I was privileged to speak at the American Society for Civil Defense on two occasions. Through this publicity we built up a national membership and even some international members. We still had to manage with our very limited number of overworked volunteers and no significant financial support, and this severely limited our ability to build on our success or expand our programs. The cover of the 1986 issue of American Survival Guide was dedicated to Live Free USA’s years of service. Live Free’s reputation, core group and missions were all established in the 1980’s, but the preparedness movement almost collapsed in the early 1990’s.
Although Live Free USA never considered nuclear war as the only or even primary survival and preparedness motivation, the public jumped to the conclusion that the fall of the Soviet Union was the beginning of the age of peace and security. All of the survival magazines soon ceased publication and all of the other survival organizations evaporated. Without magazines to advertise in we dwindled down to a small number of loyal national members and a hardcore group locally. We still held Camp Independence at Tippecanoe and got out our newsletter sporadically. In short, Live Free went into a survival mode of conserving resources and maintaining our local core membership. By the late 1990’s support for preparedness and survivalist began to revive as terrorism, economic instability, natural disaster, epidemics and other obvious challenges began to be recognized by the public. Variations of survivalist such as the “prepper” movement and the “homesteading” movement began to emerge. At the same time the internet provided a new avenue for Live Free to outreach, network, promote and organize. The dawn of the Twenty-First Century brought with it multiple natural and man-made disasters combined with a matrix of potential survival challenges that established preparedness and survival education as a major requirement for the public. Some new preparedness magazines were in publication, and preparedness expositions were being held throughout the country.
The early part of this century has seen Live Free reestablish itself as the leading organization for survival and preparedness. While members can join on-line through our website at AmericanSurvivor.org, we still provide hard-copy mailings to all those who prefer that method. Our American Survivor newsletter remains the only continuously published survival publication from the 1970’s and Live Free USA has been advertised in most national survival magazines in recent years. We have several active chapters and conduct multiple training events annually. Live Free USA and Live Free chapter groups have exhibited and presented at dozens of preparedness expositions. Unlike the 1980’s when Live Free was the major focus of media attention and the public actually joined and participated in organized groups, today the internet fragments and dilutes the public’s attention on any one group and the public tends to prefer virtual rather than real involvement. Hard-copy publications are often replaced by a video or blog. There are literally thousands of survival websites and hundreds of survival and preparedness (for profit) suppliers and trainers. This has made it difficult for Live Free to grow as it did in the 80’s, but we are an important part of the growing movement.
This organization started with a number of handicaps that most organizations don’t have.
- We started without any support or sponsorships at all and the members themselves could not afford much in the way of contributions until much later.
- We had no lawyers, accountant’s businessmen, or other professionals to help us build the organization. Most groups have a lot of pro-bono help. Most groups have members taking care of the website, tax documents and other issues, we do not.
- We have no sponsors or significant donations and have never received any kinds of grants.
- Telling folks that they need to prepare for some bad times is not necessarily popular. Unless there has been a recent disaster or serious scare event interest and support drops.
- Although we are classified as a “public charity” by the IRS we don’t get any of the support that a group like the Red Cross or Boy Scouts will receive. In fact we get less than $100.00 per year in contributions even though we conduct our education programs for free.
- Other than memberships and a few book sales we have no solid financial support system.
- When membership increases and/or activities multiply, the same few volunteers get overloaded and we are forced to reduce operations when we should be increasing them.
- We have no actual headquarters, office or training facility from which to efficiently expand operations and house a staff. Only a major grant or contribution will address this issue.
- We have a lot of training equipment and supplies and there are some bequests that may come to Live Free in the years to come, but the equipment may need to be disposed of if they are not going to be used, and the organization must still exist for the bequests to be made in the future.
When I retired from my day job a few years ago I determined to give a final push to get Live Free to a point of sustainable growth and solid operation. I traveled to many preparedness expositions, wrote for many magazines and put aside some personal priorities in favor of building Live Free. We have had some notable successes, but I am disappointed that we have not attracted more young leadership and outside financial support. Illnesses and age among our core members has begun to seriously degrade our operations. Developments in the next 12 to 24 months will determine the future of the organization. Live Free USA is the only tax-deductible, not-for-profit organization in the United States (maybe the world) dedicated to healing people prepare for survival situations and become more self-reliant. Certainly, there has never been a greater need for what we do, yet our existence is in jeopardy.
I welcome everyone’s suggestions and participation as we go forward. Please consider attending our 50th Annual Meeting on March 24th at 1:00 PM in Cabela’s Conference Center in Hammond IN.