ORWIGSBURG, Pa. – Inside the log gymnasium that was this rustic training camp's centerpiece, in the small room where Muhammad Ali got rubdowns on an old yellow couch, dozens of messages, etched into pine walls like hieroglyphics, tell the story of the legendary boxer's tenure at this remote Schuylkill County hideaway.
Dismayed, for example, by a loss six months earlier to Leon Spinks and by what the scale had just revealed, the 36-year-old Ali carved his weight and frustration into the wood while training for the Sept. 15, 1978, rematch.
"8-8-78. At 227 ¾!"
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Other inscriptions, faded by time, are now being deciphered as part of a major restoration of the Deer Lake Training Camp, which Ali built and inhabited for much of the 1970s and to which, until Parkinson's disease made it impossible, he often returned.
The new owner of the six-acre property at the piney crest of Sculps Hill Road envisions the restored camp as a museum-educational center-corporate retreat-tourist attraction, a place where schoolchildren and others can learn about Ali, who in 21 explosive years as a professional fighter became the best-known person on the planet.
"We'd like to create something where future generations can get a feel for who this man was and what he did in the world of sports and society," said Mike Madden. "What else is there like this place? People go to hall of fames at Canton or Cooperstown or Springfield to see various things. But it's all right here. This is where it happened."
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Madden, 54, the son of longtime NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden, is an unlikely savior for the camp situated in the hills between Reading and Pottsville on the edge of the state's coal regions. Though he'd grown up with an Ali poster in his bedroom, the bald, beefy California real-estate investor had never heard of Deer Lake until the 2016 day his boyhood idol died.
"My dad was in the hospital recovering from hip surgery and I was visiting when I saw on the ESPN ticker that Muhammad Ali just passed away," Madden recalled in a phone conversation. "Driving home, I was listening to talk radio and all these guys were messing up his story. I lived through that history and I thought, 'If this is how history is written, it's horrible.' So I went home and Googled some stuff about Ali and one of the stories made a reference to Deer Lake. I couldn't get it out of my head. I had to see it."
Soon afterward, Madden took a red-eye flight east and walked the site extensively. Within six months, and without a specific plan, he'd purchased it from a Reading karate instructor for $520,000.
Following settlement, Madden called his then-80-year-old father, who coincidentally was sitting in his California office with Troy Aikman, lamenting the fact that great sports figures like Vince Lombardi and Sugar Ray Robinson were being forgotten.
"I knew he had a photo of Ali there, so I asked him to turn around and look at it," Mike Madden recalled. "I said, 'Do you see he's smiling? Well, that's because we're going to have a hand in preserving his history.' And Dad said, `Well, dammit, somebody has to do it.' "
For eight years, boxing's self-proclaimed "King of the World" trained in this off-the-grid locale. He mingled easily with the locals and they grew used to him, to his colorful entourage and Rolls-Royce. Sometimes, on his early-morning runs, youngsters used to jog behind him. One cancer-stricken boy was especially close, visiting Ali often. At the boy's funeral, a photo he'd taken with the champ rested in his casket.
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From 1972 through 1980, Deer Lake was open to the world. Its unfettered access drew fans and journalists from all over the world. Even after Ali retired, devotees continued to come.
"People were always popping in and out," said Sam Matta, a former sportswriter who is the camp's manager. "Can you imagine Tom Brady or LeBron James working out someplace where people could come and see them? They'd walk away. But even when he was the most famous person on earth, Muhammad welcomed everyone."
Until going to Schuylkill County, Ali — then living in Cherry Hill — had trained in Miami. But costs were high and distractions numerous. Impressed by a visit to Archie Moore's Salt Mine camp near San Diego, the boxer asked his business manager Gene Kilroy, a native of nearby Mahanoy City, to find a similar, more suitable venue.
Kilroy, once dubbed "The Facilitator" on a Sports Illustrated cover, knew a Pottsville boxing manager named Bernie Pollack, who owned what had been a mink farm. Ali visited the secluded site and bought it for $10,000.
"He was happy at Deer Lake," said Kilroy, 76, who lives in Las Vegas. "He loved it. All the houses he bought, someone else lived there first. This is something he created. He cut the logs. He knew what kind of gym he wanted. It was his own creation. And it was just far enough off the beaten track to keep a lot of people away."
While the camp's 13 buildings were being constructed, Ali resided in a trailer and trained in Reading, 30 miles to the southeast. Once settled in, he reveled in Deer Lake's spartan lifestyle.
"There were trees down there," said Matta, pointing toward a valley to the west. "He would go down with an ax and cut them down. Well, the guy who owned the land and the trees sued. Muhammad eventually settled with him for something like $2,500."
By the end of the 1970s, both Ali and Deer Lake were fraying. Though his last fight, for which he trained in the Bahamas, took place in 1981, the boxer maintained ownership for years. He sold it in the 1990s to Reading karate instructor George Dillman, a onetime workout partner. Dillman operated it as both a karate camp and a bed-and-breakfast, the Butterfly and Bee B&B.
Over the years, to satisfy occasional nostalgic or spiritual urges, Ali returned. The last visit came in 2001, the stricken former champion peering at his former camp through a limousine window.
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These days a dentist's billboard featuring a smiling tooth marks the dusty turnoff on Route 61 to this almost-forgotten sports treasure at the top of Sculps Hill.
Madden, according to Kilroy, has invested more than $1 million in the camp's rebirth. Its 45-year-old structures, many of which were rotting and porous, have been repaired and improved by Amish craftsmen. Some have been decorated with period furniture, equipment, appliances, and Ali memorabilia.
"We're trying to replicate everything," said Matta.
As a guide for the project, Madden turned to Kilroy, who was best man at one of the fighter's weddings and a pallbearer at his parents' funerals. The crusty manager supplied both stories and photos from the Deer Lake years.
"When I saw those photos, I knew we had to put them on display," said Madden.
Now dozens of them — along with Ali quotations, fight posters, ticket stubs, magazine covers — adorn the walls of the spacious gym, with its regulation ring and punching bag.
Up a hill from there is the cozy white mosque where Ali prayed five times daily. Out back, adjacent to a large stone grill the boxer built, is his cabin, equipped with the same water pump, oil lamp, and coal stove. A short walk away are the bunkhouses and the kitchen, where Ali's mother and Lana Shabazz, Malcolm X's daughter, prepared meals.
Those bunkhouses, Matta said, might be suitable for corporate meetings or as theaters where tourists could view some of Ali's 61 professional fights.
"Mike's not sure how it's all going to work or how many people are going to come to see this place," said Matta. "But if we market it right, they'll come."
When the camp's doors officially open, visitors can view Ali videos on numerous TV monitors — a Howard Cosell-narrated biography in the gym, a 1974 Dick Cavett Show tour of Deer Lake in Ali's cabin.
"I'm more at home here than I am in my Cherry Hill house," Ali told Cavett. "I'm living like the slaves did, like Jack Johnson did."
The mosque's TV features an excerpt from a 1977 appearance in England, during which, in response to a child's question, Ali riffed on his spiritual beliefs.
"We're hoping to bring school kids here, so we had some principals and school superintendents come in and watch that clip," said Matta. "We asked them if it raised any separation-of-church-and-state issues and they said no. He never mentions his Muslim beliefs, but we have some small-minded people in this area and we're afraid that if we start bringing in kids, they'll right away be saying, 'You're taking them to a mosque?' "
The revived camp, whose owner hopes will one day be listed on the National Historic Register, already has attracted visitors. Documentarians from HBO filmed here last August for a project partially financed by LeBron James. A BBC crew arrived in March. According to Kilroy, a boxing-mad Saudi prince visited with his sons and offered to buy the place.
"People used to come and talk about fixing this place up," Kilroy said. "This kid came and he put his money where his heart is."
There's no timetable yet for when the public will be admitted, but this autumn, Madden said, select groups of schoolchildren – "focus groups," he called them – will tour.
"We'll sit them down afterward and ask what they liked what they didn't. What was boring and what wasn't," he said.
In the meantime, Madden has hosted dinners here for business executives and civic leaders. He thinks hosting a few corporate retreats a year could finance educational programs.
Deer Lake's most striking feature may be the 18 huge boulders scattered around the property. On them, Ali's father painted the names of great boxers, including his son's. In no surprise, perhaps, Ali seemed enamored of the one that honored Sonny Liston, the fighter he beat in 1964 to take the heavyweight title.
In one photo from the 1970s, Ali is standing proudly atop the Liston boulder, gazing out at a spectacular vista of the Appalachian range, a view mature hillside trees now obscure. Another, taken two decades later, shows him in the same spot, this time re-creating his famous "Get up and fight!" gesture from the second Liston fight.
When Madden's son, Jesse, saw that second photograph, he climbed the rock and took a selfie in the same pose. Not long before, he knew nothing of Ali. It's a transformation Mike Madden hopes repeats itself often.
"My challenge now," said Madden, "is figuring out a way to get people up there and through the place. It tells a great story about an important historical figure. I just wonder if these kids who walk around with their noses in their phones all day will get it."