Paintball at the mansion
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Donnie Campbell, the founder and owner of Mansion House Farm Paintball, remembers the day when a hot pink stretch limousine squeezed its way into the small parking lot of the facility on Porter Road in Bear, and out stepped one dozen young women.
They had decided to have their birthday party there.
Within a half hour – after they were both properly equipped and given a thorough safety lesson – the women were all tucked in one of the three fields behind the materials shop, lost in a friendly blaze of flying paint, like weekend warriors on a hilarious warpath to see which of the group would be pelted the most. Almost three hours later, they all re-emerged from the woods, exhausted and hysterical. They took their protective jackets and head gear off, returned their pellet guns to the referee, and promptly climbed back in the hot pink limousine, and roared off.
Since Campbell first opened Mansion House Farm Paintball in 2005, dedicating a four-acre slice of his family's 20-acre farm in which to do so, the facility has seen its share of both the likely and the unlikely, the young and the young at heart and both the willing and the chilling, engaged in the happiest and safest type of warfare there is.
Do you want to see a best man pretend for the moment that he is eleven years old again? It's here. Wold you enjoy the sight of Debbie from marketing capturing Phil from Accounting? It's here. How about the sight of women, just a few days away from holding corsages beside the wedding altar, covered in fluorescent bursts of paint from head to toe?
It's all here. It's been here for the past ten years and it will be here for another ten years and counting, thanks to the ingenuity of Campbell.
"I never thought it would take off like this," Campbell said on a recent busy Saturday afternoon at Mansion House, where the sound of a bachelor party playing nearby could be heard. "There are a lot of other places that are a lot more competitive, but we're just fun. That's our niche and we're proud of it."
The Mansion House facility sits in the corner of a 20-acre farm that Campbell's grandfather purchased in 1939, where he ran a farm for several years. For several years, the family ran a produce stand on the corner of Route 896 and Porter Road, but later, the stand was moved about 500 yards further into Porter Road.
Campbell himself became a farmer, growing sweet corn and tomatoes after he graduated from the University of Delaware. He then expanded the family farm to include hay rides and the sale of fall plants like pumpkins.
In 2003, a man came by the produce store, and he told Campbell, 'I wish someone could do something about all these kids with their paintball guns riding up and down Porter Road shooting their paintball guns. They got to my house last night.'
The conversation Campbell had that day led to a thought: Maybe he could do something about it. He roped off about four acres in the woods behind the produce stand, and invited local paintball players to help design paintball courses and playing fields. In 2005, the insurance to open the facility was secured, and soon after, Campbell put out a simple sign on Porter Road, near the produce stand: "Paintball $12 a day Co2 free."
Suddenly, the kids who used to run around with paintball guns terrorizing the neighborhood now began to come to Mansion House. They were followed by people in their twenties, and people their thirties and beyond. Mansion House became a retreat for corporate professionals to loosen their tie, leave their cubicles and spend an afternoon getting to look at their work colleagues as more than just co-workers. Then came bachelor parties and bachelorette parties, who would be able to spend three hours -- sometimes an entire day -- re-kindling the power of imagination and fun that they hadn't felt since they were children playing in the backyard.
With the help of his assistants Benny Tiamson and Matt Kelso, what had started out as Campbell's grand experiment, began to thrive.
"There are other places you can play that are a whole lot more spectacular, but one of the things that I think people like about our place is because of our employees," Campbell said. "They're particularly good with people who have never played paintball. It's our customer service that makes Mansion House what it is."
When he was 12 years old, Kelso went to a birthday party at a paintball facility, and was instantly hooked. He then bought his own equipment and started playing regularly. He eventually came to Mansion House to serve as a referee and now helps run its equipment shop and manages its three playing fields.
"The great thing about paintball is that literally, anyone can play," Kelso said. "You can be 10 or 50 or 60 years old. I liken it to an extreme game of chess, where it's about making the right move on the field and predicting what the other team will do before they move. Communication is essential between teammates, which makes it perfect for corporate team-building events."
Nick Durbin of Newark used to play in a paintball league in Chesapeake City, but now plays regularly at Mansion House in order to keep his competitive edge. He is also a referee, where he regularly supervises games like Capture the Flag, Zombies, and Protect the President.
"It's an adrenaline rush," Durbin said of the sport. "I'm very competitive, so anywhere I can get out and being able to use that, the better. So much about paintball is strategy, the ability to trust in your teammates. When you're out there playing, you have certain people go to different sides, and being able to trust that your partner has your back in certain situations is key , and being able to strategize who is better and where to aim, where to get to first so that you can get the advantage over your competition. It's not just going off into the woods and shooting paintballs at each other. It's teamwork, and it's strategy."
In a report published by the Minnesota Paintball Association, the sport is one of the statistically safest sports to participate in, with only 20 serious injuries per 100,000 players recorded annually -- with most of these injuries coming from the physical activity related to playing, not paintball fire.
In its ten years, the safety record at Mansion House has been impeccable, with no serious injuries reported during that time. There's a reason for the great track record: Before a referee leads a group back to the woods, he or she gives a five-page, detailed review of all safety rules.
Since the first game of paintball was played in New Hampshire in 1981, the sport has both been lauded as a healthy combination of exercise and strategy, and roundly criticized for what critics claim is a glorification of violence. While the debate lingers on, paintball advocates distance the sport from the way violence is portrayed in our popular culture -- television, film and perhaps the biggest culprit -- video games -- which have become increasingly graphic in their depiction of violence.
For Campbell, the answer can best be found in our recent history.
"Years ago, we hunted," he said. "It was part of our culture, and we saw that there was nothing wrong with that. As times have progressed, you have third and four generations now living off the farm, and because of that, we have lost the ability to decipher between what is aggressive behavior, and what is merely fun.
"When we were kids, we played army," he added. "We played Cowboys and Indians, and we all grew up and never became thugs, or went to jail. It goes back to the our family upbringing, where our values are instilled in us. That brings a moral compass to where you can define violence. It all begins with the family."
Mansion House Paintball's playing fields are open for play during Saturdays and Sundays throughout the entire year – including winter.
Prices range from as little as $15 for an individual who already owns a paintball gun and equipment to a low-impact rental package for ten players at $400, which includes protective flak jackets, geothermal masks, compressed air tanks, 5,000 paintballs and a referee. Other packages include group rate rentals for parties of ten who wish to use the more advanced JT SplatMaster shot gun and protective equipment.
To learn more about Mansion House Farm Paintball, visit www.mansionhousepaintball.com, or call 302-438-7366. Mansion House Paintball is located at 2656 Porter Road, Bear, De. 19701, just off Route 896, about ten minutes north of Middletown.