This article appeeared in Asheville Citizen Times on March 1, 2011, Written by Rachel Connor, WNC Parent contributor
Some of the oldest and most unique summer camps in the Southeast rest in the mountains of Western North Carolina. From tribes to uniforms to family-style meals, they are steeped in tradition. “Each one of us has a strength that makes us different from our neighbor,” Keystone’s Camp director, Page Ives Lemel, said. “So, we are [all] able to continue to be successful.”
The oldest camp in the region began when Florence Ellis and Fannie Holt transported a group of Florida girls to the Carolina mountains for the summer of 1916. Three years later, Ellis and Holt decided to make Brevard the permanent home for Keystone Girls Camp. The camp has remained in Ellis’ family for four generations; Lemel is the great-great niece of Ellis.
Horseback riding is a central characteristic in Keystone’s program, and it has been an activity since the foundation of the camp. Holt was probably the horse rider, Lemel said.
“Girls are classified by ability level when they get to camp,” Lemel said. “Every level we have something to offer the child, by riding every day…they make substantial progress.”
Brevard is also home to another camp where tradition is a trademark.
At Camp Illahee, every Sunday is a time of unity. From the way they dress to the songs they sing, the girls function as a community.
For the entire day, the campers and counselors wear Illahee-logoed white shirts and blue ties. The girls wear the uniforms during Sunday’s worship time, as well as when they eat and gather around the weekly campfire.
“Part of it [wearing the uniforms] is the worship service; it is nice to have everyone dressed alike,” co-director, Laurie Strayhorn, said. “It gives the camp a feeling of unity and makes it a special day…it is a fresh, unifying thing…and a noncompetitive environment.”
Another Sunday specialty occurs when lunch is served. The girls join together in singing the doxology “Praise God, From Whom All Blessings Flow” before sitting down to their customary Sunday meal, which always includes fried chicken, wild rice, rolls, broccoli and ice cream.
When Strayhorn first become co-camp director in 2002, she was unaware of the importance of Sunday’s traditions.
She substituted white rice for the wild rice one Sunday, and the next day a few campers wanted to talk to her about the importance of camp traditions. They told Strayhorn that they always had wild rice.
“Sometimes the things that you think are not a big deal are a big deal, and kids need to know that there are some things they can count on,” Strayhorn said.
Eagle’s Nest Camp, located in the Pisgah National Forest, is another site that uses mealtime to create a sense of community. For every meal of every day, the campers eat with their table family.
There are three boys, three girls and two counselors in every family, and the campers come from various age groups.
“It’s a very intentional, small community…and a wonderful way for staff members to check on the kids each day, three times a day,” Liz Snyder, assistant camp director said. “The table family becomes closer than the cabin community.”
Apart from their day-to-day camp life, Eagle’s Nest also has additional trips. One of the most popular picks is the Huck Finn adventure.
For seven days, a group of eight middle school-aged children drift down the French Broad River, reading Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and reliving Huck’s rustic-inspired lifestyle.
“The counselor reads the book, and they recreate the experience,” Snyder said. “A homemade raft is already prepared, and the campers paint the raft [before floating on it].”
Gwynn Valley Camp
Kids at Gwynn Valley Camp, on the outskirts of Brevard, also learn to respect the environment, as the site produces approximately 70 percent of its own food.
Gwynn Valley grows over 20 varieties of vegetables on its farm. Campers who choose the farm as a program are allowed to help with the harvesting of the produce.
“They get to plant a little bit, but they get to harvest most everything,” director, Grant Bullard, said. “They really love the harvesting of the vegetables — digging potatoes, picking tomatoes and pulling up carrots.”
The farm also has cows and chickens that the children help to feed. The chickens yield a portion of the eggs needed at camp, and the cows are raised for beef.
Gwynn Valley’s green efforts surpass the arena of nutrition. The camp has a water-powered gristmill that provides electricity for half of the cabins. The mill was built in the late 1890s, and Gwynn Valley revived it in the 1980s. Bullard says the mill implants the idea of conservation into the campers.
“It is a vital part of the camp…it teaches kids where food comes from and also teaches the kids to be aware of lights [left] on and conserving electricity,” Bullard said. “It’s like a living part of history.”
The gristmill is also used to grind cornmeal and make tortilla flour. The leftovers from the mill are sent back to the farm to feed the chickens, and the corn cobs are used to make toys. “Nothing is wasted from that process,” Bullard said.
Gwynn Valley has always valued simplicity and a close relationship to the land. “We were green before we realized it,” he said.
Timberlake and Merri-Mac
Northwest of Gwynn Valley, Camp Timberlake and its sister site, Camp Merri-Mac, call Black Mountain home.
Both Timberlake and Merri-Mac divide campers into tribes. On the first day of camp, each boy at Timberlake becomes an Iroquois or a Seminole. Each girl at Merri-Mac becomes an Iroquois, Seminole or Choctaw.
Throughout the summer, the tribes compete in evening activities like water balloon games and capture the flag. The counselors keep a tally of each tribe’s victories, and at the end of the session, the winning team receives the prized camp banner and bragging rights.
“We recognize that there is going to be competition in life, and we want to give them a framework for it,” Dan Singletary, director of Timberlake, said. “Teaching [that] healthy competition is part of growing up.”
Campers can also mark individual success by their “skins.” Each boy or girl receives a hide branded with his/her tribe’s emblem. The skin is a record of each Indian’s achievements. Every time someone excels in an activity, he is awarded with a Bronze, Silver or Gold symbol that is attached to his skin.
The campers remain in the same tribe each year and bring back their skins to add to their previous accomplishments.
“We offer different types of success… [and] we recognize those achievements,” Singletary said. “If they learned a certain kind of knot or got a certain score in archery, they get recognized in some way.”
Falling Creek Camp, in Tuxedo,ties traditions together with its Boy Scout merit badge program, in which campers can earn badges that are hard to achieve during the school year.
“We let them tell us what they’d like to pass off, and they bring the merit badge book, the sign off card and a plan of action,” director, Yates Pharr, said. “We introduce them to the counselor that can help them pass that off…it is a mutual responsibility.”
The camp’s traditional father-son weekends, offered before and after the summer camp sessions, focus on strengthening the relationship between a father and his son through adventure.
“For boys to be able to have a good, positive experience with their father…is really important,” Pharr said. “When you mix in adventure, you discuss things you wouldn’t normally discuss.”
Family is an essential part of this Falling Creek’s programs, as Pharr says, “We are a compliment to any family’s intentions to raise strong, young men.”