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Cruel Summer is a four-part series. To view key documents, photos and other materials, as well as subsequent installments (as they’re published), visit mountainx.com/cruelsummer.
Tomm Friend was snoozing in his cabin when gunfire and the whoosh of flames pierced the night quiet. “I was awakened by a blast,” Friend remembers 45 years later. That summer, the 15-year-old was attending a camp on the outskirts of Rosman, N.C., a small mountain town about a dozen miles southwest of Brevard.
Dressing quickly, Friend bolted into the dark. “I ran down in the direction of the blast, and a woman dropped out of a tree with a machete, right in front of me,” he recalls. Recognizing her as a camp counselor, a relieved Friend blurted out that they knew each other—that he was with the camp, not the mob that was assaulting it.
“She was basically hiding in a tree, protecting children. She had a machete because she didn’t have a gun,” Friend explains; the camp’s few firearms were in other hands. “Then she told me to be careful and climbed back into the tree.”
The camper pressed on, as shouts and gunshots split the hum and gurgle of crickets and streams. Down a hill, in the cove near the camp’s entrance, Friend came upon a surreal scene: A small lake was on fire, the flames wafting across the water.
Friend soon realized that he was in the midst of a dangerous and rapidly escalating clash. Nearby, camp counselors who’d been beaten bloody tried to regroup. A gymnasium was burning to the ground; a cabin smoldered. A camp bus, its front window shattered, leaned in a ditch while its driver tried to pull himself together after bullets had been fired right by his head. Meanwhile, a hastily organized squad of armed counselors and campers, joined by Highway Patrol officers from Asheville, took up positions in the woods to ward off additional attacks. The camp’s remaining residents—a few more staff members and 50-some children—huddled in and around Summerlane’s cabins, hoping to make it through the night.
Like most of his fellow campers, Friend was far from home and didn’t quite know what was going on. At the same time, he remembers, “We knew that if these people came in, it was going to be bad.” As one of his counselors says in retrospect, he was sure the attackers “were looking for death.”
It was late on the night of July 11, 1963; Camp Summerlane had been open for all of one week.
A different kind of camp
One of the first media accounts of the incident appeared the next afternoon, in the July 12 Asheville Times. “Violence flared at Summerlane Camp—a summer hideaway tucked back in a mountain cove,” the newspaper said, “when outraged citizens of the Rosman and Brevard areas invaded the camp last night and this morning to protest alleged immorality and nudism on the part of the campers.”
From there, the story spread, but it didn’t go very far or very deep. Apart from brief news reports at the time and scattered mentions since in a few books and Web sites, the Summerlane saga has never been fully told. Meanwhile, over the decades, many of the main participants have died, and the memories of those remaining have faded and diverged, depending on each person’s age and perspective at the time.
This is the first installment of a four-part investigative history based on extensive archival research and interviews. Weaving together contemporary records with present-day recollections, Cruel Summer will explore why and how it was that incensed adults from a tranquil mountain town laid siege to a camp full of children.
Surviving camp folk and Rosman-area residents tell starkly different stories about the incident. Most of the campers and staff members interviewed by Xpress say the main impetus for the clash was the camp’s limited attempts at integration. But they also cite other factors—such as allegations of skinny-dipping, homosexuality, harboring communists and other purported sins—that they believe played a secondary role in making Camp Summerlane unwelcome in Rosman.
For their part, most of the community residents interviewed for this series say they remember Summerlane as a hedonistic venture that simply had no place in their town. They cite rumors of free love, nudity and sex as the main cause of the trouble.
“I don’t know what their affiliation was, but people thought they were living in sin or something, and that was not considered the thing to do,” says Bill Cathey. In his 20s at the time, Cathey went on to become principal of Rosman High School. And like most other surviving sources in Rosman, he maintains that racial concerns were not the primary issue.
Whatever the showdown’s root causes, it was sparked by the arrival of people who, though they weren’t exactly looking for trouble, were led by a man who clearly meant to flout traditions and taboos.
The camp was the brainchild of the Rev. George von Hilsheimer, a charismatic former youth evangelist from Florida turned New York City-based religious humanist. In his early 20s, he’d spent two years in the Army with a military-intelligence unit based in Germany. By 1962, however, he was 29, married, and living with his wife and infant son in a sparse, abandoned storefront in lower Manhattan. “We didn’t even have a bathroom,” he remembers. “We washed our baby and took our baths in great big sinks.”
Von Hilsheimer had already fought social-justice battles in his home state, and he aimed to wage more from up north, if he could secure the needed support. He found it by connecting with Paul Krassner, editor of The Realist, a pioneer alternative monthly. First published in 1958, the publication soon became known for its biting—and often risqué—political and social satire.
In the summer of 1962, von Hilsheimer called Krassner to propose going further. “He was very persuasive, so I met him,” Krassner recalls. “He had a very irreverent sense of humor, so we shared that. And he was an idealist who put his idealism into action. That coincided with my feeling that I wanted to do more than just publish material that criticized things that deserved criticism. I wanted to get into putting those words into action—to giving alternative possibilities to the things I was criticizing. So our paths crossed with very good timing.”
They first met over a meal in von Hilsheimer’s cramped apartment, where they hatched a plan. (It was so hot, Krassner recalls, that his host wore only an undershirt and boxer shorts.) Although Krassner didn’t profit from The Realist, he was making decent money conducting interviews for Playboy magazine; he agreed to pay von Hilsheimer $50 a week to organize People Inc., a volunteer group described as an “anarchist social work movement” that would serve as a kind of “domestic Peace Corps.”
People Inc. soon spawned multiple projects. “It sort of had tentacles,” Krassner says. Progress reports began to appear regularly in The Realist, describing baby-sitting collectives and youth programs in the city, book drives for African-American college libraries in the South, a “Hunger Hurts” program to provide food for needy families, and plans to support migrant workers, among other endeavors.
But the group’s biggest gambit was to head south in the summer of 1963, start a children’s camp like none that had ever existed in the United States—and transform it into a school come fall. Von Hilsheimer called it Camp Summerlane, reflecting the unusual philosophy behind the project.
“Summer” was drawn from Summerhill School. Founded in 1921, Scottish educator A.S. Neill’s influential institution was an extraordinarily democratic training ground: Each student and staffer had a vote in decisions concerning just about everything that happened at the school. The “lane” part was a nod to Homer Lane, a Connecticut-born teacher and psychoanalyst who moved to England, where he ran an experimental school in the 1910s that emphasized freedom and following curiosity rather than rote lessons and discipline—inspiring Neill to set up Summerhill.
Neill explained the idea in Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, a 1960 book that influenced both Krassner and von Hilsheimer as well as many others who wound up getting involved with Summerlane. “We set out to make a school in which we would allow children freedom to be themselves. In order to do this, we had to renounce all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious instruction,” Neill wrote. “My view is that a child is innately wise and realistic. If left to himself without adult suggestion of any kind, he will develop as far as he is capable of developing.”
Camp Summerlane would operate on the same principles, a promotional brochure promised. “All decisions affecting the community are made by the community. Each child, each adult, has an equal voice. Summerlane is a working democracy. … There is no censorship of any kind. There are no rules for purely private behavior.”
Although it offered standard camp activities, Summerlane would take things in a new direction. For example, a “vagrant bus,” as it was called, would take the children on jaunts to nearby areas, where they would learn the finer points of how various communities worked, exploring everything from nature to local politics to conditions in migrant-labor camps.
The brochure also pledged that campers would be “accepted without test or discrimination.” In other words, Summerlane would be integrated—a still-radical proposition in many parts of the South.
But perhaps there was a place in the region where this could work. Through a high-school friend, von Hilsheimer says, he learned about the former Camp Skytop in Rosman, which was owned by a Florida couple and up for rent. “It’s a gorgeous place,” he says about the hilly, forested setting in Transylvania County, an area rife with streams, waterfalls and rhododendron. “It had two gyms, a terrific kitchen system and lots of cabins.”
With its natural beauty, facilities and proximity to Brevard (long a haven for summer camps), the place seemed ideal. “Because it was close to Brevard, we figured everything was cool,” von Hilsheimer says.
After making the arrangements, he produced a brochure announcing that Camp Summerlane would offer “165 acres of unspoiled America, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, to the growing child.”
A different kind of camper
It was exactly the kind of camp Tomm Friend was looking for. A bookish but street-wise Long Island high schooler, he got his political upbringing from his best friend’s family, which swung pretty hard to the left, Friend says. They took him to rallies of various sorts, and somewhere along the way, he became an activist. “I was active at a young age,” he remembers. “I saw what was going on, and I heard people who made sense and who were good people.”
“Ethical humanism was the thing” that turned him on to Summerlane, Friend says. An article about the concept prompted him to become a member of the American Society for Humanistic Education, and when it came time to choose a camp, he “decided I’d go to one that seemed a little bit more concerned” with social matters.
Similar forces drew 17-year-old Peter Orris to Summerlane from New York City. He’d already spent years organizing and picketing for civil rights with his mother. “I was looking for some more experiences, and the Summerlane camp advertised teenage activities in which one would spend time working as a migrant worker and learning more about migrant workers and their conditions,” Orris remembers. Using Summerlane as their base, they would come and go to the work camps. “I did not know much of anything at the time about the Summerhill philosophy,” he says, but that would change soon enough.
Karen Messinger, a 14-year-old camper from West Orange, N.J., also followed her mother’s lead. “It was my mom’s idea” to go to Summerlane, she recalls. “It was something that appealed to Mom—that it was supposed to be an experience that was less driven by power and more driven by social interest. She was very active in socially progressive organizations.”
“For me,” says Messinger, “it was appealing because it seemed it was going to have less rules than the rest of my life did.”
Many of the kids who came to Summerlane had similar motivations. Influenced by politically active friends or family, they were seeking out alternative experiences that summer. Most were from the New York area, and a good percentage of them were Jewish, but other campers came from varying backgrounds and different parts of the country. One of the younger campers—8-year-old Susan Wade of San Marcos, Texas—was sent to Summerlane by her father, a grad student at Southwest Texas State College who was active in the civil-rights movement.
It would take an unconventional staff to deliver what Summerlane’s literature was promising. Accordingly, von Hilsheimer put out a call in The Realist; from the respondents, he assembled a coterie of educators, activists, social workers and sundry volunteers to run the camp.
They came from all over. One, a self-professed beatnik from Connecticut, had hitchhiked around the United States and Europe before the practice was in vogue. Another taught schizophrenic children in the New York public schools; still another taught remedial reading at New York University. One was burned out on his engineering jobs in California, including a stint with the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, and seeking work that scratched his social conscience. Another taught literacy classes to black adults in Chapel Hill, N.C., after having taught at the Highlander Folk School in eastern Tennessee, which trained civil-rights activists—including Rosa Parks—in techniques of civil disobedience.
But one camp staffer in particular stood out, his views and deeds already having triggered a good deal of controversy. Leo Koch, Summerlane’s science instructor, was a former assistant professor of biology at the University of Illinois who had left academia the hard way. In 1960, at age 44, he wrote a letter to the university’s student newspaper, the Daily Illini, responding to an editorial that “deplored excessive necking at campus parties,” as Time magazine neatly summarized it.
Koch’s rebuttal asserted the value of premarital sex. “With modern contraceptives and medical advice readily available at the nearest drugstore, or at least family physician, there is no valid reason why sexual intercourse should not be condoned among those sufficiently mature to engage in it without social consequences and without violating their own codes of morality and ethics,” he wrote. “A mutually satisfactory sexual experience would eliminate the need for many hours of frustrating petting and lead to happier and longer lasting marriages among our young men and women.”
Those bold words got Koch fired by the university president, sparking a legal challenge on free-speech and academic grounds. It attracted national attention but ended where it had begun—with the biologist still out of a job. For a short time, Koch taught at a prep school in California. Meanwhile, The Realist took up his cause and published his writing, and von Hilsheimer even chaired the Committee for Leo Koch. A camp emphasizing children’s freedom needed free-minded instructors, reasoned the radical reverend, and Koch seemed to fit the bill.
Getting the governor’s OK
While Brevard was indeed a kind of summer-camp central, the same could not be said of nearby Rosman, which was significantly more remote and insular. Some 500 people lived in and around town, and according to several townspeople, there’d been no black residents for at least 60 years.
After scouting the site, von Hilsheimer says, he started worrying about how the neighbors might respond to the new camp. All over the South, attempts to desegregate recreational and public facilities were being met with turmoil and violence. So he went looking for backup, and when he got an unexpected chance to run his Camp Summerlane plans by the governor of North Carolina, von Hilsheimer jumped at it.
Terry Sanford, a Democrat who’d been elected governor in 1960, was in a unique spot. A liberal on social issues who was traditional enough to carve out a secure base in North Carolina, he’d managed both to carry his state and forge ties with the administration of President John F. Kennedy, who was loathed by most Southern governors. In racial matters, Sanford took a nuanced approach that favored negotiation over confrontation and leaned heavily on the state Highway Patrol to monitor and respond to both civil-rights protests and racist attacks.
In November of 1962, Sanford visited New York City, and von Hilsheimer arranged an audience over lunch to discuss Summerlane, which was gearing up to open the following summer. The camp director shared with Sanford his fears about how the locals would react to having an integrated camp in their midst.
But the governor’s response, he says, eased his concerns. “This is North Carolina,” von Hilsheimer remembers Sanford saying. “North Carolina’s progressive and modern and real, and there’s nothing to worry about. We’re going to take care of you. You’re not going to be down in Georgia or someplace like that. There won’t be any trouble.”
Cruel Summer continues next week with part two: “Storm Clouds: Camp Summerlane’s Hopeful Start Turns Troubling.”
To get links to all four stories, visit http://mountainx.com/article/35433/Cruel-Summer-The-attack-on-Camp-Summerlane-a-four-part-story