Burning memories: The short, hard history of Camp Summerlane (Part 1)

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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.

The attack on Camp Summerlane was under way.

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.

Man with a plan: The Rev. George von Hilsheimer, a former child evangelist turned poverty and civil-rights activist, founded Camp Summerlane, which came to Western North Carolina in 1963. Courtesy Green Valley School Archives

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.

Getting real: Summerlane got its start in the pages of the satirical publication The Realist. In the photo above, camp founder George von Hilsheimer, at right, stands with Realist editor Paul Krassner. Photo courtesy Green Valley School Archives
Courtesy The Realist Archive Project

 

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.

Selling Summerlane: An early brochure spelled out the unique philosophy of the camp and promised: “There is no censorship of any kind. There are no rules concerning purely private behavior.” The last page shared the offbeat plan for “the vagrant bus,” which would shuttle campers to adventures and explorations in nearby areas. Click here to see a full-size version of the brochure.

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

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About Jon Elliston
An Asheville-based mountain journalist: Former Mountain Xpress managing editor. Investigations and open government editor at Carolina Public Press. Senior contributing editor at WNC magazine.

25 thoughts on “Burning memories: The short, hard history of Camp Summerlane (Part 1)

  1. xvelouria

    This is a great story! So interesting. I can’t wait for the rest to be released.

  2. Plackstar

    I’m rivited and hanging on every word of this. I’m dying for the next bit. Great piece of writing.

  3. really interesting series! I was a junior in high school in 1963, remember snippets of this in the local paper … as I recall, the nudist angle (really shocking in those days) was played up.

  4. Michael Wilson

    Good one, Jon. I know you have been working on this material for a while… I remember the first time you told me about it. Very interesting stuff… the brochures are wild. The longer one had a very cool term in it that amused me: “Momentous Itchiness.” It’s in the happiness section.

    I also found it interesting that the governor welcomed the camp with open arms and offered full support. I have a feeling that’s not what happened.

    ~M

  5. elandrill

    Good work, so far. How deeply into the background and follow-up are you planning to go?

  6. we love local history books … next one from us is “THE CULLOWHEE COMET: The Fast-Paced Life of Eddie Sutton” by Bob Terrell. … I’m typesetting it as we speak.

  7. Jon Elliston

    Thanks everyone for commenting on the story.

    Elandrill: To answer your question, this first installment details much of the background to the story, but additional important background will be covered in part two, which publishes this Wednesday. And the final installment — part four — will detail the aftermath of the clash at the camp.

  8. also, I might mention a novel from Bob coming out this summer as well, “GET RUFUS.” It’s about a deputy sheriff in Jackson County back in 1917 (kinda based on a true story) who rides a female mule named ‘Fred.’ Find out why Bob is the Dean of Mountain Writers. Jon and I are not quite there yet, but we working on it.

  9. elandrill

    You keep working on it, Jon and Ralph. Great stuff. I am definately interested in the new novel. I take it there’s more?

  10. Scott

    If the info on the Internet is any indication, the post-Rosman history of this Summerlane group is quite troubling too, and not because of the aggressive behavior of outsiders either.

  11. katie

    Heard about the story from word of mouth. Great writing and fact finding. It’s about time this story was told. MountainXpress has some excellent articles, just moved down to Asheville and am loving my weekly copy. Can’t wait for more.

  12. david

    So I guess this is a story about how tolerant “Southern Culture” is, eh?

  13. David, it’s actually a story about the clash of cultures, which is why it’s so interesting. One of the basic components of any good story — fiction or nonfiction — is conflict. Both sides were wrong and both sides were right and the devil is in the details where they intersect.

    Jon is doing a fantastic job laying it out.

  14. joeb

    1963 was a long time ago. I assume your area is more tolerant of outsiders now than it was then. In fact there are quite a few hippies in your area now if I remember correctly. Or there were hippies back in the day all over the Southland. This is a good story that invokes the intolerance of small communities and all the negative effects of gossip and rumor. But rural communities never have liked outsiders. There are small towns that resent retirees from out of their area. Thanks for the nice work on this story. I hope you can make a book out of it as you are the first writer I have read on this subject that is fair and unbiased. And who has bothered to check the facts and get it right. Thanks for the links. Reading the actual documents from that era helps to get the picture clearer. I am really pleased to read an accurate account of the beginnings of Summerlane.

  15. david

    “There are small towns that resent retirees from out of their area.”

    Really, so a few random people’s letters to the editor about ridge-top development and gated communities is the same as armed people opening fire on CHILDREN? Just trying to get some clarification from some of those espousing the superiority of supposed “Southern Culture”. travelah? Willy p? Ralph?

    And ‘ralph’, you claim “Both sides were wrong and both sides were right”. Can you expand upon that for the rest of us? I am not really seeing where these idealistic young yankee folks were in the ‘wrong’ here. Not respecting local ‘customs’ perhaps?
    Does that justify a few yahoo’s reacting with armed fear? Endangering people lives because of their own close-minded fears? Thats a hard one for me to justify. But it sound like you may just try.

  16. david, what is your problem? you’ve made snide comments in other topics.

    My ‘both sides’ comment is pretty obvious I think. Jon is doing an excellent job of explaining this topic, I do not need to add to it.

    and if you read my many posts on the subject of outsiders carefully, you will note that I’m saying more that SOME Yankees newcomers are ARROGANT instead of wrong. … thank you for helping prove that argument. ;-)

    now, let’s get back to Jon’s excellent series. (and I’m still interested in seeing it as a book, Jon … talk to me about it some time).

  17. cantaloupe

    I grew up in Rosman from 1966 on, and my family lived in the area for generations. I only remember a very vague reference to a “hippie camp.” Now you have me interested. I’m calling my mom as soon as I get home!

  18. michael goldblatt

    I drove the bus that had it,s window blown out at Summerlane. My ex,Lora ,also worked there and had Tomm’s baby. Last time I saw her was near Boston. Would love to be in touch with Tomm.

  19. Stephen Jones

    Michael,

    I was a student at Sumerlane and Green Valley and knew Lora after she returned to the school with Tomm Friend. I’m not friendly with Tomm, but I can probably put you in touch with him, (if you haven’t reached him already), and I’d very much like to communicate with you anyway.

    If you read this and want to connect you can contact me at sbjonez@gmail.com

    Sincerely,
    Stephen Jones

  20. Former resident of Rosman

    Very interesting story, but I am not convinced of the accuracy of the quotes made by Brenda Morgan in parts of these articles. I have known Brenda Morgan all my life — all 42 years. I can imagine similar statements, but doubt these are direct quotes from her. Maybe more accuracy would be gained by eliminating the quotation marks.

  21. Mary Bromley

    I was a camper. I was 12 years old. I had read “Summerhill” and then somehow I found the Summerlane pamphlet and I swooned! Where did I find that thing? Probably at the Ethical Culture School folk dances or somewhere on the lower east side in NYC where i hung out as a kid. Maybe the Third Street Music School. But more importantly, how the hell did i convince my parents to send me to an integrated camp in the south with Reverend George? I never knew the counselors were armed. But I have a very clear memory of a mob of men surrounding the camp, buildings burning, shots fired. Yet I was not afraid. I remember we actually TOOK A VOTE as to whether we should leave or “fight.” I voted to leave. I remember we played loud jazz music in the common room… “fingertips” !! and we all danced. I remember we were escorted out of the county and people lined up on the streets and made ugly faces, I remember we felt proud in some way, like we were standing for something. I realize now we were surrounded by crazies both in and outside of the camp. I did make a great friend, Amy. and I did get to see firsthand “colored bathrooms and white bathrooms” and I feel lucky to have been a witness to that time of life.

  22. Sounds to me like the area was more tolerant then than it is now. Today, nobody dares to speak the truth at all around here.

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