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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.
Robin Ludwig’s first experiences in the South were something close to magical. The 14-year-old New Yorker started summer vacation at the brand-new Camp Summerlane in the first week of July 1963.
To get there, he’d hopped on a bus that joined a caravan of campers from up north who were headed for Western North Carolina. The first day of the trip, “We drove and drove, and somewhere in Virginia, we pulled over to the side of the road in this incredible grove of giant pine trees,” Ludwig recalls. “There were fireflies everywhere, and we just spread out our sleeping bags and camped out. When we woke up in the morning, we found out we were in the middle of a boysenberry thicket, so we got to eat boysenberries for breakfast. We were all little teenagers from heavy, urban places … and suddenly, we were turned into nature.”
That sense of wonder continued as the caravan reached Camp Summerlane, a 165-acre retreat a few miles outside Rosman, a mountain town southwest of Brevard. “It was someplace else,” he says. “We figured we were in the middle of a bluegrass song.” Along with the rest of the 50-some campers, Ludwig planned to stay for the remainder of the summer.
The first few days, things went pretty well. “We had all the usual camp stuff,” remembers Tomm Friend, then a 15-year-old camper. During the day, “we had an archery range, and canoes and field trips.” At night, “there was a lot of music,” as camp staffers pulled out guitars, banjos and conga drums, playing while others danced.
Still, he and other campers found Summerlane’s program lacking in some respects. Rules and order were intentionally in short supply—the camp had been designed so that the kids would have almost as much say as the adults in how things were done. Friend liked the approach in theory, but found the “general meetings,” where everyone from the youngest camper to the oldest instructor debated and voted on what to do, tedious. Peter Orris, a 17-year-old from New York City who was already active in the civil-rights movement, didn’t care for the arrangement at all.
“It was much too laissez-faire,” he says. “They wanted all the kids and counselors to participate in the decision-making, which was fine, but I was unhappy with the discipline in the camp. The younger kids were staying up late at night doing one thing or another, and there was very little direction and leadership.”
Orris didn’t have much time to take stock of the situation: He was only passing through, en route to a Summerlane side project in South Carolina, where he would pick peaches with migrant laborers and explore options for helping them. But he thought the camp would be fine. “It was rustic, of course,” he recalls, yet “the area of North Carolina was beautiful, and the camp had all the resources that one would want in a summer camp.”
Rumors and rage
But the setting quickly turned from hospitable to hostile, as rumors of black campers at Summerlane swirled around Rosman. In a report in The Realist magazine, camp Director George von Hilsheimer later noted the main themes that surfaced in the local chatter: that the camp was hiding black families in its secluded cabins; that in the fall, it would force the integration of all-white Rosman High School.
None of that was true. “We didn’t have any black people—that’s the amazing thing,” von Hilsheimer says today. “Nobody [at Summerlane] was black.” He had hoped to set up a camp with children of various races, but it didn’t quite work out that way. “I advertised it as an integrated school and camp,” he explains. “But it was 1963, and even in New York City,” where he was based at the time, “you didn’t get many blacks coming voluntarily to [predominantly] white camps.”
Two mixed-raced sisters did sign up, offering Summerlane just a tint of color. “There were two girls from New York City who were creamy in terms of their complexion but who were legally, in the South, black,” says von Hilsheimer.
No one seemed to notice, however. “There was some discussion among the campers that there was one or another person of mixed background, but nobody looked African-American,” remembers Orris. (“Having been involved in the civil-rights movement,” he adds, “I was reasonably disappointed when I arrived to find that this camp appeared to be entirely white.”)
But the facts concerning Summerlane’s demographics didn’t matter. The Rosman rumor mill was in high gear, fueled by a widely disseminated issue of The Herald of Freedom, a far-right political newsletter published by Frank Capell of Staten Island, N.Y. Distributed at a Rosman Chamber of Commerce meeting, the entire issue was devoted to spelling out the supposed sins of Summerlane staffers, who were said to be atheists, communist sympathizers, race-mixers, homosexuals etc. Capell implored “the decent citizens of Rosman” to “insist on bringing such activities to an end.”
At that point, the talk among the locals heated up rapidly, Rosman resident Brenda Morgan remembers. “People were going to run [Summerlane] out of town,” says Morgan, who was 18 at the time. “That was the big talk: You know, ‘We’re just going to go out there and run these people out. We’re not going to stand for this in our quiet little mountain community.’”
Things quickly escalated. The Chamber meeting took place on a Tuesday night. The next day—Wednesday, July 10—a group of young men from the area amassed near the camp’s entrance.
“They stopped some of our cars as we’d go in and out,” says von Hilsheimer. Peering into the vehicles, the locals would ask if there were any black campers on board. At one point, he remembers, they fixated on one of the mixed-raced girls. “They confronted the girl, nose-to-nose in the bus. ‘Ain’t you black, girl?’ they said—that kind of thing. It was horrifying. Fortunately, she just looked at them as if they were crazy,” and the inquisitors backed off.
That night, however, dozens of cars flooded the public road that girded the camp. “They ran the cars very slowly up and down the road, almost like a candlelit ceremony,” Friend remembers. But was it merely local curiosity? A warning? A threat? No one at Summerlane seemed to know.
The next day—Thursday, July 11—the camp tried to go about its business as usual. Campers and counselors had planned to paddle the nearby French Broad River from Rosman to Brevard. Soon after they hit the water, however, a group of local teenagers began stoning them from the riverbank.
Elliot Fried, a 19-year-old counselor from California, was with the kids in the canoes. “We were ambushed by some of the locals, who were onshore and who did a fairly good job of throwing as many rocks at us in the boats as possible, hitting some of the students,” he remembers. “There’s really nothing we could have done at that point, except just row like hell to get out of there, and that was what we did.
“It was clearly a foreshadowing of things to come,” says Fried—a strong sign that “people in the community were not particularly happy with us.”
Fire on the water
The news of the stoning sent Summerlane director von Hilsheimer reeling. Grabbing a gun or two—the camp had a few—he enlisted a staffer to head down the road with him and talk to Rosman Mayor Austin Hogsed.
In a detailed account later published in The Realist, von Hilsheimer recounted what happened next. “Hogsed allowed as how he couldn’t do anything while the jeering group of teenagers responsible smirked across the street,” he wrote. Soon after, Transylvania County sheriff’s deputies arrived and “ordered us back to camp, confiscated a shotgun and threatened us for disturbing peaceable folk.”
Around 6 p.m., von Hilsheimer wrote, “a nice chap” from Brevard paid a visit to Summerlane, telling the camp “that thousands of The Herald of Freedom had been distributed and that there probably would be trouble.” After taking note of the risks, however, the staff decided to proceed with that night’s special program.
A white-haired older man with a handlebar mustache, Les Heath—aka “The Snake Man”—held center stage. A noted Southern snake expert, he displayed plenty of live specimens and talked about the good ones and the bad ones—and what to do if you were bitten by one of the latter.
Near the end of Heath’s presentation, there was new bad news: The procession of cars had returned, and someone was making a suspicious ruckus on Summerlane’s periphery.
“It was a dead night, no moon,” von Hilsheimer remembers. A couple of people from the camp ventured out to check on things. With their flashlights, they spotted a male neighbor who was in his 20s. He’d been friendly before, but no longer. According to von Hilsheimer, the man knocked down the Summerlaners, who promptly fled. One of them hid nearby and watched while the local man poured gasoline on the ground and set it aflame. “Luckily it was stamped out,” von Hilsheimer wrote.
Still, Summerlane’s luck was running out. The camp had two sections: the main camp, where everyone was gathered at the time, and the “work camp,” a clearing a quarter-mile away where there was a pond and a barn with a few horses in it. About 9:30 p.m., word came that the pond was on fire: It had been doused with gasoline and set aflame.
Summerlane staffer Bruce Grund, a 34-year-old school psychologist who’d been through basic military training, volunteered to go guard the work camp. He took a rifle and one of his two sizable German shepherds with him.
On the way, Grund encountered “Snake Man” Les Heath, who was about to leave the camp. “I went up to him and I said: ‘Listen, you’ve got to call the state police and tell them that we are here, and we are isolated, and we are being threatened. This is an emergency.’”
Heath agreed to sound the alarm. About 40 local men were sitting on a hill across the road from the main camp, toting guns and yelling threats, but they let Heath leave. Meanwhile, Grund sidled off to the work camp.
Arriving there, he crouched in the woods. Before long, he recalls, “Two cars drive up, with five or six guys in each car. I walked up to the cars, and one of the drivers said to me, ‘What are you doin’ here, rubber-belly?’” Funny as that might sound today, Grund says, it was nothing to laugh about at the time.
“Just don’t get out of the car,” Grund said, raising his rifle and backing into the woods. “They stayed there five or 10 minutes, but didn’t get out of the cars. Even though I was vastly outnumbered, they saw that I had the rifle and had the dog.”
But the intruders weren’t done. “They drove about 100 yards or so away, and they set fire to one of the buildings. Then I had a decision to make: Do I start to shoot these guys, or what? I thought, ‘I really don’t want to kill anybody if I don’t have to,’ so I didn’t fire.”
The glow of the fire at the work camp caught the attention of the increasingly frightened Summerlane residents. Then, around 11 p.m., the small lake near the camp’s main buildings also burst into flames—the attackers had poured gas on it and ignited it too.
The lake burned for only a few minutes, but Summerlane staffer George Hall quickly decided to seize the occasion to make a gesture of defiance: “I got into one of the little boats and paddled next to the reeds that were still burning. Then I roasted some marshmallows.” His fellow staffers thought it a brazen move, but the attackers had momentarily melted away, and they let Hall do his thing.
Shortly thereafter, Les Heath returned to Summerlane, reporting that he’d called the state police from a phone in Rosman and that they’d be on their way. Heath brought with him “a delegate from the mob,” as von Hilsheimer put it—a stout young man wearing a Rosman High School T-shirt. The visitor was there “to see how many Negroes there are,” the camp director wrote. Staffers escorted the youth through Summerlane’s cabins, and, seemingly satisfied, he left.
About 11:30 p.m., however, shots were heard from the direction of the work camp, where the gymnasium was burning to the ground. Three staffers decided to drive the short distance to the site to check on both the facilities and Grund, whom they hadn’t heard from in hours. Fried drove one of the camp buses—a medium-sized, white Chevrolet school bus—with Hall and fellow counselor Michael Goldblatt on board.
Driving down the main camp’s long, narrow, dirt driveway, the trio found a group of 20 or so men—some of them armed—blocking the road out, Fried recalls. “So I stopped the bus, and George and Michael decided to get out and talk to these people. I sat behind the wheel with the engine running.”
But the local men were in no mood for talking. “George and Michael were out a very brief period of time when people in the crowd started swinging at them. They both did the best job they could to defend themselves against the crowd, but people were surrounding them and punching them from all angles. There really was no way for them to successfully defend themselves. And I thought the best thing for me to do, rather than to get out of the bus and also be overwhelmed, was to go back to camp and get help. So I closed the bus door and started backing up.”
The vehicle crawled into reverse as part of the crowd followed. “I remember people trying to get into the bus through the door, but fortunately the mechanism gave me enough leverage to keep the door shut,” Fried says.
Then, “I started noticing strange sounds—little buzzing sounds were zipping past me. I thought that maybe there are some bees on the bus, until I realized, ‘No, they’re shooting at me, and these are rounds going past my head.’ Then I could see the bullet holes in the windshield.
“I tried my best to duck and still back the bus up, and people were still trying to get into the bus. I don’t know how far I got—50, 60 yards?—before I went off the edge of the road and the bus partially turned over.”
Shaken but uninjured, Fried was able to scamper out of the bus, hightail it back to camp and report what had happened. Hall and Goldblatt, meanwhile, were able to escape on foot when the crowd went after the bus. Running down the driveway toward the commotion, von Hilsheimer encountered both men, Hall with a gash in his back and blood streaming from above his eye, and a “badly battered” Goldblatt. It looked like the attackers “had tried out his head for soccer,” the camp director wrote.
The mob retreated after blasting the bus, and staffers took another vehicle to the work camp, where they were able to safely retrieve Grund. Shortly after the quick but tense drive back, Transylvania County Sheriff Carter McCall arrived at Summerlane.
It was about 12:30 a.m. McCall told von Hilsheimer that there were maybe 1,000 armed men in the woods, the camp director recounted later.
Briefing reporters the next day, however, a Highway Patrol captain cited a lower figure, placing the number of locals amassed near the camp at between 400 and 500. The vast majority were spectators; an estimated 40 men actually participated in the attack. “We are informed that the Sheriff was called upon for assistance,” a Highway Patrol report informed the governor. “However, apparently little, if anything, was done on his part as he is from the Rosman Community and is in sympathy with the local population.”
Around 1 a.m., a Highway Patrol officer from Asheville, Lt. E.C. Guy, appeared at the camp, saying that a few more officers were on their way. Guy asked Grund to hand over his rifle. “He said, ‘You know, you can’t be carrying this,’” Grund remembers. “But within an hour, he gave it back to me, because he was scared of these guys too.” By that point, “Everybody was terrified,” says von Hilsheimer.
With mobs still milling about the margins of the camp, Guy and the Summerlane staffers decided it was too dangerous to attempt a mass departure, opting to hole up at least until dawn. The camp’s few weapons—about five firearms and a couple of machetes—were passed out to staffers and two of the teenage campers.
One of them was 14-year-old Karen Messinger of New Jersey. “The adults were starting to really freak out,” she recalls. “They knew that trouble was coming, and they asked if any of us had any experience with guns. I had been to a camp where we had riflery, so I said, ‘Sure, I do,’ and they handed me a rifle.” Her assignment: to sit on the porch of the cabin where the youngest campers were gathered, while the other armed Summerlaners spread out in the woods around the camp.
“We were up all night,” Messinger remembers, hearing sporadic gunfire and shouts in the dark. “We were real scared. The whole time that all this chaos was going on, there was a huge part of me that just didn’t believe it was going on, like I wasn’t taking it in. … It was surreal.”
Close by, Lt. Guy held his position for the remainder of the night, perched in a prominent spot above the camp’s entrance with a high-powered rifle and a canteen of coffee. Guy “was everything you’d dream about and pray to have in a cop,” von Hilsheimer says. “He was just splendid.”
Several campers say they believe the officer may well have saved the camp that night. “There was no replacing him,” says Friend. “We knew that if these people came in, it was going to be bad. And they would have come, if it wasn’t for that highway patrolman. … He made it pretty clear that if they rushed the camp, it was going to be bad news for somebody.”
While most of the campers huddled in centrally located cabins, Friend chose to roam a bit. He talked to Lt. Guy, asking why the officer was risking his life to help them. Guy’s reply: “Because if they can do this to your land, they can do it to mine.”
As dawn approached, the mobs receded. Another patrolman showed up to relieve Guy, but he took a very different approach. Calling the new officer “an officious asshole,” von Hilsheimer says he was “rigid, pompous and pretty nasty to us.” Still, he made the camp a welcome offer: If they decided to leave—and he thought that a good idea—the Highway Patrol would gladly provide an armed escort to the state line.
The sleepless staff and campers had had enough, and most believed the officer when he warned that more trouble was probably in the offing if they stayed. “We were all agreed that we could not use the kids as weapons in a war against lawlessness and segregation,” von Hilshimer later explained. Accordingly, “We made a determination that we should take the offer of an escort and get the heck out.”
By 7 a.m. on Friday, July 12, the decision was made: A week after opening, Camp Summerlane would evacuate.
Next week, Cruel Summer part four: “Smoked Out: Camp Summerlane’s Conflicted History.” To view key documents, photos and other materials as the story unfolds, visit http://mountainx.com/article/35433/Cruel-Summer-The-attack-on-Camp-Summerlane-a-four-part-story