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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.
Dave Alexander, a 23-year-old cub reporter for the Asheville Times, went to work early the morning of July 12, 1963. His editors greeted him at 6:30 a.m. with an urgent tip: Something big was going down around Rosman, a town near Brevard.
The remote, sparsely populated place didn’t typically make much news, but this day would prove an exception. The state Highway Patrol had called to alert the paper that a chaotic clash was going on at the newly opened Camp Summerlane, a few miles outside Rosman. “So I jumped into my little Volkswagen, and away I went,” Alexander remembers.
Summerlane was a little more than an hour’s drive from Asheville. About 8 a.m., the reporter reached the outskirts of the camp, where he found law-enforcement officers standing watch around the perimeter. Parking his car, he walked toward them and started to ask, “What’s going on?”
“About the time I was getting squared away, a guy—one of the locals—came out of the bushes,” Alexander recalls. “He must have thought I was one of the officials with the camp or something, because he jumped out and coldcocked me. He knocked me on my ass.”
Alexander wasn’t seriously injured by the punch. “It was just a shock,” he says today. He proceeded to interview the local and state lawmen on the scene, as well as some neighbors and camp staffers. At first, Summerlane seemed “rustic and rather ordinary.” But the more he interviewed people, the less ordinary things appeared.
“There were groups of campers with counselors that were all out of the buildings, some still in their pajamas,” he remembers. Distraught and disheveled, “They were getting their stuff together to get the hell out of Dodge.”
The atmosphere, he says, was thick with fear, the origins of which could only be guessed at. The locals who attacked the camp “were afraid of what they didn’t know anything about,” Alexander recollects. “This phenomenon in Rosman was fear-based: ‘We don’t want them here. They might infect us with whatever it is they’ve got.’ I think that was basically what happened.”
But what, exactly, were they so afraid of? Forty-five years later, the answers to that question are still as wildly diverse as they were the morning after the attack.
For the campers and staff who’d survived Summerlane’s night of terror, the reasons behind it were something to be pondered later: At the moment, all they wanted was to get away. They packed up on the quick, urged on by a Highway Patrol captain who warned that the threat of further violence was growing with each passing hour.
Around 2 p.m., most of the Summerlaners left camp, with all of the 50-some children in tow. (A few adults remained behind to pack up a bit more gear, but they didn’t tarry either, clearing out a couple of hours later.)
The first leg of the evacuation, like much of the previous night, was fraught with tension. Highway Patrol cars led the procession, followed by the Summerlane caravan—two buses, two station wagons and three cars—with more patrol cars stationed in the middle and at the end. The police contingent would accompany the campers to the Virginia state line; from there, Summerlane relocated to a hastily chosen new base, Camp Midvale in Ringwood, N.J.
Hundreds of locals amassed to witness the exit. “People were standing on both sides of the road with shovels, rakes, hoes, sticks,” remembers Rosman resident Brenda Morgan, who was then 18. “People were not jeering and yelling and threatening,” she says—at least not close to town, where she was. Still, “It was kind of an organized thing: People were fairly civil, but they were out in force.”
Karen Messinger, then a 14-year-old camper riding one of the buses, says it was a hostile send-off. “People were shaking their fists at us, screaming things I couldn’t comprehend,” she remembers. She knew she was attending an unconventional camp, she says, but she had no idea it would inspire such rage.
Exhausted after their nightlong ordeal, most of the campers slept as the caravan wended its way north. Meanwhile, media accounts began to flesh out the motivating factors that had precipitated the attack on Summerlane.
Wire-service reports that appeared in numerous newspapers carried Transylvania County Sheriff Carter McCall’s take on the situation. Local residents, he said, “had become enraged by descriptions of camp activity” that appeared in a special issue of The Herald of Freedom, a right-wing newsletter published in New York that had been widely disseminated in Rosman shortly before the attack. “This newspaper said they believed in loving and living,” McCall said. “It said they didn’t believe in hiding their nakedness.”
The newsletter’s allegations—that Summerlane was run by immoral staffers touting “free love” and bent on integrating the area—added further fuel to rumors of nudity and open sexuality at the camp.
“All this added together just didn’t set too well with the local people,” McCall said. “We’re mostly Baptist and pretty serious about it.” And that wasn’t all: “When they brought in Negroes and told it over town before they did it, they were inviting trouble.” He added that the camp’s director, George von Hilsheimer, had told him there were no black people at Summerlane—but “I didn’t fall for that,” the sheriff said. “As I understand it, three of four colored students were in the bunch.” (In fact, there were no black campers; there were two mixed-raced girls, but they were so light-complexioned that they passed for white.)
McCall was not the only law-enforcement officer who took a dim view of the doings at Summerlane. Capt. H.C. Johnson, the highway patrolman who facilitated Summerlane’s departure, painted a grim picture of the camp to his superiors. Those observations were summarized in a confidential July 12 report to N.C. Gov. Terry Sanford, who, by now, was closely monitoring the situation. “In all of [Johnson’s] experience in observing camps of this type, he stated he has never seen one as filthy,” the report said. “Further, it is his understanding that this camp is operated on the theory that the campers establish their own type of recreation. If they want to play, they play. If they want to swim, they swim. If they like to play volley ball, they do so. It is basically a free-love operation. In Johnson’s opinion, if they want to love, they love. He stated that he had never seen such a group of filthy people, dirty people. … He thinks it would be best if this entire affair is terminated.”
The naked truth
One of the men who helped run Summerlane out of town agreed to tell Xpress about his role, on the condition that his name not be published. Now in his 70s and still living in the Rosman area, he says the issue wasn’t racial concerns but rampant reports of nudity and sex.
“Those people were a nudist camp; they went swimmin’ naked and all that stuff, you know, right on the side of the road [where one of the camp’s lakes was located],” the man says. “That was a fact—I was the one of the ones that seen ‘em.
“People here don’t believe in stuff like that,” he continues. “We’re old mountain people; we believe in religion, and we don’t believe in that kind of stuff. … We didn’t want that here in our country, so we threw ‘em out of here.”
The county’s small Sheriff’s Department backed the move to evict the camp, this man says. “They didn’t say nothing about us running ‘em off. They just stood out on the road and told us not to kill ‘em or hurt ‘em.”
The attack on the camp, he insists, was intended merely to scare the occupants enough so they’d leave; no harm was meant. For example, he says, when he helped set one of the camp’s lakes on fire, it was meant to send a signal, not inflict violence. “We just poured a little gas in there … and then we struck a match to it. Well, it lit that whole lake up, and it scared ‘em. … We didn’t want to hurt them, we just wanted them to get the hell out of here.”
Racism, the man says, had nothing to do with it. After all, “There wasn’t no black campers there,” he reasons. “I was right there, and seen all of them, and I didn’t see no … we called ‘em niggers then. We didn’t see none of them there. … So that wasn’t the case—it was because of that sex thing.”
He is unapologetic about what happened, saying, “We’d do the same thing today” if a similar camp sprang up around Rosman. In the end, he insists, no harm was done: “They all loaded up and went and left. We let them all go out, every one of them.”
Those at Camp Summerlane, however, remember things very differently. The violence, they say, was all too real, and they scoff at the idea that the camp was a den of iniquity.
“There was this insane preoccupation with nudity,” von Hilsheimer says. “Who knows—maybe some of the kids went skinny-dipping somewhere, but it was certainly not our policy, and we were very aware of the likelihood of trouble in that direction.”
One camp staffer, George Hall, does allow that he and some counselors went skinny-dipping one night before the camp opened. “But that was only once, and I presumed that no one saw us,” he says. “Of course, the neighbors were pretty curious and knew the area pretty well, so I could be wrong about that.”
Other than Hall, all the Summerlane sources Xpress interviewed said there was no public nudity at the camp. Karen Messinger, then a camper, says flatly, “That didn’t happen.
“Let me tell you, as a 14-year-old chubby kid from New Jersey, my clothes would never have come off,” she adds, laughing. “That would definitely be in my memory still, and I don’t remember that at all.”
Elliot Fried, then a 19-year-old counselor, has the same recollection. “In all honesty, I don’t recall anything going on at the camp in terms of nudity or sex, or really anything else like that,” he says. “It was pretty plain-Jane kind of stuff; it wasn’t a bunch of people doing drugs or cavorting or having sex parties.
“As far as what riled the people up,” Fried continues, “I think it was more of a racial issue than any kind of lifestyle issue.”
Von Hilsheimer agrees. He has always maintained that race was the main reason for the locals’ animosity toward the camp, and that the prospect of black campers attending Summerlane—though none actually did—was what caused the hysteria that led to the attack. “The only issue that the mob was interested in was integration,” he told a reporter shortly after the attack. “They spoke only of integration.”
In the days that followed, local newspapers played host to a short but spirited debate about what had happened. The Brevard-based Transylvania Times weighed in with a lengthy editorial—titled “Many Unpleasant Factors Lead to Closing ‘Free Living’ Camp”—that pinned the blame for the clash squarely on Summerlane.
“Camp Summerlane, which operated in Transylvania for a few days, is no more, and this is good news for the county,” it began. “Transylvania has long been recognized as a ‘mecca for summer camps,’ but not camps like Summerlane. Many citizens learned before the camp opened that it might be operated as a ‘free love’ camp, where nudism and freedom of expression without supervision would be practiced. … This newspaper does not condone the action of the group that set fire to the gym or fired the shot at the bus, but we do say that these actions were incited by the campers or the camp leaders.”
The editors at the Asheville Citizen saw things differently. Their editorial, titled “Violence is Violence, Wherever it Develops,” denounced the attack. “The raid was, by any measure, a shameful exhibition that can be excused neither in law nor in reason.
“Here was a summer colony that, according to whom you believe, was refuge for a harmless, nature-loving group—mostly young and largely Northerners—or a hideaway for nudists, free-lovers, integrationists, and (inevitably) ‘Communists.’
“It could be that the latter version is more-nearly accurate; we don’t know. But members of the raiding group ignored any avenue of relief that might have been afforded by the law, and fashioned their own law. …
“Nobody was killed—fortunately—but the law was flouted by a group of Southern highlanders and, apparently, the participants will go unpunished.
“The whole incident is demeaning.”
Meanwhile, Western North Carolina residents aired their views in letters to the two newspapers. In a letter to the Transylvania Times, a Brevard resident agreed that “our county is better off without the extremist group that formerly operated Camp Summerlane.”
At the same time, he wrote: “I do not believe you emphasized enough the wickedness of that lawless mob who threatened the lives of young children, destroyed property and defied law and order. … We should all be ashamed of that day when a mob ruled, even though for an instant.”
Another Brevard resident took a somewhat different approach in a letter to the Asheville Citizen, writing, “For shame to the Brevard-Rosman citizens who invaded Camp Summerlane. Sounds like the nudes versus the prudes. … The rioters are the ones who wronged when they invaded the tranquility of Camp Summerlane. They should be punished!”
In another letter to the Citizen, a Brevard woman took strong exception to how the attack was being viewed by critics. “I, among others, do not approve of violence, but neither do I approve of anything like the teachings (?) proposed at Summerlane. I do say this, that if it took violence to get rid of a setup like that, then the persons who took the action were no more wrong than the editor who uses the press to pass judgment and give a whole county a black eye.
“I am tired of reading articles describing Transylvanians as violent hillbillies, wrought-up mountaineers, drunken hoodlums, and Southern highlanders who raid defenseless childrens’ camp and drive away harmless folks.”
In still another letter, a Hendersonville man complained that “unfortunately the whole community will be judged by the action of a few hotheads.”
Moving to New Jersey, Summerlane lost most of its campers, who met their anxious parents up north and returned home. But a couple dozen stayed on, along with a core staff. They were determined to make Summerlane School a functioning, full-time institution.
And they did, albeit in rough fits and starts. The accommodations at Camp Midvale were exceedingly Spartan, and local hostility loomed there as well: The first week they were there, someone burned a cross at Midvale’s entrance one night.
Three weeks later, Summerlane relocated to a better facility—though one that needed much work—in Mileses, N.Y. In early 1964, von Hilsheimer offered an upbeat report in The Realist magazine. “Finally, Summerlane School is a reality, with 30 students and 12 volunteer staff. Its future is secure.”
Later that year, the growing school relocated yet again, this time to Buck Brook Farm in upstate New York. It stayed there for years, but began scaling back operations as von Hilsheimer founded a new enterprise: Green Valley School in Orange County, Fla., which operated from 1965 to 1973. Hundreds of students eventually passed through von Hilsheimer’s schools, but each one was dogged by controversy (and often by state authorities) over various unconventional philosophies and practices they embraced.
A few years ago, von Hilsheimer—who went on to become an early practitioner of biofeedback therapy and still lives in Florida—penned an essay concerning his travails in the field of education. Titled “Why Are You Always in Trouble, Dr. Von?” it took several pages to present von Hilsheimer’s answer to that question, but a passage near the end provides a summary: “I learned on my grandmother’s knee that the Holy Spirit lives in the dynamic tension between the actual, that which really is happening, and the ideal, that which ought to be happening. And that’s how I always get into trouble—seeking the Holy Spirit, seeking to make the actual into the ideal.”
Von Hilsheimer drew a similar lesson as to why his Rosman experiment went up in gunfire, flames and fury. “We were insanely idealistic,” he says—but given the time and place, no amount of idealism could have spared Camp Summerlane its fate.
As for the campers, many now say that the brief but tumultuous time they spent near Rosman shaped their worldviews and identities in fundamental ways. Tomm Friend, who was 15 at the time, says that first and foremost, the culture clash “reminded me that I was a Yankee”—that is, a proud Northerner. “I know Southerners aren’t used to hearing that, but I was always proud of being a Yankee, and I never turned back from that.”
For years, Friend says, he went out of his way to avoid setting foot in North Carolina: If he had to drive through the state, he’d fill up his tank before entering it to avoid even a gas-station visit. “If I still sound angry” about what happened at Camp Summerlane, he says, “it’s because I still am.”
Friend’s anger at the region, however, is tempered by his sadness over how long it took for the civil-rights movement to make concrete gains. “I noticed that the South kind of ate itself—it self-destructed and didn’t do very well for a very long time. … It was really a bad choice: Everything that came with segregation was ignorance and poverty, and there was no reason to cling to it.”
Peter Orris, then 17—and, like Friend, a New Yorker—came away from the experience with different lessons. “I developed a fascination with the South, both with the culture and the importance of the South for progress in the United States as a whole,” he remembers. “It always struck me that racism in the North was more subtle—more ingrained but more difficult to confront. In the South, it was right there, right on the surface.”
Orris concluded that Camp Summerlane had missed an opportunity in North Carolina. When the campers first got there, he reiterates, “we had the ability to relate on a human basis with the young people that we met there—at least before this thing blew up.” That connection, however tenuous, “taught me a lot about people being able to relate across cultural differences that were rather large. It taught me that people were just about the same everywhere, and it underlined the need to find ways of building bridges and working with those people.”
And though Orris was already a veteran of the civil-rights movement at that young age, what happened at Summerlane galvanized him, he says. “I had never confronted the kind of violence that I saw there, so it was very much a maturing experience for me. … This created an important calm and maturity in my approach to a lot of stresses that would occur later.”
Some of those stresses came the following summer. Working as a voting-rights activist in southern Mississippi, Orris endured no shortage of scary situations and spent several days in jail. “I was absolutely committed to the cause, and especially after the experience in North Carolina, I thought that the nonviolent-resistance tools were appropriate in this situation—and probably the only ones that could be successful.”
To view key documents, photos and other materials concerning this story, visit http://mountainx.com/article/35433/Cruel-Summer-The-attack-on-Camp-Summerlane-a-four-part-story