Storm clouds: Camp Summerlane’s hopeful start turns troubled (Part 2)

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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.

In April 1963, seven Camp Summerlane staff members journeyed to Western North Carolina from assorted points around the country. “The dogwoods were just starting to bloom,” one of them remembers, and at first, springtime in the mountains seemed to offer a welcoming setting for the new camp.

Granted, there was much work to be done to prepare the facility—an inactive summer camp about 15 miles southwest of Brevard, near the tiny town of Rosman. Fifty-some children, along with 10 or so additional adult staffers, would be arriving in July.

And while they would need the usual amenities for a summer of hiking, swimming, roasting marshmallows and such, Summerlane was also preparing to implement an unusual social experiment: At this camp, children and adults would be given an equal say in determining most camp rules and activities. There was also a social-service component, as some of the older campers would be doing outreach work with migrant laborers. And even as civil-rights battles flared around the South that summer, children of all races were invited to attend.

George Hall, a 27-year-old engineer from southern California who was with the advance team, felt primed to try something seriously unconventional. “I was quite a liberal,” he says, and his politics had led him to pick up copies of The Realist, the New York City-based monthly that financed and publicized Summerlane. After reading camp founder George von Hilsheimer’s articles, Hall decided to volunteer for a staff position at the soon-to-open camp. “I was waiting for something like this to come along, and it looked like fun,” he remembers.

Summerlane struck a philosophical chord with Hall, but his handyman skills were as welcome as his sentiments. Along with the rest of the advance staff, he spent the next two months “just trying to rehabilitate the camp,” he remembers.

“There were some foundation things [for buildings] that needed to be replaced. The safety people had written us up because there were no release valves on the water heaters, so we plumbed those in. There were some rotten steps, and we had to build a new counter in a kitchen. … I even ordered some bees and set up a couple of hives.”

During breaks from the work, Hall enjoyed the occasional visit to nearby Rosman, where the camp bought its supplies. “It was the first time I’d seen a real general store in full swing, with the old, board floors with gaps in them, and the piles of cordage and the stacks of flour,” he says. “I liked it and hung around there a bit.”

Rosman native Brenda Morgan, who was 18 at the time and lived on Main Street next to the store, remembers seeing the Summerlane staff there and sensing that they were somehow different from the buttoned-down locals. “They were my first recollection of the hippie culture,” she says today. “Some of the men had a little bit longer hair and bandanas, and the women had longer skirts, down around their ankles, and were barefoot, most often. They looked a little unkempt, you know. It was not like what I was used to.”

But that wasn’t all, she says—there were also abundant rumors about various forms of wrongdoing at Summerlane. It was “a nudist camp,” she heard, or a “communist training school.” And it was said that black campers would be there, too, in defiance of local segregation.

Mutual curiosity

Despite their differences, the camp’s staff and its neighbors got along fine at first. “I talked to a bunch of them,” Hall says of his early interactions with locals, and he got to know a few residents pretty well.

They told him about the area’s finer points, touting the fact that parts of Thunder Road, a late-1950s moonshine-running movie, had been filmed on the winding mountain roads around Rosman. “Everybody was talking about it,” says Hall. “The locals were very proud.”

Rustic but ready: A row of cabins at Camp Summerlane, July 1963. Courtesy Asheville Citizen-Times/Citizen-Times.com

One man who lived right up the road seemed to take a special interest in Summerlane. He was “a lovely guy” at first, says Hall, and he visited often. “He introduced me to moonshine,” Hall recalls with a laugh. (Yet this same man, Hall and others say, later helped lead a push to drive Summerlane out of the area.)

Tomm Friend, a 15-year-old from Long Island, N.Y.—the first camper to arrive at Summerlane—also had a good feeling at first. He came a month before the camp opened to help the staff prepare the place. “I was out in the country, and it was beautiful,” he remembers; and like Hall, he got to mingle with some the neighbors who visited. “A lot of young men came out. Everybody’d have a drink around sunset. There seemed to be quite a few locals there. Everyone actually thought we were getting along rather well.”

Another camper, who arrived later, has similar memories of how mutual curiosity initially helped Rosman-area residents and the outsiders who came to Summerlane find some common ground. “As far as getting along with the folks in the area, the young people of the area were very curious—the guys anyway,” remembers Peter Orris, then a 17-year-old from New York City. The locals, he says, “were very interested in our culture, which was pretty alien to them. And we were very interested in them for really the same sort of thing.”

Still, the potential for discord began to mount, as von Hilsheimer, the camp’s director, noted in an update on Summerlane published in The Realist. “We anticipate a few problems,” he wrote shortly before the camp opened. “One of our spies informs us that the local school board has already been sent a San Francisco newspaper clipping” that sharply criticized Summerlane’s science instructor—Leo Koch, the controversial former University of Illinois biology professor who’d been fired for suggesting that premarital sex could be of some benefit to the school’s undergrads.

The clipping in question was an article, headlined “‘Free-Love’ Prof Carolina-Bound,” that appeared in a right-wing newsletter called Tocsin. The article quoted Koch as saying that Summerlane would be a “relatively free and liberal institution,” and, citing the camp’s promotional literature, asserted that Summerlane would be an “integrationist project” that “permits children complete freedom.”

Regarding the fact that the Tocsin article had surfaced in Rosman, von Hilsheimer wrote: “So that has to be dealt with. As will the reaction to our pathetic ‘integration.’” (It would emerge later that, with the exception of two mixed-race sisters—“a couple of tall, thin, girls who didn’t look much different than some of the Jewish girls who were in the group,” a counselor remembers—everyone at Summerlane was as white as Rosman’s residents.)

Skewering Summerlane: Two right-wing newsletters critical of Camp Summerlane made the rounds in Rosman. Above, an excerpt from the April 10, 1963, issue of Tocsin, which called science instructor Leo Koch a “freelove proponent.” Below, the intro to a “special issue” of The Herald of Freedom, which was devoted entirely to the “frightening situation” at the camp. Click here to view the Summerlane documents

Nonetheless, von Hilsheimer added, “We feel confident to cope.”

Warnings

But the list of things to cope with grew fast. “In May, a direct threat to the life of any Negro at Summerlane was made by two of the local toughs,” von Hilsheimer wrote in a Realist update. By late June, he was so worried that he started scouting alternate camp locations up north; meanwhile, he instructed George Hall to alert the state’s top elected official.

In a letter to Gov. Terry Sanford’s office, Hall wrote that, at first, “We were not inclined to take [the threats] seriously,” since they seemed to be coming from “members of a hoodlum minority.”

But then, local government and civic leaders began offering cautions as well. Transylvania County Sheriff Carter McCall gave the “first official warning,” as Hall put it. In the event that the camp was attacked, McCall said, “he would do all he could to protect us,” but because he had just a couple of deputies to cover a big county, “There was a very strong likelihood that he would only be able to arrive to investigate what had already happened.”

Then, on June 11, the Rosman Chamber of Commerce formed a committee of local leaders to study just what was going on at the soon-to-open Camp Summerlane. The Rev. Dan Wallen of Brevard, president of the Transylvania Ministerial Association, was selected as chair. (State police investigators reported to the governor that “Wallen’s sympathy is definitely against the [camp] being conducted in the Rosman area.”)

In a carefully worded statement to the Chamber, the camp leadership tried to head off any criticism, asserting that they were up to something good that could help both the campers and the community. They stressed that both von Hilsheimer (who was raised in Florida) and his wife, Dian (a North Carolina native), had Southern roots, and that von Hilsheimer had long been a Baptist minister.

As for Summerlane—both the camp and the planned school—the statement emphasized the enterprise’s upstanding character and positive goals. Describing the venture as “a nonprofit school chartered under the laws of the state of North Carolina,” the document continued: “Summerlane Camp is primarily a work camp. Teenagers from all over America will come to Summerlane to spend the summer learning work skills and contributing their summer efforts to the improvement of the life of the country around them.” It went on to explain the camp’s roots in A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School, “where children take responsibility for their decisions from the earliest grades.”

The camp planners, they said, had chosen Western North Carolina after carefully weighing the options and deciding that it was a good fit: “We are here because we like this area the way it is. … Our goal is first firmly to establish our own school and then to aid in the conservative development of more schools, deeply committed to protecting the character of this area.”

“A high degree of danger”: The first page of camp staffer George Hall’s letter to Gov. Terry Sanford’s office, in which Hall recounted the mounting threats against Summerlane. Click here to view the Summerlane documents

None of this, however, changed the local leaders’ minds, as Hall recounted in his subsequent letter to the governor’s office. In mid-June, Summerlane staff attended a Rosman Town Council meeting, where, Hall wrote, “We were told quite strongly by the County Clerk and Austin Hogsed, the Mayor of Rosman, that it was strongly against local custom for Negroes to even be in the area and that it would be an extremely dangerous situation for both us and the children” if the plan to open an integrated camp went forward.

Shortly thereafter, Hall, Leo Koch and Dian von Hilsheimer drove to Brevard to plead Summerlane’s case with the local committee, whose members included the Rev. Wallen, Mayor Hogsed, the Transylvania County superintendent of schools, a Junior Chamber of Commerce representative and two local businessmen.

“These men are of the group that was able to peacefully integrate the Brevard school system” the previous year, Hall explained in his letter. But they thought the area around Summerlane was far from being ready for integration. “We were told that Rosman is practically a different country and that they felt that the only response to an integrated camp or even to a single Negro in the area would be violence. They offered their advice, which was to abandon our plans. Their interests lay primarily in their belief that there is no way to avoid injury or possibly death on one side or the other. They are also concerned about the effect that violence would have on their efforts to attract industry to Transylvania County and on the very profitable summer camp industry in the area. These gentlemen pledged their help in averting trouble. However, they felt that their efforts would not be effective.”

Based on that counsel, the Summerlane staff decided to drop the idea of setting up a permanent, integrated school in Rosman. Von Hilsheimer informed the local authorities that Summerlane would operate there for only one summer and would have no black staff or campers (though the two mixed-raced girls would remain).

Hall closed his letter with a plea for state protection, noting that Sanford had offered assurances of safety during a late-1962 meeting with von Hilsheimer. “Governor Sanford said that he would do all in his power to help us. This is a situation in which any help you could provide would forestall violent and illegal action, and avoid nasty publicity for the state of North Carolina, besides being of great benefit to ourselves.”

One of Sanford’s aides, Ray Farris, promptly replied. “Needless to say, local authorities will provide whatever protection is possible so long as no illegal activities are taking place,” he wrote in a letter to Summerlane staff. “If local authorities are unable to handle any trouble which may arise, the State will also help. … The State Highway Patrol is following closely this situation in Rosman and is keeping this office informed in the event the State need act.”

Farris sounded hopeful about the situation, noting that a Brevard-based attorney had informed the governor that because “Summerlane Camp would be held in Rosman this summer on a one time non-integrated basis,” the “people of the Rosman community could accept the idea of having the camp under these circumstances and that there would be no trouble.”

“No trouble”: The response from Ray Farris, an aid to Gov. Sanford. A local attorney, Jack Potts, had informed the governor’s office that since Summerlane had agreed to operate “on a one time non-integrated basis,” the “people of Rosman could accept the idea.” Click here to view the Summerlane documents

Fighting words

As the tensions around Summerlane continued to brew, the camp officially opened in the first week of July. “We had expected that any trouble would occur the night of the fourth”—the Independence Day holiday—“but that was peaceful as could be,” von Hilsheimer later wrote.

That very week, however, another right-wing publication appeared in Rosman and probably sealed Summerlane’s fate. The Herald of Freedom was published twice a month by Frank Capell of Staten Island, N.Y., whose stated mission was “combating Communism, Socialism, and un-American activities by printing the whole truth in detail.” On July 3, Capell published a special issue devoted entirely to Summerlane and “dedicated to the decent citizens of Rosman, North Carolina, a quiet respectable community which suddenly finds itself confronted by a frightening situation.” The truth about Summerlane, he wrote, “would shock and disgust decent people, white or colored.”

Capell sent an estimated 1,000 copies to the Rosman Chamber of Commerce, and at a July 9 meeting, Chamber leaders gave out stacks of the publication. The next day, they were “passed out all over the community,” remembers resident Brenda Morgan. “Almost everybody had access to it.”

For locals already wary of what might be going on, The Herald of Freedom served up reasons to get downright hysterical. Summerlane, Capell asserted, was “widely advertised as an integrationist camp.” It was supported by The Realist—a “pornographic, atheistic and subversive publication.” It was rife with associates of the Highlander Folk School in eastern Tennessee: “Photographs taken at this school show Negro men and white women dancing close together, identified Communists in the groups, and known racial agitators taking a prominent part in the activities,” he wrote.

Capell saved his strongest salvos for von Hilsheimer. “Summerlane is directed and operated by a former minister who admittedly has engaged in acts of sexual degeneracy, who is a radical and a nihilist.” What’s more, Capell charged, the camp leader “admits to having had a considerable number of homosexual relationships, himself playing the passive role.”

(The latter allegation about von Hilsheimer, a lifelong heterosexual, was rooted in a misreading—or a misrepresentation—of part of one of his early Realist columns. In it, he’d written a metaphorical bit about how his background and naiveté had, at times, led him to get screwed, so to speak: Although von Hilsheimer remained a true believer, this, he said, “does not mean that this little boy has never been had. Oh, no. More times than the little red anus likes to remember. A lower class intellectual in a middle class world that ain’t got no upper class is ripe for royal screwing. Particularly if he gets seduced, for however short a time, by middle class values.”)

“To the average American in a small community,” Capell wrote, “it is hard to believe such things are possible. Yet what is developing in Rosman … could happen anywhere in the United States unless the citizens of the community take an interest and insist on bringing such activities to an end by lawful methods.”

While Capell’s scandal sheet made the rounds, George Hall took a group of older campers on a supply run to Rosman, where it became evident that they were no longer welcome. Walking through town, the campers were approached by a group of young local men. “They were stiff-legged, with clenched fists and squinty-eyed looks,” Hall recalls. “One of them said, ‘You’ve got niggers out there!’—and I was thinking they were going to go at me right then and there. But I was pretty good-sized, in good shape in those days, and I was very soft-spoken with them, so they eventually walked off.”

While they were shopping, someone tossed a stack of the Herald of Freedom special issue through an open window of their bus. Reading Capell’s rant on the way back to camp, the gravity of the situation began to set in, Hall says. Back at Summerlane, there was another bad sign: “We had a couple of geese, and somebody drove by and ran them both down,” he remembers. “That worried us.”

Meanwhile, the parents of some campers got word of the situation and also grew worried. Houston Wade of San Marcos, Texas, was the father of 8-year-old camper Susan Wade. On July 5, he, too, wrote to Gov. Sanford requesting that the camp be afforded extra protection.

“I learned that the camp program which had been planned was being abridged because certain citizens of Transylvania County had visited the camp several times threatening violence ‘if niggers are brought in,’” Wade wrote. “This type of visit apparently occurred several times in the last several weeks. … Needless to say, I have been a bit uneasy this week.

“It might be said that the personnel at the camp were unduly frightened by hollow threats,” he added, “but given the fact that they had no phone, that it is many miles to Rosman by a single road from other cities in the area, and given the fact that their charges are children, I think the staff has just cause for worry.”

Wade praised the governor for his progressive stance on racial matters, but concluded the letter on a grim note. “We left our daughter in North Carolina when many other parents would not have,” he wrote. “We did so for several reasons, not the least of which is our knowledge that she must face the reality of vicious people in the world.”

Sanford replied to the concerned father himself. State authorities had investigated the situation, the governor wrote, and “The findings indicated that the people of the Rosman community were concerned not only that the camp would be integrated in a community which has had no Negro for sixty years, but also that the camp would be staffed and directed by individuals, who in their opinion, had questionable character.” Given the circumstances, his staff had advised von Hilsheimer “to consider moving the camp to another location”; regardless, the governor pledged that “this office is much concerned with the situation and will continue to follow its developments so that law and order will be upheld.”

By the time Sanford’s letter reached Wade, however, North Carolina newspapers were already carrying headlines about Summerlane like the one that appeared on the front page of the July 13, 1963, News & Observer of Raleigh: “Mountain Wrath Falls on Camp.”

Next week, Cruel Summer part three: “Showdown: Camp Summerlane’s Trial by Fire.” 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

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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.

6 thoughts on “Storm clouds: Camp Summerlane’s hopeful start turns troubled (Part 2)

  1. joeb

    Jon: I just wanted to tell you how much I am enjoying your articles on the beginnings of Summerlane. I feel you are doing a wonderful job of fair reporting on a story which has been sensationalized over the years. I like that you are sticking to the facts and not just passing along rumors. I like that you let all voices from that time speak and that you work in links to the actual documents from that time.
    Your writing is really the best I have ever read on the origins of Summerlane and what was later to become Green Valley School. Please keep up your good work and remember not to believe all you hear from those who later became disenchanted and disgruntled. There are still many of us who worked for this program(like myself)who still have good things to say about Green Valley School and George Von Hilshiemer.
    So far you have been fair and unbiased. And I thank you for that. I look forward to reading the next chapters in your story. You are doing a super job of writing. Thanks.

  2. Scott

    The plot thickens and the sense of foreboding is palpable. How creepy it is, these glimpses into the segregationist mind. It reminds me of what author and philosopher Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil”, how otherwise normal people become capable of committing abominable acts against others.

    I’m puzzled by two things. One is that in the camp brochure, parts of it are written in the present tense as if to give the clear impression that a Summerlane School was something already in operation. Cursory research on the internet, however, suggests that the formation of such a school came after the camp in Rosman, not before. Whether this is mere rhetorical flourish or flim-flam with the intent to deceive is not clear, but it is curious.

    The other thing is, didn’t the people running this show realize that trying to set up an integrated camp in a town where the residents took pride in the fact that they hadn’t had Negroes there for 60 years bordered on lunacy and put other peoples’ children at great risk for their personal safety? I understand the value of challenging racism and putting oneself on the line, but using children on the front line strikes me as irresponsible to say the least.

  3. Jon Elliston

    Thanks, all, for your comments on the story.

    Scott: Regarding the camp brochure, it’s my understanding that it was written in present tense to give folks a sense of how the camp would operate in practice, as opposed to just outlining the theories and philosophies it would operate under.

    And the initial plan was to open Summerlane School in the fall of 1963, at the Rosman-area site, after the camp had its summer run. In fact the school did open that fall, but in a different location. The details about that shift in plans will appear in upcoming parts of the Cruel Summer series.

    And regarding the risks of bringing children into that setting, it appears they were difficult to gage in the months the camp was setting up shop. The hostile rhetoric did start to mount around the camp, but most staffers initially viewed it as empty threats, meant to intimidate but not necessarily a foreshadowing of violence. As they became increasingly concerned, they started scouting alternate camp sites, but given the time, effort and plans they’d invested at the site near Rosman, ultimately decided to give it a go there.

    As one staffer recently explained to me, the hope was that since the camp would largely keep to itself, having limited interactions with the locals, there would not be much actual friction with people in the area. And the fact that there were only two mixed-raced campers — who didn’t appear “black” to most observers — mitigated some of the concerns as well.

    Upcoming parts of the story will explore some of the very issues you are raising, so stay tuned …

  4. Stephen

    As a former student at Summerlane School from the period of time following the Rosman-based camp, it’s fascinating to read this excellent account of what transpired there.

    The ‘lore’ relating to the Rosman affair achieved legendary, mythological status at Summerlane. While we kids at the school didn’t have anywhere near as much detail as Mr. Elliston has provided here, what we did know generally corresponds with what’s being reported in this article.

    There are, however, omissions that while not exactly relevant to the precise arc of this historical record, would certainly give pause to those ready to too quickly affix their ‘seal of approval’ to the people running the Summerlane experiment.

  5. Scott

    Jon, I understand your observations regarding the decisions to go forward with the Camp in Rosman, but I don’t think the reasons you state for it are applicable.

    First of all, the controversy, the local backlash against the camp began quite a while before the children actually arrived there.

    Second, announcing the intent to establish an integrated camp in the midst of a violent racist community, a community that bragged about how they hadn’t had any Negroes there in 60 years, is equivalent to waving a red flag in front of a raging bull, a virtually deliberate provocation.

    Third, the main people organizing the place were based in NY, and upstate NY has the same sort of beautiful, untrammeled natural (and affordable) beauty as the mountains of western NC, so why would these people prefer to install themselves smack-dab in the middle of the racist enclave when they could have, (and in fact did eventually), set up shop in upstate NY where the presence of the basic racism and sometime unwelcoming view of outsiders was so much less virulent?

    I suspect aiming the whole enterprise at Rosman, a community least likely to welcome such a group, was calculated to challenge the violent bigotry and xenophobia festering there. Nothing wrong with that among consenting adults who knew what they were getting into. But putting other people’s kids at risk as part of this challenge? That is unconscionable; a serious error in judgment.

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