Smoked out: Camp Summerlane’s conflicted history (Part 4)

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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

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.

Moving out: The morning after the attack on Camp Summerlane, the campers and staff scrambled to pack their things and evacuate from North Carolina to New Jersey. Courtesy Asheville Citizen-Times/

“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.

Making headlines: A spate of newspaper reports summarizing the attack on Camp Summerlane appeared around the country.

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.”

Summerlane survives: Students at Summerlane School in 1964. After briefly relocating to Camp Midvale in New Jersey, the school set up shop in Mileses, N.Y., where these pictures were taken. As planned, the school operated as a “working democracy,” with students having an equal say with the teachers in most matters. Courtesy Green Valley School Archives

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.”

Debating Summerlane

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.”

Many lessons

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.”

For the record

Despite all the turmoil and violence surrounding Camp Summerlane—and the substantial involvement of law-enforcement agencies—no one was charged with any crimes in connection with the physical assaults, the gunfire or the arson.

The North Carolina Highway Patrol swooped in to protect and evacuate the camp, but they made no arrests, according to records in the state archives. A subsequent report to the governor did note that the State Bureau of Investigation had been enlisted to determine who’d set fire to two of the camp’s buildings—a gymnasium that was burned to the ground and a cottage that was damaged—but apparently to no avail.

The Transylvania County Sheriff’s Department also made no arrests and may even have abetted the attackers, one of whom told Xpress that deputies had simply stood by during the assault on the camp. A Highway Patrol report had this to say about the sheriff’s role: “We are informed that the Sheriff was called upon for assistance; 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.”

(A spokesperson for the department today says that when Sheriff Carter McCall—who’s deceased—left office in 1970, he took all of his records with him, leaving no trace of how he’d dealt with Summerlane.)

Press coverage of the incident attracted the attention of the U.S. Justice Department, sparking a federal investigation. An Aug. 7, 1963, FBI memo to then Gov. Terry Sanford informed him that Burke Marshall, the assistant attorney general who headed up the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, had asked the FBI to investigate “the alleged lack of police protection afforded those persons in attendance at Camp Summerlane.”

But the results of that investigation are unknown. In response to a recent Freedom of Information Act request, the FBI said it could find no records on Summerlane. And in response to a subsequent request for documents on camp director George von Hilsheimer, the FBI said that “records which may be responsive … were destroyed on December 15, 1997.”

Xpress has filed an appeal with the FBI, which is pending. In the event the bureau locates and releases any additional materials, they will be posted in our online archive of Summerlane records (available at the_camp_summerlane_documents).

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


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Former Mountain Xpress managing editor Jon Elliston is the senior editor at WNC magazine.

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24 thoughts on “Smoked out: Camp Summerlane’s conflicted history (Part 4)

  1. joeb

    Jon: I really enjoyed this 4 part series on the Cruel Summer of 1963 and the founding of Summerlane.
    It seems that several questions are still unanswered. Why did they come to North Carolina?
    They would have been fine in upstate NY.
    Insane idealists is what George Von called them himself.
    Those newspaper headlines tell it all. Words like “Cult” “Free Living” and “Integrated” are headlines are bound to get readers in a remote mountain community.
    It seems to me that it was a combination of the possibility if not the reality of blacks being in the camp combined with skinny dipping and the rumors of free love and free living and godless communists from the Herald of Freedom that got the locals all riled up. I will tell you that the sight of nude young good looking men and women will draw a crowd in any rural area in the South then or now. The boondocks I mean.
    These were the beginnings of the hippies. Free love, sex,drugs and rock and roll. It may have been an educational experiment but it was also an experiment in communal living which others carried on in the 1960s and into the 1970s. Like all utopian communities in America it failed. Americans are scared to death of free living and free loving.
    Not to mention sex drugs and rock and roll. Especially in the south. But I take note of the local who tells it like it is when he says he would do the same thing today as they did then.
    However I do want to note that no one was hurt or shot or injured. Scared yes but hurt no. I think law inforcement people did a really good job. And as for the locals I believe what that man said in that they just wanted to scare the campers and make them leave. If they had wanted to shoot or hurt anybody they would have. It was all intimidation and it worked.
    Simple as the phrase Yankee Go Home.

  2. Jon Elliston

    Thanks Joeb, for your comments.

    You asked: “Why did they come to North Carolina?”

    I can’t completely answer the question, but I can offer some of the apparent reasons they chose North Carolina. These included: the area’s natural beauty; the fact that an old associate of Summerlane director George von Hilsheimer alerted him to the vacant, available camp site near Rosman; the fact that several camp staffers, von Hilsheimer and his wife among them, were native Southerners (his wife was an N.C. native, to boot); the proximity to the Highlander Folk School in eastern Tennessee, which Summerlane was inspired by, if not exactly modeled on; proximity to migrant laborers in the South (part of Summerlane’s program was to work with migrant laborers); and perhaps a desire to be in an area where there was some true dynamism on the civil-rights front.

    On that last point, it’s important to note that children were very much on the front lines of the civil-rights struggle in 1963. That was true all over the country, if especially so in the South.

    You also wrote: “They would have been fine in upstate NY.”

    I’m not sure if that’s true. Establishing this camp up north was no guarantee it would be left alone. A few days after Camp Summerlane set up shop in New Jersey, for example, a cross was burned at the site. And that same camp, Midvale, was the target of a planned attack in 1966. That attack, planned by a far-right group called the Minutemen, never happened because state authorities broke it up — but had the group succeeded in pulling it off, it would likely have been a far more tragic situation than the attack on Summerlane. The group had stockpiled automatic weapons and dynamite.

    My main point here is that a camp that challenged the status quo in as many ways as Summerlane was prepared to might have had trouble anywhere.

  3. Neil

    Simple as the phrase,”Yankee Go Home”? You’ve got to be kidding right?

    Simply let me know when that phrase picks up a rifle and starts popping off rounds through my car window, heh?

  4. joeb

    No I am not kidding. the locals were all about intimidation. They did not hurt or kill anyone. They wanted to scare the campers and make them leave. And they did. Yankee Go Home.And that is where they went.
    Transylvania county????that should have been warning enough to stay away from that place.
    I know western Carolina and I know that it is 100 per cent anglo saxon and scotch irish and ALL the tombstones in the grave yard are anglo saxon names. A college friend of mine taught English at Western Carolina College in Cullowhee near Silva,N.C. I visited him often in the middle and late 1960s. He and his wife got involved in wife swapping. Don’t hear much about that any more. They are no longer married. I got the idea the people around there were bored out of their heads. Those who were college educated I mean and could read and write. They all moved away from that area.
    Western Carolina is so hemmed in by mountains that any outsiders would be thought of as true aliens.
    One of the commenters on the last installment says they did not want to hurt anyone just to scare them and make them go away.And so they did. He also says he feels the same way today as he did then and he would do the same thing today as he did then.
    Strange that they get along very well in that area with the Cherokee Indians who are left around there. Or do they?? I am not sure about that.I saw some wild looking Cherokee Indians last time I was through that area.
    In that part of Tenn. and N.C. the hillfolk still talk with a mountain twang. The girl at the desk in Pigeon Forge,Tenn. told me about riding on her boyfriend’s motorcycle or four wheeler and how scared she was. She said “I am so leetle. So leetle”. Translation: that is so little.
    I will repeat. There are many places in the South where locals wish Yankees would stop retiring and coming to their area. They call the “come heres”.
    Then you have the transplanted Yankees who never go home. But are quick to tell the natives how wrong they are about everything. After awhile the transplanted Yankees become Professional Southerners who are more Southern than the native born locals.
    Fact is no Yankee ever goes home after getting roots in the South. As Brother Dave Gardner used to say, “You never hear about anybody from the South retiring to the North”.
    Again Jon thanks for your writing this series I really enjoyed it. And thanks for answering my question. That helps me understand the move to N.C more. But after they moved to Buck Brook in upstate NY they never had any trouble like this. And the school in Fla. in Orange City operated for 10 years.It ended in raids and notorious headlines. I really wish you would write a book about Green Valley School. That is the continuation of this amazing place. I was at Green Valley School for a year and half with my wife and 3 small children.
    One night armed rednecks came on the school campus in the darkness and exchanged gun fire with some of the staff.
    I was not armed and did not participate. In fact I told me wife and kids to get on the floor of our house below the windowns. No one was hurt.
    I think what they really were after were some of the sexy hippie girls at the school.

  5. Stephen Jones

    I have to laugh at the Mileses, NY location where Summerlane set up shop after the camp being described as a ‘better facility’ than the one in Rosman. Mileses was such an incredible dump it’s almost impossible for me to imagine anything shabbier. The only really decent structure was the beaver dam at the edge of the small lake. Though as a 15 year old arriving there it took me only about a week to realize the joys of the kind of freedom we had because there was hardly anything required of us. So we didn’t mind the filth and squalor at all. In all the years I was at Summerlane and later Green Valley I never attended a single class, (and hardly anyone else did either), mainly because there weren’t any really regular classes available unless the inspectors or magazine people were coming and we had to put on a show. With such freedom who cared about dirt or bugs or rats or dilapidated buildings? We kids loved the anarchy; many of us loved all the sex too, though for some the sex was a torment imposed on them by others.

    Funny too the idea expressed by one fellow that racism wasn’t a factor in the whole affair. Maybe for him personally, but otherwise a laughable contention.

    I have to laugh too at the idea that anyone could take seriously the idea that von Hilsheimer was guided in any way by truly religious or spiritual principles, or that his cathartic “Why is Dr. Von Always Getting Into Trouble” is anything more than what a huge persecution complex looks like in print, something you’d expect from someone like a Nero of ancient Rome, or from any tinpot tyrant who’s his own biggest fan. And while a clerical collar usually lends a great deal of stature and credibility to the person wearing it, it is never truly a guarantee that that person is upstanding or devout. But lots of people have gotten a great deal of mileage out of exploiting that clerical collar credibility thing, posturing as men of God when they are anything but, knowing how reluctant people are to question the words and intentions of a man of God because Men of God, after all, are supposed to be above reproach, and we are not supposed to feel the need to question them. A perfect cover for keeping people from examining too closely what you might be up to. Who’s going to question a Pastor or a Reverend if a child says he was molested? Reviewing much of the material available about the post-Rosman Summerlane trajectory suggests that the exploitation of illusion of religiosity afforded by the religious costuming and occasional snippets of grand biblical rhetoric might reflect more accurately the primary purpose this religious posturing served within the Summerlane context as being one that discouraged close inquiry about much of what was actually going on.

    There’s another entire story to be told about Summerlane and Green Valley and von Hilsheimer, but it’s not directly tied to this work by Jon Elliston and so won’t be able to be told here. But lest Jon’s brief foray into the post-Rosman affairs of von Hilsheimer and his schools leaves a favorable impression of noble ideals frustrated by outside forces at every turn, I can assure you all that is only true in the most marginal, tenuous way. Even a disturbing article such as the one that appeared in Time Magazine in 1974 titled “Valley of Horrors” , (link here;,9171,879422,00.html ), only barely scratches the surface beneath which lay far darker realities. Even the 200 page transcript of Senate testimony which recounts unimaginable crimes perpetrated on children only goes so far and no farther. There is an abundance of public record information available about these matters if anyone reading here is interested in finding out more. For those who are you may write to me at and I’ll be happy to forward material to you.

    There were quite a few genuinely noble and idealistic and hard working people who passed through the Summerlane experiment and they are to be commended. But in large part, to the extent these folks were able to actually apply and impart their idealism and humanity in a way that benefited the children placed in their care, they did so despite von Hilsheimer, not because of him.

  6. phil

    Amazing story. Long before Summerlane came to town, something prepared these people with a deep capacity experience for fear? What was it? Thanks for the story and long live the changes wrought in western NC since!

  7. Cletis Moore

    I think I agree with you Neil. That “Simple as Yankee Go Home” thing is another real humdinger.

  8. Ivin

    joeb, you do an excellent job in describing the South..I grew up in Rosman and I have to agree with everything you say…and I can tell you for sure, if those people wanted to harm or kill them they would have been dead before the night was over..

  9. Jane Johnstone

    Joeb, I guess you didn’t read part 3 very thoroughly, but George Hall and Michael Goldblatt were surrounded by the aggressive townsfolk who were pounding on them. They managed to finally escape, but George Hall had a gash in his back (I had heard from a knife) and blood streaming down his face. Michael Goldblatt’s head looked like it had been used for soccer practice! So, NO ONE WAS HURT? And what about bullets flying through the windshield? Do you believe the shooter was trying to miss the driver? It caused Fried to nearly overturn the bus as it ran off the road! How would you like a warning like that? If nothing else, it was traumatic..and I can’t imagine what it must have like for the kids. Terrifying is all I can think.

  10. Scott

    Jon, in the course of your research did you find any other independent camps or private schools that had the same sort of violence visited on them as this Rosman Camp. I know you said a planned attack on the NJ camp run by Communists was nipped in the bud by law enforcement, but, for instance, was the Highlander Folk School, a known integrated facility where there were even photos of blacks dancing with white women, ever assaulted like this?

    I read somewhere that a guy who was supposed to be one of the lead attackers had been trying to romance one of the volunteer counselors who’d gone early to prepare the camp for the summer. According to the story she didn’t give him the time of day. Did you ever hear anything about this?

    And my God, Joeb! After you wisely pointed out the value of putting things in context, it’s really hard to understand how you reached the conclusions you did from that context.

  11. joeb

    Jane: Please read Ivin’s comments above yours. Here was there and he agrees with me.
    And yes I do think the shooter who shot at the bus was trying to miss the driver. If he had wanted to hit the driver he would have. Those mountain people are crack shots. Have you ever heard of Sgt. York?
    Scott: What conclusions of mine are you talking about?
    I based what I said on the interview Jon did with an unamed person who was there and said they did not intend to harm anyone. Only scare them. And that if they had intended to shoot or harm anyone they would have. Yes there may be have fights and stonings but no one was SHOT OR KILLED. I am certainly not saying it was all right to stone anyone or kick or hit or beat on anyone or shoot anywhere near anyone.
    Jon: you wrote the following:
    “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.”
    Jon: You should have written more about the effect of having Jewish students and staff at the camp. I doubt there were very many Jewish people in that part of rural western North Carolina at that time. If I remember correctly the resistance by white Southerners to integration of blacks also included Jews. I have often wondered why Summerlane and Green Valley School attracted some many Jewish people. Partly it was because of the activist nature of the program and also because they advertized in NYC in publications read by Jewish people. I will let those who are Jewish speak for themselves about this matter.

  12. gochapgo

    That was an excellent series of articles.

    I am native to that area… my parents’ house was about a mile away from the camp as the crow flies. Neither of my parents never told me about what had happened there; I heard about the incident from friends while at Rosman HS. It’s nice to have a story that adds pieces to the puzzle.

  13. Ivin

    Jane, if the guy had meant to hit him he would have, they learn about guns and how to shoot at a very young that part of the country. Another thing the people did not like people coming from the North and stiring up trouble..I worked with a black lady, and she said if she got laid off, she could go to Asheville and make five dollars a day bumping, I ask her what she meant and she said bumping white people off the side walk…paid for by white Northenrs..I remember at the Asheville school the black girls protested to the principal wanting more black girls on the cheering leading team. but nothing became of it..
    but the wrong people heard about it, and they went to Greenville or some where, not sure exactly but they brought a bus load of blacks and told them to start a riot..I think they turned over a car or two and did a bit of damage, but the local blacks would have not part of it and it faded out…but a lot of this sort of stuff was also played a small part..I worked with a lot of blacks and so did a lot of other people and we got along very well…except you always have an extremist or two…in nearly every sitution, I think intergration would have happen more natural and more quietly if it had not been for the interferecne of the North…Not all people in the South hate black people..and I was one of those..I believe they should be give equal oppertunity, but not specail treatment, and a lot of the poverty was self inflicked, I know many of those cases with blacks working with me, and earning the same amout of money as me..but they spent most of their money for drink, one told me he could not buy his kids anything for xmas, yet he owned a new car, and owned 22 paris of shoes he told me..and he came to work dressed better than I could dress on special occasions..I am not saying they were all like this either, a lot of them, if they wanted something they had it..some owend houses and new cars and did well..these people you never heard any thing from..and they also critized the demostration and trouble makers
    I also know that Southern people does not like to have things forced on to them..

  14. Jon Elliston

    Scott, you asked:

    Jon, in the course of your research did you find any other independent camps or private schools that had the same sort of violence visited on them as this Rosman Camp?

    Similar examples did surface. Perhaps the most fitting one to mention in this context was a law-enforcement crackdown on an interracial work camp, populated by many young people as well adults, in Blount County, Tennessee — a location just 75 miles or so from Rosman. The camp was run by the Highlander Research and Education Center out of Knoxville (the former Highlander Folk School).

    Highlander met with trouble from local, state and federal law enforcement many a time, but this was a particularly severe example. On June 20, 1963 — three weeks, as it happened, before the attack on Camp Summerlane — the Blount County sheriff’s department raided the Highlander camp and arrested 29 people on charges ranging from disorderly conduct to possession of liquor.

    The camp was effectively closed by the action. And four days later, unknown arsonists burned the camp’s structures down.

  15. joeb

    Good info on the Highlander Research and Education Center.
    Also check this out. I was amazed that Posey fled to the Highlander Center as it states in this article. See articles below. I never knew of these connections before.
    Also this is good information concerning the deaths of the 3 civil rights workers in Miss. in June of 1964:;/price&bowers;.htm

  16. ButtercupMcToots

    Hi Jon,

    Excellent article. The woman that writes the Rosman News for the Transylvania Times commented this shouldn’t be thrown up in people’s faces. That being said I’m not sure how much things have changed. The local police regularly hassle the peace activist at the courthouse. For a while the mayor was making them get a permit to assemble. He doesn’t put too much stock in that pesky Bill of Rights.I assume this happens with the tacit approval of the Mayor and City Council. Recently there have been cases of people yelling I’m not voting for a N_____ at people with Obama shirts. (see letters in Transylvania Times) Oddly enough these people consider themselves very patriotic while trampling on civil rights.

  17. vrede

    Excellent series. Unfortunately, it is far too easy to look back on this tragedy as a historic relic that we have now moved beyond. Try substituting the words gays, Mexicans and Muslims for the Summerlane Jews, communists, nudists and (non existent) blacks, while also replacing the sheriff, Rosmaniacs, and Baptists with Mumpower, Shuler, Minutemen and (some) Baptists.

    NC can’t even pass a school bullying law because too many bigots approve of gay kids getting beaten. We haven’t progressed as far as we’d like to think that we have.

  18. michael goldblatt

    I got out of the bus to talk to the mob blocking us. They beat me into a ditch while the bus was shot at while backing up.

  19. Susan Page Howland

    Very interested in this series and all the comments. in Particular Joeb’s. After Leo Koch left Summerlane he was the headmaster at the Collaberg School in Stony Point, NY. I went there and I am working on a history. Would like to know if you have further information on Leo Koch. Would anyone know about the facility members named Waterhouse…did they the a daughter Debbie?

  20. michael yinhar

    facinating I went to summerlane as a 10 year old when it was already in the NY catskills about a half year after they had fled north carolina the attack was legend. life went on I eventually ended up immigrating to israel from the lower eastside streets of NYC I married, raised children and at age of 32 came back to the states to study blacksmithing after a cirticutios route we found ourselves in CELO n.c. where we lived for 8 years until we moved to Asheville in order that I could join the Asheville Fire Dept after 3.5 years as as a firefighter We returned to Israel in 1997 reading this article and relising for the first time where the legendary attack had taken place ( I havnt thoudgt of it in 40 years )how I have touched theese places and events has left me with wierd sence of forrest gumpishness. thank you for a fasinating and illuminating glimse into history the south and the 60’s and how it tangently involved me michael yinhar

  21. The need for vengeance against Rosman is unmet to this day. The campers should have shot back, and even shot first as soon as they saw armed mobs in the area, as they should still. The stupid hippies are always taking too much abuse, thus inviting more.

  22. The confiscation of Von Hilsheimer’s shotgun, which was soon desperately needed and should have been used a hundred times over, only goes to show the unappreciated need by progressive forces for exercising the right to bear arms. They should have had hundreds more guns and they should have used them the second they saw a hostile trespasser. Then they shouldn’t have stopped until the town of Rosman was a pile of Ashes, like Atlanta in 1865. They should have rounded up the trespassers and made them swim naked until they drowned, as they should still.
    Certainly if a trespasser denounced abortion on my Leicester farm, he would be dead meat.

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