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Flat Rock summer camps

Camp Ton-a-wandah. Image courtesy Jane Izard.

Since the early 1900s, thousands of children have packed their trunks for an annual pilgrimage to summer camps in North Carolina. Camps play a large role in Henderson County and the arrival of the camp season is what draws many families to Flat Rock. Tucked away in the mountains of Western North Carolina are more than 70 summer camps. Flat Rock is home to some of the oldest ones.

In 1886, Dr. Arthur Rose Guerard of Charleston built Heidelberg House for his wife, Eugenia Engels. Mrs. Guerard’s father designed the original structure to resemble her home in Switzerland. The chalet-style house is an example of stick-style architecture, a type of Queen Anne architecture characterized by towers, wrap-around porches and spindle detailing.

During the construction, Mrs. Guerard continued to increase the size of the house until her requirements eventually depleted her husband’s resources. The wood frame structure encased in pebble-dash stucco included a three-story tower with two large wings, long verandas on all sides and two porte-cocheres. In all, there were 60 rooms: 45 bedrooms, 14 bath and toilet rooms, two parlors, two dining rooms, an assembly room, library, office, kitchen, pantries, store rooms, cellar, etc. It featured all the bells and whistles including hot and cold water, steam heat, open fireplaces, a lighting plant, electric bells, a telephone system and a fire apparatus completed Heidelberg House.

Practically broke, Dr. Guerard was forced to turn Heidelberg into a summer hotel. After several years of operation, it proved to be unsuccessful, so he turned it into a sanitarium. That, too, failed and his wife proposed a casino — which caused a big uproar in Flat Rock. In 1915 Dr. Guerard decided to sell Heidelberg and return to New York where he studied medicine.

Bonclarken and campers in the 1930s. Image courtesy of the author.

In 1921, The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church bought the 63-acre estate of Heidelberg and made it into a camp and conference center. Renamed “Bonclarken,” meaning “good clear vision,” it has operated continually in this fashion and now includes many summer homes on the Assembly grounds near Highland Lake.

On the outskirts of Flat Rock is Kanuga Camp and Conference Center. In 1907, George Stephens of Charlotte, N.C. founded the Kanuga Lake Club, a cooperative summer residential colony. According to Henderson County deed records, the land purchased by Stephens as the nucleus of the club belonged to the Hanckel family of Charleston beginning with the Rev. Christian Hanckel (1790-1870) and on through several generations.

Architect Richard Sharp Smith, well known for his work with Biltmore and John Nolen, a top American landscape architect and city planner, were selected to orchestrate the building of the club. Craftsman-style cottages, a lake pavilion and hotel and dining hall were constructed with board and batten siding painted in dark green (now sold at Sherwin-Williams as Kanuga Green) and furnished with mission-style furniture all made from trees felled on the property. George Stephens tried for several years to make his Kanuga Club a winner. The great Henderson County flood of 1916 and the breaking of the Kanuga Lake dam were the beginning of the end for the club.

In 1923, Stephens put the property up for sale and began negotiations with Bishop Kirkman Finlay of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina. Finlay worked arduously with North and South Carolina dioceses and private backers to raise the necessary funds to make Kanuga an Episcopal Camp and Conference Center. Finlay’s vision for Kanuga continues today with the growth of summer camps, environmental education programs and an enlarged conference center.

My own relationship with Kanuga began in 1967 when I attended a Young People’s Conference as a representative from St. Philip’s Church in Charleston. By the end of the week- long conference, I was not ready to go home. After convincing, Mr. Hartley, Kanuga’s director, that I was old enough at 14 for employment, he allowed me to stay for the summer and work in the conference center for room and board. For the next eight years, Kanuga was my summer job and became one of the most important influences in my life.

Camp Pinnacle, one of the oldest summer camps in Henderson County, was founded in 1927 by H.R. “Red” Dobson, a South Carolina football coach and Van Kussrow Sr., a Miami business man. Originally founded as an all-boys camp, Pinnacle eventually added a girls’ session and operates today as a coed camp. In 1978, Van Kussrow, Jr., “Dr. Van,” took over operations of the camp. The Kussrow family now leases the facility to the partnership of Adventure Treks and Camp Champions. Jane and John Dockendorf serve as the Camp Pinnacle directors.

Camp Ton-a-Wandah (TAW), a private girls’ camp in Flat Rock, was founded in 1933 by Grace “Donnie” Haynes and has been owned and operated by members of the Haynes family for four generations. Donnie Haynes leased 42 acres plus a 10-acre lake within the Lake Falls Resort from W.P. Bane. Mr. Bane also operated a quarry below the waterfall. Many of the granite steps and rock walls in Flat Rock and Hendersonville were mined there. Haynes eventually bought the site and today the camp encompasses 365 acres. Judy and Billy Haynes (Donnie’s grandson) serve as executive directors and Kim and Ben Haynes (his great-grandson) are the directors.

The focal point of the camp is the dining hall positioned on the lake dam. The lake flows under the dining hall and cascades down the mountain into a beautiful waterfall giving Ton-A-Wandah its’ Native American name, “by the fall of water.” Located at the base of the waterfall is the campfire circle where traditional camp ceremonies are held. The lodge, built in the early 1900s and the majority of the buildings on campus are constructed in the craftsman style architecture and painted hunter green with white trim.

Ton-a-Wandah is a camp that is very near and dear to my family. My mother and her two older sisters went to camp there from 1933-36 by way of The Carolina Special, a luxury Pullman and coach train from Charleston to Cincinnati, launched in 1911. The tracks up the Saluda Grade, rising 600 feet in three miles, were the steepest main line in the country east of the Rockies. Nicknamed “The Carolina Creeper,” the train would leave Charleston with stops in Columbia and Spartanburg to bring campers and passengers to the mountains for the summer. It became as much a tradition as going to camp.

My mother’s TAW summers were the beginning of a family legacy for us and her camp memories were seeds from which we grew. In the early 1990s, I packed my trunk and headed to camp with two of my daughters as an arts and crafts instructor. By the end of the summer I was offered the program director’s position and began a decade-long staff relationship with TAW. As a summer camp lifer, this was a dream come true. During those years, my mother would join me for a week or so to help around camp. She slept in my rustic cabin on an old metal army bed and lived by the bugle; but mostly she soaked in the magic of TAW. Years later when I called my mother with news of her first great-granddaughter, straight away she asked me where she would go to camp; the die was cast for a fourth generation TAW girl.

Western North Carolina is home to the largest concentration of summer camps in the United States. The train whistles are long gone; nonetheless, trunks, suitcases, backpacks and campers still arrive. There are summer camps virtually suited for everyone, but camp is camp; a place where children are allowed to feel ageless and free; to be centered as a human being and to remember who they are … and, when the last sounds of taps echoes in the valley and drifts over the mountain tops, day is done.

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