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Kanuga … in the pines upon the mountain


An artistic rendering of Kanuga Chapel by the author. COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR
 

By Missy Craver Izard

 

In the summer of 1967, I was heading to an Episcopal Camp and Conference Center nestled in the mountains of Western North Carolina called Kanuga. I had just finished eighth grade at Charleston Day School and was very excited about starting high school. St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Charleston had the popular EYC program — a youth ministry with attendees of all denominations and led by St. Philip’s own head priest, Canon Samuel T. Cobb. It kept us off the streets on Sunday nights, and it was coed. That alone made it worth going to and no one ever wanted to miss it.

Sometime during the spring of that school year, Canon Cobb called my mother and said he wanted me to represent St. Philip’s at the Young People’s Conference at Kanuga. My mother reminded Canon Cobb that I was a Presbyterian and he responded by saying some of the best Episcopalians were once Presbyterians including himself. So, off I went to the YP conference during the first week of June. It was the beginning of my real love for camp and an eight-year working relationship with Kanuga.

In 1907, George Stephens of Charlotte, N.C. founded the Kanuga Lake Club, a cooperative summer residential colony on the skirts of Flat Rock, N.C. 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 Reverend Christian Hanckel (1790-1870) and on through several generations.

Richard Sharp Smith, the architect renowned for his work on the 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 the dioceses of North and South Carolina as well as private backers to raise the necessary funds to turn Kanuga into an Episcopal Camp and Conference Center. Finlay’s vision for Kanuga survives to this day, with the growth of summer camps, environmental education programs and an enlarged conference center.

“My great uncle, the Rev. A. Rufus Morgan, served as the first business manager of Kanuga and was an integral part of the early years with Bishop Finlay. He was a naturalist, author, explorer and one of the early pioneers in the founding and development of the Appalachian Trail,” said Rev. Dr. John Barr. Raised in the far western mountains of North Carolina, Morgan climbed Mount LeConte for the 174th time to celebrate his 93rd birthday. Though blind, he was so familiar with the trail he would stop and turn to a nearby tree and point out a blooming wildflower at the base of the tree. While working in Mitchell County in the 1920’s he assisted his sister, Lucy Morgan, in the establishment of the Penland School of Crafts. He was a legendary figure in Kanuga’s beginnings.”

John Barr’s father was an Episcopal Priest and served as the rector at St. James Episcopal Church in Hendersonville when he was a young boy. At the time, Bill Verduin was the Executive Director of Kanuga (1950-63) and Kanuga operated seasonally from May to October. “When Bill closed up Kanuga at the end of the season, he would give the key to my father to keep for the winter, recalled John. For five months no one was there — we were like the king and prince of Narnia. One winter, my father took me camping up on the mountain at Kanuga. The next morning, we woke up to a blanket of snow covering everything, the trees shining with frost. We couldn’t pack up our tent because the stakes were frozen in the ground. My father took my hand and we began to walk down the mountain. For the first time in my life, I was struck by the sheer beauty and immense majesty of my surroundings. It gave me the capacity to see God and my father introduced me to it.”

“Both my father and I held numerous roles at Kanuga; YP Camp, summer camp, lifeguard, kitchen, the canteen, parish weekends, Program committee, the board of directors, retreats, Guest period and Renewal Conference. Guest Period was always a part of our family. My wife, Laura, and I have continued this family tradition started by my parents. Our children were all baptized at Kanuga and our daughter was married there. Now, our grandchildren are the fifth generation in our family to grow up there. Kanuga has always been an oasis for us,” said John.

Kanuga, a word of Cherokee origin, means “a gathering place.” Within ten years of Bishop Finlay’s leadership, Kanuga became the Episcopal Church’s largest independent, non-profit camp and conference center — a gathering place that today welcomes approximately 35,000 guests annually. With a mission to invite all people to connect with each other, nature and the Creator, Kanuga encompasses 1,400 acres across the Blue Ridge Mountains with a 40-acre lake at its heart.

Guest Period is six weeks of week-long multi-generational programs at Kanuga’s conference center. A true family camp retreat of faith, fun and friendship, it is by far one of the best vacations offered. There are a variety of evening programs, adult and children’s activities and each week hosts a visiting priest to provide spiritual leadership. Guest Period allows participants to unplug — no work, no laundry, no schedules, no cooking and to spend time alone or together with other kindred spirits who have decided to find something inside that they may have misplaced in all the pressures of everyday life.

Generations of the Pritchard family of Charleston have spent decades at Kanuga’s Guest Period. This will be the 70th summer for them to gather with more than 100 family members and as many as eight cabins. Elizabeth Pritchard Bowles related family memories with me: “Mother’s family had a huge house at Lake Lure, and we would go up there for a couple of weeks in August each summer. Daddy never saw my mother because she spent all her time cooking and doing laundry! He found Kanuga in the early 1950s and decided we would all go to church camp together. There were five children in our family:  Posey, Julie, Boopa, Louisa and me.

“During Mr. Hartley’s tenure, my parents built two of the new cabins and each child renovated a cabin,” said Elizabeth Pritchard Bowles. “We would go up the last week in July and Daddy would commute from Charleston on the weekends. When my father died, he put in his will to continue the Kanuga family tradition. He felt family was very important and a place like Kanuga allowed all of us to be in one place and for cousins to grow up together. Each summer we all go for one week of family time and have throughout the years created some of our own shenanigans — the Pritchard family Olympics being one. This includes an obstacle course of a variety of activities all over Kanuga. It is a highlight for our family.”

As for official services, the Chapel of the Transfiguration, named to express the collect of the Transfiguration feast day, is the heart of Kanuga. Scottish born Asheville architect, S. Grant Alexander, was selected to design the chapel. The only stained-glass window in the chapel is the altar window, which portrays the Transfiguration story. To place the chapel in the center of Kanuga activity, cottages seven and eight were moved from their original sites. The pine frame building, begun in 1938, seats 250 comfortably and 300 tightly. It was the first major building constructed after the Episcopal Church acquired Kanuga. Rufus Honeycutt, the grounds and building superintendent worked on the chapel construction, but his principal contribution was to handcraft the chapel pews.

Although the physical growth of the Kanuga facilities is recorded, the spiritual growth of the people who gather there is the magic that is Kanuga. “If there were to be a “thin place” in my life, this would be it,” says the Reverend Dr. John Barr. “All of my life has been part of Kanuga. It is for me a place of Shabbat.”  

Grace Dibble Boyle loves Kanuga! “I first came to Kanuga in 1998 for the Renewal Conference. She recalled: 

 

Recently divorced and a bereaved parent, I traveled up this mountain with a wooden stake in my heart and when I left; it was gone. On Tuesday morning of the conference, we worshiped at the chapel of St. Francis in the Woods. I sat in the back alone, hurt and feeling sorry for myself. I watched my brothers and sisters go over the Living Water Bridges for Communion and it was there in these woods that I realized that God would meet me at the bottom wherever I am. That’s Kanuga.

 

When I attended the YP Conference in 1967, Edgar Hartley was the director and held that position from 1964-1982. All week, I continually asked Mr. Hartley if I could stay for the summer and work. I even offered to work for free since I was not of Kanuga hiring age. On the last morning of the conference Mr. Harley beckoned me and said, “Go home and if your parents agree to it, come back and work Guest Period. I can’t pay you, but I will give you room and board.”

My mother telephoned St. Philip’s and asked if anyone who was going to Kanuga could give me a ride up to the mountains. Our neighbor, Mrs. Buist, was leaving the next day, so arrangements were made for me to ride with her. The two of us sat in the back seat of her big Cadillac and with William, her chauffer, as our driver, I felt like royalty.

That summer I learned to play the guitar and together with other staff members performed at campfires and the talent show. We all bought “Big Red” brand hog washers (overalls) from Sherman’s on Main Street and embroidered flowers all over them. They remained a part of my wardrobe well into my 30s. I was by far the youngest staff person at Fanny Hill, the female staff dormitory. As a rotating staff member, I worked from one end of Kanuga to the other — entertaining preschoolers in The Little Red Schoolhouse; lifeguarding on the waterfront; waitressing in the dining hall; and food prep in the kitchen and scooping ice cream in the canteen.

As promised — I did just about anything and everything and I never tired of this multi-tasking role I accepted for my first summer working at Kanuga. It was life-changing for me and for the next eight years, Kanuga was my summer job and became one of the most important influences in my life. This week, I returned to Kanuga for the Renewal Conference. Once again, I felt ageless and free — centered — and I knew it was a privilege to be on its holy ground.

 

Missy Craver Izard was born and raised in Charleston, S.C. and resides in Flat Rock, N.C. A retired summer camp director and art teacher, Missy is an entrepreneur, speaker, author, journalist, community leader and the recipient of several awards, including the White House Champions of Change.

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