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Lake Summit: in the beginning …

By Missy Schenck

Lake Summit Dam. Image by Nate Few.

Sandwiched between Tuxedo and Saluda, North Carolina, lies Lake Summit, where families and campers have gathered for more than 100 years of recreational fun. Although the lake was originally built as a power source, more than 250 cottages with boathouses and four summer camps now line its shores. Each summer, families welcome the season as they make their annual pilgrimage to the lake, a beloved place rooted in multigenerational history.

In 1915, Green River Manufacturing Company sold certain land holdings to Blue Ridge Power Company to build a lake four to five times larger than the current Lake Edith that generated power to the Green River Mill in Tuxedo. Spartanburg mill owner John Adger Law felt there was ample power to be had by damming the Green River. Law and several of his colleagues, including J. O. Bell, founding father of Tuxedo, and Walter S. Montgomery, H. L. Bomar, A. L. White, George E. Ladshaw, Joseph Lee and William A. Law formed the Manufacturer’s Power Company in Spartanburg and later reorganized into the Blue Ridge Power Company after absorbing Hendersonville Power. They proceeded to buy up lands all along the Green River in Henderson and Polk counties with the intention of creating four lakes, but later decided to build just two, resulting in Lake Summit, in 1920, the highest of the four, and Lake Adger, in 1925, the lowest one.

To build Lake Summit, a small community of family homes along with a gristmill, sawmill and church had to be moved from the lake bed to higher ground. Until a bridge was built, transportation from the north side of the lake to the south side was by ferry or barge. Railroad tracks on the north side of the lake were elevated 18 feet for about a one-mile stretch, and a large concrete train trestle was built over the lake. Once complete, Lake Summit covered 324 acres with ten miles of shoreline, becoming the largest lake in Henderson County with development plans for hundreds of home sites, a resort and a clubhouse. Thankfully, the proposed blueprints never came to be, and many of the early lots were sold to family and friends of the initial developers.

The water from the lake fell over a 254-foot single-arch dam into an eight-foot-in-circumference old growth cypress flume leading to the powerhouse at Pot Shoals and supplying electricity for the textile mills in Spartanburg. Harley Lively helped build the infamous flume. He lived in a boardinghouse in Zirconia near the mill village of Tuxedo during the week and commuted back to his family on Deep Gap for the weekends. His grandson, Mickey Lively, tells stories of his grandfather and the dam construction. “Cypress logs were put on skids and pulled by mule and oxen to the site of the dam. It took 54 boards to make the eight-foot circumference of the mile-long flume that was held together with three-quarter-inch steel bands. Each band was three to four inches apart, and eventually new bands and steel plates were used to patch the aging flume.” In 2012, the flume was replaced and Mickey was able to buy all of the old cypress boards and sell them to Whole Log Lumber owner, Jim Stowell. The boards are now part of many homes in the area.

Housing for some of the builders and engineers of Lake Summit included two Minter Homes located on the east end of South Lake Summit Road on the southwest side of the dam. Minter Homes, the nation’s oldest manufacturer of prefabricated houses, established a factory in Greenville, South Carolina, shortly after World War I. Sear’s mail order houses are well-known, but Minter’s home catalog predates Sears by five years. Upon completion of the dam, the Minter Company had intentions of developing a public beach at the end of the lake near the trestle and to sell vacation cottages; however, the company went bankrupt before the project began and the two houses were sold to Dr. Adolphe Vermont, a Belgian, who was chairman of the Modern Language Department at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C., and the great grandfather of the current owners.

Most of the 70 styles Minter advertised were craftsman bungalows, including four-room houses and larger duplexes for mining towns and mill villages. The model home in a 1923 Greenville News was an 800-square-foot, one-story cottage with a shingle roof, two bedrooms and a bath, a fireplace, an arched entryway and a porch. This design completely captures the original layout of these two cottages on Lake Summit. During renovations of one of the cottages, a small Minter sign with the slogan “Minter System of Fabrication, Greenville, S.C.” was found in the attic. It now hangs in the hallway of the cottage.

Minter home (above) owned by the Vermont Family. The Minter sign (below) was found in the attic during a remodel. Images courtesy of the author.

A lifetime of our family vacations at Lake Summit began at these very Minter houses. My father grew up in Spartanburg, S.C., where he became best friends with Adolphe “Dolph” Vermont, Jr. He spent countless summers at the lake with the Vermont family, and it became our family tradition to spend time each summer on Vermont Hill with all of them too. As the years passed the Vermont family compound grew to four cottages, and eventually each one of the four Vermont children, Dolph, Albert, Venerable (Bun) and Fannie Louise had their own houses. They are now owned by the fourth generation of the family.

Katherine Saul, who owns the cottage once belonging to her grandmother, Fannie Louise Vermont Holcombe, grew up on stories that her mother, Pammy Holcombe, and her grandmother told her. “My great grandfather, Poopa, spoke five languages and would take all of the grandchildren and their friends on hikes around the lake. He would lapse in and out of French while pointing out plants and wildlife, thoroughly entertaining everyone. Nana, my great grandmother, had a pump organ and would host sing-alongs at their cottage. There was always something fun going on. My grandmother, Fannie Louise, was a bit like her father and became the program director of the lake. She organized plays, art shows and boating and swimming adventures and kept the children amused with her creativity and enthusiasm for life. She even organized trips to Cherokee! It was Fannie Louise who initiated the annual Lake Summit Fourth of July Boat Parade in 1976. The parade has grown from a handful of boats in the early years to a fleet of 50 or more today.”

Fannie Louise Holcombe leading July 4th parade. Image provided.

The Holcombe girls, L to R: Martha, Pammy, Fannie Louise, Anne Lynn and Elodie. Image provided.

The Gordon family of Spartanburg owns the property next to the Vermonts’ and the two families have shared a long history together in Spartanburg and at the lake. Dr. Bill Gordon and his son, Billy Gordon, reside there year-round. Billy and his sister, Kathy, now own the cottage of their grandparents, Sarah and Russ Gordon. Built in the early 1920s, this charming cottage is full of inspiration and character with a stone fireplace, locust posts and board and batten siding. It is a notable example of the early lake cottages and is still what it has always been — the Gordon House. Billy’s aunt and uncle, Joe and Mary Few, and their four sons, Rob, Kendall, JoJo and Nace, owned a house just above the Gordon House, and Billy’s father’s house, built in the 1980s, is just above it further up the mountain.

Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting with Dr. Gordon and his lifetime best friend, Bill Kirkpatrick. These two men have spent more than eight decades on the lake along with friends Neill Satterfield, Lesesne Smith and Bill’s cousin Rob Few. This “fearless five” conjured up hours of fun and mischief and some of the happiest times of their lives. “We water-skied every day from sunup to sundown,” said Bill Gordon. “We would go to each other’s houses and collect loose change to buy a tank of gas and ski until it ran out. We made our own skis out of planks of wood with a leather strap for the shoe. Neill Satterfield came up one summer with a pair of skis he bought at Crutchfields in Spartanburg. They were Hedlund Hydro-Flite skis, one of the first brands manufactured and that had a big fin on the back. This was new to us and we weren’t quite sure of its purpose. Before long, we were jumping straight off the dock into the water on a slalom balanced by that fin.”

“During the early 1930s and 40s there were just a few boathouses and most of them floated on oil drums,” remarked Bill Kirkpatrick. “Bill Gordon’s father bought a couple of old WWII army rafts for floating docks until we discovered how much fun they were to pull behind a boat! One of the rafts blew out on the water, so we took off the door of the boathouse, attached a rope to it and kept going!”

“It was not easy to get to Lake Summit,” explained Bill Gordon. “When South Lake Summit Road was first constructed, it only went about three fourths of the way around the lake and the road did not reach our house. Our family along with the Vermonts and Holcombes would board the train in Spartanburg, and the conductor would take all of us as far as the train trestle on Lake Summit and let us off. We would walk the rest of the way to our cottages. Mrs. Vermont — Nana — always brought her cow with her. There were no stores close by, and once we got to the lake we were there for the summer.”

“The train trestle was a significant part of the lake,” said Bill Kirkpatrick. “Jumping off of it was an initiation to the lake and even more exciting if a train was coming!” I can attest that generations of my own family have jumped off this trestle, which wears years of graffiti. Severe accidents led to this adventure’s demise and a serious fine now if caught doing it. The train, part of the Carolina Special route, was pretty exciting too. Boat races with the train and waving hands to the conductor always bought a happy smile to all as the whistle blew.

The infamous train trestle. Image courtesy of the author.

Cousins Billy Gordon and Nace Few both have fond memories of growing up on the lake. Like the generation before them, waterskiing filled their days, and no one ever tired of it. “My brother JoJo and Sandy Vermont were excellent skiers and along with my other brothers Kendall and Robert, would dress in costumes and perform stunts all day on a variety of skis,” added Nace Few.

Ironically, an early memory of mine at the lake was one of these stunts Nace talks about. Sandy Vermont convinced my father that I was the perfect size to top his skiing pyramid of blue-jean-overall-and-straw-hat-clad young men. My father did not hesitate to hand me over to this group of daredevils for this amazing feat and watched as I sat in the lap of a skier for takeoff. They handed me off until I sat upon the shoulders of one of the skiers at the top. Thankfully, I’ve lived to tell the story with fervor.

“Everyone had canoes or rowboats on the lake, but very few had motorboats. The first boats were all wooden,” recalls Nace. “Lesesne Smith had a boat named Playboy with a 35HP Johnson motor on it, considered fast at the time. My father bought a wooden boat that was made by someone in Charleston. It had a 50 HP Evinrude motor on it — the biggest motor in the 1950s. This new boat enticed my mother with the idea of boat racing. My father was a tobacco broker in Anderson, S.C., and opted to take the boat to Anderson for his mechanic to work on the motor and increase the speed. He then engaged one of his employees to return the boat to the lake. While he was driving back, the boat trailer came off of the ball hitch on the back of the truck and rolled on down the highway past the vehicle and into a wall. The phone call my father got went a bit like this: ‘Mr. Few, that boat so fast it done pass the truck!’ It was the last of my mother’s boat racing dreams. Our next boat was a 1957 Chris-Craft inboard that stayed with our family for a good while.”

“The heart of Lake Summit has always been the lake community. Every household played a part in raising us,” adds Billy Gordon. Immersed in the intimate community of the lake, we were offered a whole other kind of education. We were given tremendous independence and freedom. We took risks and persevered; we learned about courage and resilience — skills that transformed us. As families we gathered for picnics, hikes, tubing, square dances and parties. It was a glorious way to spend the summer, and leaving at the end of the season was always sad.”

The author waterskiing three years ago.

The author's grandsons fishing

The Izard-Schenck Family relaxes by the lake in 2019. Images courtesy of the author.

Our family continues to return each summer to Lake Summit and during the last 70 years has rented a variety of cottages. For most of them, we have stayed on Vermont Hill where very little has changed and images of my youth unfold a nostalgic feast. It remains a space for children to grow and play — to test the waters and be brave. It pulls me back to a place of transformative silence and howling laughter where my grandchildren want to hear the same stories about the man in the mountain and the train, to catch fireflies, and listen to their voices echo across the lake. It will always be the best waterskiing lake in the world and as I teach each grandchild to ski, my father and Dolph Vermont’s ski lessons remind me to let the boat pull them out of the water. And each summer as I stand on the shores of this magical lake, I know it is a privilege to have been christened by its’ waters at an early age and spent decades on it.

Missy Craver Izard was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. She resides in Flat Rock, North Carolina, with her husband, Sandy Schenck, where their family runs a summer camp.


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