The short, hard history of Camp Summerlane
by Jon Elliston in Vol. 14 / Iss. 47 on 06/18/2008
Tomm Friend was snoozing in his cabin when gunfire and the whoosh of
flames pierced the night quiet. "I was awakened by a blast," Friend
remembers 45 years later. That summer, the 15-year-old was attending
a camp on the outskirts of Rosman, N.C., a small mountain town about
a dozen miles southwest of Brevard.
Dressing quickly, Friend bolted into the dark. "I ran down in the
direction of the blast, and a woman dropped out of a tree with a
machete, right in front of me," he recalls. Recognizing her as a camp
counselor, a relieved Friend blurted out that they knew each
otherthat he was with the camp, not the mob that was assaulting it.
"She was basically hiding in a tree, protecting children. She had a
machete because she didn't have a gun," Friend explains; the camp's
few firearms were in other hands. "Then she told me to be careful and
climbed back into the tree."
The camper pressed on, as shouts and gunshots split the hum and
gurgle of crickets and streams. Down a hill, in the cove near the
camp's entrance, Friend came upon a surreal scene: A small lake was
on fire, the flames wafting across the water.
The attack on Camp Summerlane was under way.
Friend soon realized that he was in the midst of a dangerous and
rapidly escalating clash. Nearby, camp counselors who'd been beaten
bloody tried to regroup. A gymnasium was burning to the ground; a
cabin smoldered. A camp bus, its front window shattered, leaned in a
ditch while its driver tried to pull himself together after bullets
had been fired right by his head. Meanwhile, a hastily organized
squad of armed counselors and campers, joined by Highway Patrol
officers from Asheville, took up positions in the woods to ward off
additional attacks. The camp's remaining residentsa few more staff
members and 50-some childrenhuddled in and around Summerlane's
cabins, hoping to make it through the night.
Like most of his fellow campers, Friend was far from home and didn't
quite know what was going on. At the same time, he remembers, "We
knew that if these people came in, it was going to be bad." As one of
his counselors says in retrospect, he was sure the attackers "were
looking for death."
It was late on the night of July 11, 1963; Camp Summerlane had been
open for all of one week.
A different kind of camp
One of the first media accounts of the incident appeared the next
afternoon, in the July 12 Asheville Times. "Violence flared at
Summerlane Campa summer hideaway tucked back in a mountain cove,"
the newspaper said, "when outraged citizens of the Rosman and Brevard
areas invaded the camp last night and this morning to protest alleged
immorality and nudism on the part of the campers."
From there, the story spread, but it didn't go very far or very
deep. Apart from brief news reports at the time and scattered
mentions since in a few books and Web sites, the Summerlane saga has
never been fully told. Meanwhile, over the decades, many of the main
participants have died, and the memories of those remaining have
faded and diverged, depending on each person's age and perspective at
This is the first installment of a four-part investigative history
based on extensive archival research and interviews. Weaving together
contemporary records with present-day recollections, Cruel Summer
will explore why and how it was that incensed adults from a tranquil
mountain town laid siege to a camp full of children.
Surviving camp folk and Rosman-area residents tell starkly different
stories about the incident. Most of the campers and staff members
interviewed by Xpress say the main impetus for the clash was the
camp's limited attempts at integration. But they also cite other
factorssuch as allegations of skinny-dipping, homosexuality,
harboring communists and other purported sinsthat they believe
played a secondary role in making Camp Summerlane unwelcome in Rosman.
For their part, most of the community residents interviewed for this
series say they remember Summerlane as a hedonistic venture that
simply had no place in their town. They cite rumors of free love,
nudity and sex as the main cause of the trouble.
"I don't know what their affiliation was, but people thought they
were living in sin or something, and that was not considered the
thing to do," says Bill Cathey. In his 20s at the time, Cathey went
on to become principal of Rosman High School. And like most other
surviving sources in Rosman, he maintains that racial concerns were
not the primary issue.
Whatever the showdown's root causes, it was sparked by the arrival of
people who, though they weren't exactly looking for trouble, were led
by a man who clearly meant to flout traditions and taboos.
The camp was the brainchild of the Rev. George von Hilsheimer, a
charismatic former youth evangelist from Florida turned New York
City-based religious humanist. In his early 20s, he'd spent two years
in the Army with a military-intelligence unit based in Germany. By
1962, however, he was 29, married, and living with his wife and
infant son in a sparse, abandoned storefront in lower Manhattan. "We
didn't even have a bathroom," he remembers. "We washed our baby and
took our baths in great big sinks."
Von Hilsheimer had already fought social-justice battles in his home
state, and he aimed to wage more from up north, if he could secure
the needed support. He found it by connecting with Paul Krassner,
editor of The Realist, a pioneer alternative monthly. First published
in 1958, the publication soon became known for its bitingand often
risquépolitical and social satire.
In the summer of 1962, von Hilsheimer called Krassner to propose
going further. "He was very persuasive, so I met him," Krassner
recalls. "He had a very irreverent sense of humor, so we shared that.
And he was an idealist who put his idealism into action. That
coincided with my feeling that I wanted to do more than just publish
material that criticized things that deserved criticism. I wanted to
get into putting those words into actionto giving alternative
possibilities to the things I was criticizing. So our paths crossed
with very good timing."
They first met over a meal in von Hilsheimer's cramped apartment,
where they hatched a plan. (It was so hot, Krassner recalls, that his
host wore only an undershirt and boxer shorts.) Although Krassner
didn't profit from The Realist, he was making decent money conducting
interviews for Playboy magazine; he agreed to pay von Hilsheimer $50
a week to organize People Inc., a volunteer group described as an
"anarchist social work movement" that would serve as a kind of
"domestic Peace Corps."
People Inc. soon spawned multiple projects. "It sort of had
tentacles," Krassner says. Progress reports began to appear regularly
in The Realist, describing baby-sitting collectives and youth
programs in the city, book drives for African-American college
libraries in the South, a "Hunger Hurts" program to provide food for
needy families, and plans to support migrant workers, among other endeavors.
But the group's biggest gambit was to head south in the summer of
1963, start a children's camp like none that had ever existed in the
United Statesand transform it into a school come fall. Von
Hilsheimer called it Camp Summerlane, reflecting the unusual
philosophy behind the project.
"Summer" was drawn from Summerhill School. Founded in 1921, Scottish
educator A.S. Neill's influential institution was an extraordinarily
democratic training ground: Each student and staffer had a vote in
decisions concerning just about everything that happened at the
school. The "lane" part was a nod to Homer Lane, a Connecticut-born
teacher and psychoanalyst who moved to England, where he ran an
experimental school in the 1910s that emphasized freedom and
following curiosity rather than rote lessons and disciplineinspiring
Neill to set up Summerhill.
Neill explained the idea in Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child
Rearing, a 1960 book that influenced both Krassner and von Hilsheimer
as well as many others who wound up getting involved with Summerlane.
"We set out to make a school in which we would allow children freedom
to be themselves. In order to do this, we had to renounce all
discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all
religious instruction," Neill wrote. "My view is that a child is
innately wise and realistic. If left to himself without adult
suggestion of any kind, he will develop as far as he is capable of
Camp Summerlane would operate on the same principles, a promotional
brochure promised. "All decisions affecting the community are made by
the community. Each child, each adult, has an equal voice. Summerlane
is a working democracy. ... There is no censorship of any kind. There
are no rules for purely private behavior."
Although it offered standard camp activities, Summerlane would take
things in a new direction. For example, a "vagrant bus," as it was
called, would take the children on jaunts to nearby areas, where they
would learn the finer points of how various communities worked,
exploring everything from nature to local politics to conditions in
The brochure also pledged that campers would be "accepted without
test or discrimination." In other words, Summerlane would be
integrateda still-radical proposition in many parts of the South.
But perhaps there was a place in the region where this could work.
Through a high-school friend, von Hilsheimer says, he learned about
the former Camp Skytop in Rosman, which was owned by a Florida couple
and up for rent. "It's a gorgeous place," he says about the hilly,
forested setting in Transylvania County, an area rife with streams,
waterfalls and rhododendron. "It had two gyms, a terrific kitchen
system and lots of cabins."
With its natural beauty, facilities and proximity to Brevard (long a
haven for summer camps), the place seemed ideal. "Because it was
close to Brevard, we figured everything was cool," von Hilsheimer says.
After making the arrangements, he produced a brochure announcing that
Camp Summerlane would offer "165 acres of unspoiled America, in the
Blue Ridge Mountains, to the growing child."
A different kind of camper
It was exactly the kind of camp Tomm Friend was looking for. A
bookish but street-wise Long Island high schooler, he got his
political upbringing from his best friend's family, which swung
pretty hard to the left, Friend says. They took him to rallies of
various sorts, and somewhere along the way, he became an activist. "I
was active at a young age," he remembers. "I saw what was going on,
and I heard people who made sense and who were good people."
"Ethical humanism was the thing" that turned him on to Summerlane,
Friend says. An article about the concept prompted him to become a
member of the American Society for Humanistic Education, and when it
came time to choose a camp, he "decided I'd go to one that seemed a
little bit more concerned" with social matters.
Similar forces drew 17-year-old Peter Orris to Summerlane from New
York City. He'd already spent years organizing and picketing for
civil rights with his mother. "I was looking for some more
experiences, and the Summerlane camp advertised teenage activities in
which one would spend time working as a migrant worker and learning
more about migrant workers and their conditions," Orris remembers.
Using Summerlane as their base, they would come and go to the work
camps. "I did not know much of anything at the time about the
Summerhill philosophy," he says, but that would change soon enough.
Karen Messinger, a 14-year-old camper from West Orange, N.J., also
followed her mother's lead. "It was my mom's idea" to go to
Summerlane, she recalls. "It was something that appealed to Momthat
it was supposed to be an experience that was less driven by power and
more driven by social interest. She was very active in socially
"For me," says Messinger, "it was appealing because it seemed it was
going to have less rules than the rest of my life did."
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 campers8-year-old Susan Wade of San Marcos, Texaswas
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 activistsincluding
Rosa Parksin 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 begunwith 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.
Getting the governor's OK
While Brevard was indeed a kind of summer-camp central, the same
could not be said of nearby Rosman, which was significantly more
remote and insular. Some 500 people lived in and around town, and
according to several townspeople, there'd been no black residents for
at least 60 years.
After scouting the site, von Hilsheimer says, he started worrying
about how the neighbors might respond to the new camp. All over the
South, attempts to desegregate recreational and public facilities
were being met with turmoil and violence. So he went looking for
backup, and when he got an unexpected chance to run his Camp
Summerlane plans by the governor of North Carolina, von Hilsheimer
jumped at it.
Terry Sanford, a Democrat who'd been elected governor in 1960, was in
a unique spot. A liberal on social issues who was traditional enough
to carve out a secure base in North Carolina, he'd managed both to
carry his state and forge ties with the administration of President
John F. Kennedy, who was loathed by most Southern governors. In
racial matters, Sanford took a nuanced approach that favored
negotiation over confrontation and leaned heavily on the state
Highway Patrol to monitor and respond to both civil-rights protests
and racist attacks.
In November of 1962, Sanford visited New York City, and von
Hilsheimer arranged an audience over lunch to discuss Summerlane,
which was gearing up to open the following summer. The camp director
shared with Sanford his fears about how the locals would react to
having an integrated camp in their midst.
But the governor's response, he says, eased his concerns. "This is
North Carolina," von Hilsheimer remembers Sanford saying. "North
Carolina's progressive and modern and real, and there's nothing to
worry about. We're going to take care of you. You're not going to be
down in Georgia or someplace like that. There won't be any trouble."
Cruel Summer continues next week with part two: "Storm Clouds: Camp
Summerlane's Hopeful Start Turns Troubling."
View key documents and other materials as the story unfolds.
Follow the story
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.