This year Holston Presbytery Camp and Retreat Center will reach its 60th year of summer camp activities.
The camp, a Banner Elk staple located near Grandfather Home for Children and Wildcat Lake, started life as a dream in the early 1950s before it began hosting its first summer camp sessions in 1959.
The camp is a product of the churches of Holston Presbytery desiring a conference center of their own. Before the camp existed the church used facilities at Lees-McRae College and Montreat College. The hope was the camp could have purposes beyond a meeting ground for the Presbytery as well and a committee was formed in 1953 to scout potential locations.
The original 36-acre site the camp sits on is the result of a 99-year lease agreement with the Edgar Tufts Memorial Association, which operates Wildcat Lake.
The camp then had to be developed on what was then raw woodland. Holston Camp Inc, was first formed in 1955, though the site did not open for camp until 1959.
The inaugural year of camp hosted 319 campers in the summer and hosted retreats in the fall as well. In 1960 the camp acquired an additional 55 acres of land to go with the original leased space. That land was purchased for $5,000 paid out in annual installments for five years.
The history of the camp and the sentiments of a number of campers and people who have played important roles in its history were chronicled in the 2005 book “Our Hearts Belong” by Mary Dudley Gilmer. The book covers the origins of the camp from the inception of the idea through its construction, first camps and finer details of how it became what it is today up to 2005.
Today, 60 years after its programming started, the camp is still going strong. It is still a ministry of the Holston Presbytery. Currently the summer camp does five night sessions and week-long day camps as well.
The camp has swimming, boating, rock climbing, zip lines and other activities. It also serves as a retreat center year round and hosts groups who come to stay and take advantage of local outdoor activities like skiing as well as church groups that want to take advantage of what the camp has to offer.
“We’re continuing offering transformational experiences for kids to be here, to unplug, to listen for the voice of God, to engage these kids in outdoor activities,” director Jim Austin said. “We provide a ministry that hopefully gives them opportunities to engage in community and Christian values.”
Austin said the camping experience has always been described as small group camping, and a laboratory for Christian community.
“What has changed is the audience in some respects,” Austin said. “That there is a lot of competition for children’s time that I don’t think people see the value in coming to a traditional adventure camp with a Christian ministry.”
“Many kids are involved in scholastic camps, they’re involved in band camps, sports camps and those kinds of activities, but in general we still maintain the small group camping model and are dedicated to providing children with an opportunity to work in community, to be together, to take care of themselves, each other and the earth.”
Austin said he hopes the influence of the camp is seen in campers’ engagement with their communities.
For more information about the center, visit its website at holstoncenter.org.