Feature: The South’s Summer Camp Capital

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Each year summer camps draw more than 40,000 campers to Mentone, Ala., a town with less than 400 permanent residents.

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Built as a mountain resort town in the late 1800s, Mentone is home to some of the region’s oldest and most popular youth getaways.

By ELIZABETH MANNING

I was well into my third year of college before I learned how to explain where I was from. I’d start with the band, Alabama. “You know… ‘Dixieland Delight’?” I’d quip.

If I got a blank stare back, I’d move on to my next place marker, the town of Mentone, Ala., and its surrounding natural wonders. But it wasn’t DeSoto Falls or little River Canyon that would elicit that satisfying look of sheer joy and familiarity that meant I’d finally hit upon something. The area’s summer camps were the signifier; the falls and the canyon are the daytrips my college comrades had enjoyed while in that “heavenly” place.

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]“The bottom line is this: if the camps weren’t everything we, as directors, talk them up to be – a place of character-growth, leadership and friendship – they would have closed the first year they had opened,” says Susan Hooks, director and co-owner of Riverview Camp for Girls.

In the tiny Lookout Mountain village of Mentone and the area surrounding it, at least 10 summer camps draw upwards of 40,000 campers and their family members each year, just on the camps’ opening days, based on data Hooks collected from all the camps in 2012. Children throughout the Southeast travel to the camps, and some come from other parts of the United States and even other countries such as England, Brazil and Japan.

Most camps are either for boys or girls and offer sessions of at least one week. Each camp has its own long list of activities, ranging from archery to public service, and most include day trips to the area’s many outdoor attractions. The majority of the camps are Christian (nondenominational) based. In their off-seasons, several camps rent their facilities to private groups, and some provide educational programs throughout the year.

Camping for Me

Camping in Mentone has been a part of my life since I was 10 years old. Longer than that, really, if you consider the numerous members of my family who were somehow associated with the camps. My grandfather, who owned a contracting business in Mentone, constructed many buildings on the camps’ properties. My grandmother headed the kitchen at two camps, and my mother was a camp nurse for about a decade. Several of my cousins also went to camp, and most of my aunts worked at the camps when they were teenagers.

The first summer I spent at camp, my mother dropped me off the night before so I could get to know the counselors before the session began. It was the first time I would be away from home more than a few days, and that night I cried myself to sleep.

In the morning, the other campers arrived, and my tears were soon for-gotten. I met four of my closest friends that first summer. For the following five summers, we returned to find our beloved home-away-from-home still the same. The girls I became friends with were from different corners of the Southeast, and I stay in touch with them to this day.

While I was at camp for my final year, my mother wrote me a letter explaining why she began sending me. Her words were the main reason I went to work as a camp staff member the following year: “I cannot explain to you how proud you make me, and how thankful I am to watch you grow. Enjoy these last couple of days at camp, and remember the lessons you learn here are ones you will use forever. Camp has given you the independence and the confidence you need to thrive as a young adult, and I’m thankful daily that I see both attributes in you.”

For me, camp meant creating traditions, learning to lead and making memories I will cherish all my life.

I attempted all the activities offered at camp, but tried-and-true favorites such as the ropes course, archery and canoeing usually found their way into my schedule year after year.

It wasn’t until I began working at the camp, at age 16, that I began to appreciate all the lessons the experience instills.

The values and standards that every staff member strove to instill in each camper never ceased to astound me. Strong, intelligent women had the chance to teach young girls to be their own versions of strong, intelligent women. These girls were given tools to make their own carefully constructed decisions and to lead when necessary.

As a child, summer camp was freedom all boxed up, neatly tied and gifted to me each summer. As a staff member, camp was a place aimed at nurturing young minds and teaching young girls to achieve their best potentials.

The History

The roots of Mentone itself can be traced back to New Yorker John Mason, who came to the area around 1872. Mason’s son, Ed, began the process of laying out a town on the bluff of lookout Mountain and advertising it to people outside the region.

According to local history, the Mentone Springs Hotel, finished in 1884, was the first area attraction for “summer people” in search of cooler air and the perceived health benefits of nearby mineral springs.

The hotel had hot and cold water supplied by deep wells and was built on the main road to Valley Head, Ala., and Fort Payne, Ala., which was luring wealthy New England investors due to the discovery of coal and iron ore there in 1885.

“Mentone began as a resort town – not only is there a cooler climate year round, but there is a river to boot,” says Rob Hammond, director of Camp Laney for Boys and mayor of Mentone. Little River is the only river in the nation to form and flow almost its entire length atop a mountain.

Soon, people realized the qualities that made Mentone an ideal resort area also made it a perfect locale for summer camps. While the hotels and mineral springs were the original draws, the camps have long been the life-blood of the town, Hooks says.

“We are lucky to have the natural beauty that we do in the falls and the nearby canyon,” she says. “The reason Mentone is so well known, though, is because of the camps.”

The oldest operating campsite in Mentone is at Riverview Camp for girls. Before it was Riverview, the camp on the location was Saddle Rock, and before that it was Camp Cloudmont, established in 1924 by the YMCA of Miami on 40 acres of land.

Built in the late 1920s and originally used as a boys’ camp, Camp Desoto is now a girls’ camp. Over the years, it was operated by several different women, including Eloise Temple, a fixture in the camping industry in Mentone for much of the 20th century. She began her work with the camps with Camp DeSoto in 1935 and founded Camp Skyline in 1947.

Hooks, a Mentone native, grew up observing Temple. “I idolized her, and I fell in love with the idea of camp because of her,” Hooks says. “Camp was a place, even as a little girl, where your dreams were not only valid, but they were valuable.”

Lookout Mountain Camp opened in 1928 and has been owned and operated by the same family longer than any other. It was established by Dr. J. A. Gorman, a dentist who traveled on horseback to attend the needs of mountaineers, and his son-in-law, Gray D. Morrison.

Alpine Camp for Boys began in 1959, when Rufus Hyde of Dallas and Richard O’Ferrall, Jr. of Jackson, Miss., bought the camp from Alice MacVicar of Miami, who had been running it as Alpine Camp for Girls since 1934. The original Alpine Lodge was built by Col. Milford Howard in 1928 and was operated as a mountain resort.

Camp Laney was founded in 1959 by Malcolm Laney, former university of Alabama football, golf and basketball coach.

Camp Comer Boy Scout Camp, comprising more than 1,000 acres atop the mountain, was opened in 1965. The camp caters solely to scout and private groups.

Mayor Hammond says he never expected to not only own a camp, but also serve as Mentone’s mayor.

“I camped in Mentone from 1961 to 1965 and worked on staff at [Camp] Laney for the eight summers following,” Hammond says.

This summer will mark Hammond’s 40th year to be involved with Mentone’s camps in some capacity. He bought Camp Laney from Malcolm Laney in 1973, when he learned the coach was selling the camp and wanted someone with experience in camping to buy it.

The Town

“They say Mentone has three distinct groups of people, or three spokes in the wheel that is Mentone: the local people who have generations going back here, the weekend people who have second homes and the camp people,” says Bill Berry, retired principal of Moon Lake Elementary School (located in Mentone), professor at Northeast Alabama Community College and general office manager at Camp DeSoto. “That being said, the lines between the three are often blurred.”

Although camping season greatly benefits the town, it also means locals experience Mentone transitioning from a sleepy, peaceful village to a bustling hub on an annual basis. The town’s permanent population is less than 400, and while some vacationers and second-home owners are always present, the camps’ influence on the area, both economically and socially, is evident during summer months.

Some families spend two or three days in Mentone when dropping off or picking up their children at camp. Others combine the trip with a full vacation for themselves, staying in the Lookout Mountain region the entire time their kids are at camp. Both groups fill the area’s quaint bed and breakfasts, inns, rental cabins, restaurants and shops.

Restaurants, many of which specialize in creative dishes made from local food, plan ahead in order to accommodate the influx of people on the camps’ opening and closing days. Shops offering items crafted by the area’s abundant folk artists extend their hours.

Park rangers and staff at both DeSoto State Park and Little River Canyon National Preserve prepare for additional visitors. Developed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, Desoto State Park is home to waterfalls and other majestic scenery along miles of easily accessible hiking trails. Alabama’s only national preserve, Little River Canyon is a 600-foot-deep, 12-mile-long gorge that offers spectacular views, hiking, swimming, fishing, rock climbing, canoeing and kayaking. (see Little River Canyon Center story.)

Often, families who visit the area to bring kids to camp find themselves wanting to return more frequently or even put down roots. Some buy or build vacation or retirement homes near Mentone.

“You could ask any camp director, each one of us has had someone call and ask for a referral to a good contractor,” Hooks says. “Once summer people visit, they fall in love and want to build.”

Benefits for Kids

Kristen Emory, who owns the Mentone Market with her husband, Tom, says the camps are a tradition and a history that Mentone just isn’t Mentone without.

“It’s a lot of preparation and work every summer, but we love watching the growth that happens in the children who come through here,” Emory says.

Located on Alabama Highway 117, the main drag that runs through Mentone, the Mentone Market is a general store of sorts, offering fuel and food to travelers and even a small art gallery. The Emorys, transplants to Mentone, have owned the market since 2002 and regularly see camp families.

“We had one little girl whom we met on opening day before her family dropped her off,” Emory says. “She was quiet and timid that day; she came back in on closing day and pitched a fit in the store, stomping her feet and begging her parents to take her back to camp.”

The Emorys have sent both their children, a son and daughter, to area camps. Emory says summer camp teaches a child lessons he or she won’t always learn from parents: confidence and independence.

“It’s hard as parents to completely place your child in the hands of someone else for weeks at a time once a year,” Emory says. “They come back to you a stronger, more confident child, though.”

That was what Caroline Brooks of Biloxi, Miss., was hoping for when she sent her third-grader, Kendall Gregory, to Alpine Camp for Boys. An only child and a “homebody,” Gregory had attended a local camp the two previous years, but he had never been that far away from home for so long (the camp session was one month). “I wasn’t sure how he would handle it,” Brooks said, “but he never missed a beat. He was never homesick. He loved it – everything about it.”

Brooks says her son, now 22, attended Alpine Camp for as long as he could, the following seven or eight years. While the local camp he had attended was nice, Brooks says there was no comparison between it and Camp Alpine, mainly because of the plethora of activities and trips offered by the Mentone camp – white water rafting, camping in caves, zip lining, attending Atlanta Braves baseball games and more.

Brooks knew about the Mentone camps because her two brothers had attended Camp Alpine. “It was beautiful,” she recalls. “It was in the mountains. There’s nothing like that here.” Because Mentone is a six-hour drive from Biloxi, Gregory even flew to camp most years – an experience that increased the independence Brooks had hoped camp would instill in him. A camp counselor flew to New Orleans to chaperone a group of kids to camp and flew back with them when camp ended.

Brooks also saw summer camp as a way for her son to form friendships with others he would meet again later in life. “And that’s what has happened,” she says. At Millsap’s College in Jackson, Miss., Gregory reconnected with fellow campers.

Hooks says the relationships kids forge at camp also broaden their horizons.

“Our mission is to teach kids not to focus on themselves, but on others, how to have confidence and make educated decisions,” Hooks says. “By exposing kids to peers from so many different walks of life – so much diversity – they begin to think not just locally, but globally.”

Lindsey Gallaher, assistant director at Skyline, fell in love with camping in 2006 while working as a counselor at the camp.

“For someone who was introduced to camping as an adult, the strength of the relationships that are made through camping amaze me,” Gallaher says.

Camping provides children with a learning platform they can’t get elsewhere, she says.

Like most camp directors, Hammond says he stays in the camping industry not for the profits, but for the people.

“The relationships you make with the campers, their families and the staff members are irreplaceable,” Hammond says. “It’s always a plus to get to work outside in a beautiful place, too.”

Now is the time to make summer-camp plans for your children or grandchildren. Here’s what camps in and near Mentone offer.

Co-ed Camps

Ponderosa Bible Camp

  • Activities include: Crafts, ceramics, archery, swimming, boating, fishing, sports, horseback riding, ropes courses and community service
  • Director: Jeff Nelson
  • Sessions: 1 week
  • Age range: 7-18
  • More info: 256-634-4397; ponderosabiblecamp.com

One World Adventure

  • Activities include: For ages 7-13 – swimming, hiking, rock climbing, rappelling, kayaking, arts and environmental education; For ages 14-18 – hiking, camping, kayaking and collecting and testing water samples in the Little River watershed.
  • Directors: Bill and Angie Shugart
  • Sessions: Ages 7-13 – daytime camp, 5 days; Ages 14-18 – 5 days
  • More info: 256-634-8370; oneworldadventureco.com

Girls’ Camps

Riverview Camp for Girls

  • Activities include: Horseback riding (both English and Western), swimming, tennis, ropes course, climbing tower, canoeing, golf, archery, riflery, gymnastics, cheerleading, dance, flag twirling, outdoor-living-skills classes and optional trips
  • Directors: Dr. Larry and Susan Hooks
  • Sessions : 1 and 2 weeks
  • Age range: 6-16
  • More info: 800-882-0722; riverviewcamp.com

Camp Desoto for Girls

  • Activities: More than 30, from athletics to arts and everything in between. Examples include archery, canoeing, soccer, drama, horseback riding, photography, tumbling and swimming
  • Directors: Phil and Marsha Hurt
  • Sessions: 4 weeks
  • Age range: 8-16
  • More info: 256-634-4394; campdesoto.com

Camp Skyline for Girls

  • Activities include: Horseback riding, archery, riflery, swimming, canoeing, ropes course, circus activities including trapeze, sports, arts and crafts and performing arts
  • Directors: Sally and Larry Johnson
  • Sessions: 1 and 2 weeks
  • Age range: 6-16
  • More info: 800-448-9279; campskyline.com

Camp Juliette Low

  • Activities include: Canoeing, archery, horseback riding, swimming, sailing, climbing wall, ropes course, crafts and tennis
  • Directors: Nancy Brim and Kappy Kelly
  • Sessions: 1 and 2 weeks
  • Age range: 7-17
  • More info: 706-862-2169; http://cjl.server262.comboys’ 

Boy’s Camps

Alpine Camp for Boys

  • Activities include: Ropes courses, bouldering, sports, physical training, archery, riflery, earth games, music, art, horseback riding, swimming, canoeing, mountain biking, fly fishing and camping 
  • Directors: Glenn and Carter Breazeale
  • Sessions: 1 and 4 weeks
  • Age range: K-9th grade
  • More info: 256-634-4404; alpinecamp.com

Camp Laney for Boys

  • Activities include: Horseback riding, swimming, ropes course, major sports, archery, riflery, golf, Frisbee golf, canoeing, water slide, hydrobikes, scavenger hunts, rock climbing and rappelling
  • Directors: Rob and San Hammond
  • Sessions: 1 and 2 weeks
  • Age range: 6-16
  • More info: 256-634-4066; camplaney.com

Comer Boy Scout Camp (for Scout and private groups)

  • Activities include: Rappelling and climbing tower, shooting sports, swimming, sailing, rowing, motor boating, kayaking, canoeing, fishing and ropes courses
  • Director: Vince Lambert
  • Sessions: 1 week
  • More info: 256-634-4389; https://1bsa.org/camp.php?cn=8

Lookout Mountain Camp for Boys

  • Activities include: Archery, arts and crafts, backpacking, sports, climbing wall, fishing, golf, hiking, horseback riding, riflery, swimming, ropes course, whitewater rafting, woodshop and zip lining
  • Sessions: 2, 4, 6 and 8 weeks
  • Age range: 7-15
  • More info: 504-861-1534; lookoutmountaincamp.com
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