Family, Summer Camp Memories Preserved Forever

Emory Crawford has good reason for thinking some things are meant to be. Exhibit No. 1: The opportunity he and his family have of preserving forever a piece of Western North Carolina that holds a special place in his own memory and in the memories of hundreds of other boys now grown into men.  

It’s an opportunity with broad implications. 

“When we talk about a cultural heritage that connects people to a landscape, we usually think about history that stretches back hundreds, maybe thousands of years,” says Paul Carlson, executive director of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, which helped Crawford secure a conservation easement to protect his land. “But it’s also important that we realize that the connection keeps moving forward into the present. If we do things right, the links between landscape and culture keep right on moving into the future. The idea is to bridge past and future. And Emory Crawford has helped build one of those bridges.” 

The land in question is a seven-acre site on the northwest shore of Lake Nantahala in Macon County. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Crawford remembers swimming and boating in the lake with other local kids and watching out-of-town boys encamped on those seven acres canoeing, water skiing, and sailing under the direction of counselors from the Buncombe County-based Camp Sequoyah. 

“Back then,” says Crawford, “there were no roads cut to that camp. They either hiked their way in or came across the lake in boats. I think most of them were city kids from Florida and elsewhere. This is where they got a taste of the wilderness. 

 “We were envious of them and all they had available to them,” Crawford says. “Never, in my wildest dreams, did I every think I would someday own that land.” 

It turns out that the land, and therefore the opportunity to preserve it, is special to others, as well. 

Between the early 1920s, when C. Walter “Chief” Johnson founded Camp Sequoyah, until it shut down in 1978, Camp Sequoyah built an admiring alumni base. Even now, two Websites established by former campers celebrate summers at the Weaverville-area main camp and the Canoe Camp on Nantahala Lake. Connections, including literary connections, abound. Novelist Reynolds Price is thought to have based the fictional camp and the “Chief” character in his 1990 book, Tongues of Angels, on Camp Sequoyah and Walter Johnson. Eustace Conway, the subject of Elizabeth Gilbert’s non-fiction best-seller in 2002, The Last American Man, is “Chief” Johnson’s grandson and spent summers in his youth as a camper and counselor at the camp. Conway says his Turtle Island Preserve wilderness education program near Boone builds on Camp Sequoyah lessons. 

By the time Camp Sequoyah closed, Emory Crawford had been living for some 15 years in Winston Salem, building a successful hardware sales business and growing his family. He never lost touch with his Macon County roots or his belief that kids, including his own, needed to build memories of time in nature, just as he and the Camp Sequoyah kids had done years before. In the late 1970’s when he discovered, after the camp closed, that he might be able to make a deal with Walter Johnson’s son, Bill Johnson, for the seven acres on Lake Nantahala, “I knew I had to do everything in my power to make that happen.” 

Crawford remembers sealing the deal with Bill Johnson while floating leisurely on the lake with him on a late spring day. “The water was high. The forests and flowers were in full bloom. It was glorious,” says Crawford. 

Adding to the pleasure was the news, conveyed via a legal survey, that the seven acres Crawford had acquired was the tip of a 300-acre parcel once owned by a prominent Macon County dairy farmer, Lee Crawford, Emory’s grandfather. “When something like that happens,” says Crawford, “you can’t help but think this was meant to be.” 

For some three decades, the Crawford family, which grew to include nine grandchildren, used the former Canoe Camp as their own taste of wilderness. They allowed responsible non-profits, Scout troops and church groups, for the most part, to use it. But the Crawfords changed little, preferring to sustain the magic of the place by simply repairing what broke and reinforcing what sagged and sank.  

“It was the scene of many festive occasions,” says Martha Crawford, Emory’s wife. “Our kids and their friends, then their kids and friends, loved the place.” 

As development came to the Nantahala community and began enveloping the lake, the Crawfords' thoughts turned to ways they might protect the spot without giving up control over who had access to it. When they asked local real estate professionals for help, they were sent to LTLT’s Land Protection Director Sharon Taylor. “As soon as I saw the property,” says Taylor, “I knew we had to help the Crawford family protect it. It’s a great example of a piece of land with a history and a key location.  The property is bounded by U.S. Forest Service land and Nantahala Lake shoreline and is also important habitat in the State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP) which serves as a guide for conserving North Carolina’s wildlife and habitats.”


“We wanted to preserve the camp as it is for future generations to experience what we experienced and what our kids and their kids experienced,” says Crawford, “enough things fell into place just at the right time to allow this to happen.”


An abridged version of this article appears in the Land Trust's Website.