If you’re lucky enough to live above Sapphire Valley’s Fairfield Lake, you’ve heard the mystical sounds that waft from the water’s edge on many summer nights. It could be, of course, the sounds of “Follow the Gleam,” Camp Merrie-Woode’s traditional final pageant. It could be the score from a musical performed by the campers in the drama program or just the voices of tired campers singing around the campfire. Either way, it’s pure magic.
The campus itself is a jewel in the already-breathtaking Sapphire Valley of North Carolina. Founded in 1919 by Mabel “Dammie” Day, Marjorie Harrison, and Mary Turk, the camp pays homage to Dammie Day’s British roots with designations like King Arthur’s Court for the building that houses the gym and climbing wall. The Castle is home to the Merrie-Woode stage and theater classes, while Merlin’s Alderley Edge houses many of the summer staff. The infirmary, said to be staffed with the nicest nurses ever, is called Cloud 9 and the camp’s directors live in a beautiful home on the property called Tintagel, named for King Arthur’s father’s castle.
The current residents of Tintagel are Jim and Denice Dunn, who took the reins as directors in 2002. The parents of two grown sons, they are now summer parents to hundreds of daughters and embody the enthusiastic culture which drives Camp Merrie-Woode. Jim, formerly the headmaster of Summit Charter School in Cashiers, and Denice, a former engineer for General Electric, have been instrumental in Merrie-Woode’s participation in the wider community, by supporting a campership program, which provides funding for children with exemplary qualifications who otherwise would be unable to attend. In addition, they have encouraged the use of the campgrounds during the off-season, welcoming after-school programs for the Boys and Girls Club of the Plateau as well as team-building activities for the New Century Scholars of Jackson County.
Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2019, the 435-acre campground has welcomed girls from around the mountain and around the world, holding fast to its original charter to encourage the empowerment of girls and young women through physical, intellectual, and spiritual growth. It is, perhaps, more than coincidence that the camp opened its gates the same year that women won the right to vote.
The campers who are lucky enough to spend their summer days here are designated according to age, as pages, yeomen, squires, and knights. And, in another nod to Merrie-Woode’s British roots, the centerpiece of the entire camp experience is the production of “Follow the Gleam” which reenacts the story of King Arthur’s quest for the holy grail.
The alumnae are a loyal sorority. Many return to the camp as counselors, board members, or for reunions. Dorothy Moss Williams, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery who spent more than ten years at Merrie-Woode, convenes with ten camp friends each autumn in the camp’s guest lodge, which is available to rent. Merrie-Woode is also a desirable venue for weddings, although the camp holds to a strict policy requiring that the bride be an alumna. Additionally, only four weddings may be conducted on the property per year and never during camp weeks. The wedding of a former camper has been booked well in advance for the day after the August closing of this season’s final session.
Mary Leland Davenport Hutchison, who attended Camp Merrie-Woode during the 1970s and 80s, recalls a camp fundraiser she attended many years ago when she lived in Atlanta. Husbands were invited and one seasoned spouse stood up to tell the gentlemen gathered: “You have married into a cult and the sooner you pull out your checkbook, the better it will be for you.” The camp’s alumnae have been faithful supporters of various fundraising efforts over the years, making possible such things as the 2005 acquisition of land across Lake Fairfield opposite the camp, which was poised for real estate development. To honor the 100th anniversary, a capital campaign has been launched to fund an endowment, as well as attend to several capital improvements. Hutchison, whose daughter Jane has also been a camper, says that raising money for Merrie-Woode is easier than most causes because of the common heart of the alumnae. “The Merrie-Woode connection is neverending. It’s just second family.”
Camp Merrie-Woode’s program today has four major components, each of which the campers may experience throughout their stay. They are boating, horseback riding, mountaineering, and drama. In addition, the girls have a chance to choose classes in multiple other sports, as well as traditional art courses such as dance, ceramics, and painting. Knitting has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years and is now part of the offering. Depending on a girl’s interest, she can earn recognition in any of these disciplines through extensive study and practice over several summers. One camper may pursue becoming a Horsemaster, for example, while another seeks to earn a King’s Player designation for drama.
Founded as a Christian camp, Merrie-Woode is nonetheless inclusive. All of the campers participate in daily devotionals, with various cabins taking turns in leading them, and a weekly chapel service is held every Sunday in the outdoor stone amphitheater.
Alumna Madeline Edwards, who today works as a journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon, remembers her experiences in the drama program beginning in 2005. She recalls being named a King’s Player, the highest designation possible, and receiving the King’s Player necklace from her best friend at the honor ceremony. Later, as a counselor, she was a ringleader for creative undertakings like decorating the dining hall for Harry Potter night. Borrowing old wedding dresses from the costume shop and covering their faces with white face paint, she and the other counselors entertained the campers from the rafters. Her passion for drama was honed as she played the role of Anne Frank one summer and, another time, garnered the role of Mozart in a performance of Amadeus. But despite these exceptional experiences, she concludes that her favorite memories were “just any downtime spent with my best friends.” Her grandmother, Nancy Edwards, adds, most emphatically, that Merrie-Woode made her the young woman she is today.
For others, the outdoor experiences inform their eventual life path. Holly Pierce Ambler, who lives in Boone, North Carolina, spent ten summers at Merrie-Woode, as both a camper and later as a counselor. She began as a very homesick ten-year-old, sending home several impassioned letters the first week, begging her parents to come get her. But somewhere into the second week, the counselor who held her in her lap at the nightly campfire and the others who urged her to try outdoor activities turned the tide, and she was hooked. She admits that prior to her camp experience she had very little outdoor experience, but the summers on Lake Fairfield were so influential that she eventually earned a college degree in outdoor experiential education. Her first post-college job was as an instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School. As is often the case, her aunt, sister, and cousins are also alumnae.
Sara Elizabeth Jackson, a sophomore at Auburn University, is returning this summer for the 11th time. It will be her third year as a counselor, an experience she has come to treasure even more than her time as a camper. She loves seeing the young campers return year after year, noting their development, and considers it a privilege to encourage and guide them. She has become what is called the “Weaving Head” in the arts department and supervises campers as they make pillows and seats for chairs or stools at the camp. A business administration major, she thinks her passion for this art has developed because it provides such a wonderful opportunity to get outside of her element.
Director Denice Dunn acknowledges that changing times have demanded adaptation. One such change came a few years ago when the campus became “unplugged,” meaning no cell phones, no iPods, no computers. The only exception is the iPod in each cabin which contains the music the girls have chosen to enjoy together during “downtime.” However, earbuds are completely off limits and Denice confirms that as soon as the new rules took effect there was a noticeable increase in conversation and singing on hikes, on bus trips, and around the camp.
But many things have not changed. Uniforms are a tradition, and except for the substitution of shorts for bloomers, not a lot has changed over the past 100 years. It’s all part of a culture that encourages a young woman to throw on a uniform, pull her hair back into a ponytail, and get on with the joy of self-discovery, unencumbered.
Rudi Robbins Pillow, who attended camp for three years beginning in 1964, notes that today’s technical world has created an overly competitive environment for young people and cherishes the fact that Merrie-Woode is one of the few places where a girl has only to compete against herself. She learned to love hiking and canoeing during her camp years and has memories of three-day hikes in the Smoky Mountains. Her three daughters attended Merrie-Woode, as have three granddaughters. A resident of Killen, Alabama, she recalls a recent family wedding which was attended by six Merrie-Woode alumnae from all over the country.
This year, Denice confirms a wide geographic diversity will be once again represented, with campers from 38 different states and six countries. Over 140 people will be hired for staff positions, many of them former campers who are returning as counselors. The return rate is enviable and several full-time directors of the camp were at one time campers.
The camp’s centennial is a good excuse to look back at the vision of the three founders who wanted to offer young women a chance to explore their capabilities and challenge themselves in a nurturing environment. That vision has become laser-focused as the years have passed. Whether a girl’s dream is to hike Old Bald Mountain, sing her heart out in a musical lead, or earn a Captain’s Hat for accomplishment in the water, it will all be hers for the taking beginning this June, as a new century of campers follow the gleam. Girl power is clearly alive on the beautiful banks of Fairfield Lake.