Camp Hope then and now
The Town of Canton is currently entangled in a civil lawsuit that could result in losing Camp Hope, more than 100 acres of land in the Cruso community with riverfront property. The land that has traditionally been used for youth and community activities. Here's a look at Camp Hope and how it has been used in the county for nearly 90 years.
A gem of property tucked away near the Pisgah National Forest in Cruso, Camp Hope has been a go-to community hang out for 87 years.
From fishing and camping trips to football and band camps, nearly every lifelong Canton resident can conjure up fond memories of Camp Hope. It’s even rumored that Ronnie Milsap, country music legend, was part of a camp there.
For many who still live in Canton, including town leaders, Camp Hope is not just a piece of property — it’s a fragment of the town’s rich history that’s worth holding onto.
A rich history
According to the May 1926 edition of “The Log,” a Champion Fibre Company publication, the mill first purchased 25 acres of land on the East Fork of the Pigeon River “to be developed and used as a camp for boys and girls.”
During that time, U.S. 276 South, also known as Cruso Road, was being constructed and was described as “one of the most picturesque drives in Western North Carolina.”
Reuben B. Robertson, who was president of the company, agreed to purchase the land and donate it to the mill if the people of Canton would build a clubhouse on the property. The namesake of the camp came from Robertson’s wife, Hope.
Shortly after the property was donated, a committee was formed and launched a campaign to fund the clubhouse and athletic field, eventually raising about $1,200.
“When completed, it will, perhaps, be the finest camp for boys and girls in Western North Carolina,” according to the publication. Eventually, a baseball diamond, basketball court, tennis court, shuffle boards and a swimming pool were also built.
As set forth in the original deed, Camp Hope was operated by the Canton YMCA, which brought in the first set of campers that July. At a rate of $5 per week, boy campers came from July 19 through Aug. 1 and girls used the camp from Aug. 2 through Aug. 14.
Campers swam and fished in the nearby river, hiked and learned all about nature, woodcraft, scouting and building campfires. And at 9:30 p.m. each night they participated in a camp-wide devotional.
On May 4, 1929, “The Log,” mentions a “splendid” barbecue for officers of the Haywood County Foremans Club at the camp, which was nearly rained out.
By August, 1929, six cottages had been built on the camp and furnished with cots for the children. More land was added over the years, eventually reaching the current 101 acres of riverfront land.
Before World War II, National Guard training was held at the property, said Wayne Carson, director of the Canton Historical Museum. The inaugural county fair was even held there, although it’s unclear exactly what year it began. And there were constantly free kids days that featured carnival rides.
In the 50s and 60s, Champion held all of their "Old Timers" reunions there, celebrating 5, 10 and 15 year reunions with employees.
Even Canton Mayor Mike Ray attended several football camps there while at Pisgah High School and was also a summer camp counselor for kids.
When the Canton YMCA dissolved in November 1991, as a result of $300,000 in debt and deteriorating facilities, Champion International purchased the club, which meant taking over Camp Hope.
But in July 1996, the YMCA dissolved and released Camp Hope to the Town of Canton, which allowed public use of the property in addition to the various camps held there. For a while, boy scouts leased part of the property for their various camps and activities. When they could no longer maintain the camp, the town began leasing the property to Wellspring Adventure Camp, a summer weight loss program for children. Wellspring leased the property up until early this year when they decided to pull out because of uncertainty surrounding the pending court case.
Mary Lee and Bobby Paxton have lived next to the property for 30 years and raised their three kids to enjoy the facilities at Camp Hope.
She remembers it as a lively campus with community baseball teams, picnics, weddings, tent revivals and reunions. In the summer, her kids spent their days jumping off rocks into the deep swimming hole in the river.
For as long as Mary Lee can remember, there’s never been a time when the camp wasn’t open for public use. Even before she moved to her current home, she recalls school football camps and band camps when she was at Bethel High School during the late 50s.
“The Wellspring folks never stopped us from walking around there, even when they were having the camp,” she said.
The couple can still be found walking the two miles around the camp with their dog nearly every day.
“We’ve always used it, in fact, my husband played basketball there just yesterday,” she said.
But the thought of seeing the property suddenly becoming private is heartbreaking for her.
“I’m just so used to Camp Hope, it’s part of my lifestyle. It’s been a part of my life ever since I’ve been here,” she said.
Cyndi Gregory, owner of CyndiRays in Cruso, says keeping Camp Hope is imperative to provide local teens and children with a place to play.
"There's nothing to do out there. Camp Hope is it and we can use it and we’ve been using it. People are still out there every single day playing basketball," she said, and that's the way she wants it to stay.
The public is invited to attend “Camp Hope Day” from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, April 28. Bring a picnic lunch and baseballs, footballs, soccer balls and any game. The town will provide tables and drinks. The cast from Hillbilly Blood will be signing autographs and giving demonstrations.
The battle for Camp Hope will continue May 6, when a Haywood County jury will decide the fate of the property.