How Haywood was chosen for Methodist retreat center

Lake Junaluska — celebrating 100 years
By Vicki Hyatt | Apr 20, 2013
Before the lake

By Vicki Hyatt


While Lake Junaluska Assembly is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, the seeds that sprouted into the conference and retreat began years earlier.

One of Lake Junaluska’s founding fathers, Waynesville resident Bishop James Atkins dreamed of a place where the Methodist Episcopal Church could conduct conferences in the South to promote evangelization of the world. It wasn’t until 1908 when the Layman’s Missionary Conference set the future path.

The early vision was for a summer-only retreat center, so a high-elevation location where there would be mild days and cool nights was sought. Six locations were originally examined — one in the mountains of East Tennessee, an area near Virginia Beach where land had already been purchased, and four Western North Carolina sites, including Lake Toxaway, Asheville, Hendersonville and Waynesville.

The Waynesville site had the edge for several reasons, according to historian Bill Lowry, who wrote the assembly’s history in “The Antechamber of Heaven: A History of Lake Junaluska Assembly.”

Not only were the area’s natural beauty and a nearby railroad significant draws, but a small group of highly influential businessmen in the county offered to raise $100,000 to construct the Assembly. If adjusted for inflation, the pledge would have exceeded $2 million in today’s dollars. Once Haywood County was chosen, there was still the question of where to build.

The first choice was along Howell Mill Road, the narrowest point in the valley, because it would require a smaller dam. Southern Railway scuttled that idea because it would not move its tracks. Had the dam been built at that site, the lake would have extended to what is now Russ Avenue in Waynesville, according to Lowry’s research.

Then three committee members arriving by train from Asheville saw the site where the Assembly is currently located and were enthralled by the beauty of the valley framed by mountains, so a trip to Washington, D.C. to push for the first choice was abandoned.

The committee already had options on three farms in that particular valley and decided to proceed with the site. The initial purchase included 250 acres to be used for the lake itself, and later expanded to include 10 times that amount for surrounding buildings and developments. Legislation passed in 1909 created the Southeast Assembly, a private stock corporation to be controlled by stockowners through an elected board of commissioners.

The firm started by Frederick Olmstead, who designed New York City’s Central Park, along with the Biltmore Estate, was hired to handle design work for a dam, lake, roads and buildings.

Paid agents sold stock that was mostly purchased by church members who would later attend events at the Assembly. The shares would ultimately become worthless during the Great Depression when loans secured to build the Assembly were called in and the corporation went bankrupt.

When work on the Assembly was ready to start in 1911, a Waynesville law firm offered to add a second story to its building to serve as headquarters for the Southern Assembly. Rent was $12.50 a month, Lowry said.

By the year’s end, about 200 workers, mostly from Haywood County, were hard at work building an auditorium to accommodate 4,000, two hotels, several homes, and of course, the dam.

As excitement built over the Assembly, church leaders decided the first conference located there should be expanded to include all the missionary groups within the church.

The event was remarkable in many ways. The dam was functioning but the lake was only partly filled. Not a single facility on the grounds had been complete, including the auditorium where the meetings were held. Indeed, there was only a small amount of water in the lake bed when an estimated crowd of 2,000 gathered. Some stayed in the partially completed homes at the lake, but most stayed in motels and private homes in Waynesville.

Despite the rustic surroundings, the first conference at the lake was highly successful and set the tone for future events at the grounds.

Enthusiasm for missionary work reached new highs, and a record-breaking $150,000 was raised, enough to start Soochow University in China and establish the Southeast Assembly as a place where miracles can happen. That the electric lights in the auditorium came on the first during the opening conference could be seen as another sign of the center’s bright future.