Recreation has been a hallmark at Lake Junaluska
Early advertising billed Lake Junaluska as a site for family vacations and it didn’t take long for it to become a popular destination for local residents as well.
Nearly everyone in Haywood County has likely enjoyed the activities and natural amenities offered at Lake Junaluska, whether it was during their teen years at the pool or enjoying a peaceful stroll around the 2.6-mile walking trail.
For a brief period, gate fees were charged to all who entered the grounds, according to the Rev. Bill Lowry, historian and volunteer consultant for the Lake Junaluska Heritage Center.
“The gates at both ends of the lake included a gatehouse. There a gate boy would stop each car or bus and collect the fees … which ranged from 50 cents a day to $7.50 for an entire season,” Lowry wrote in his book, “The Antechamber of Heaven: A History of Lake Junaluska Assembly.” The gate fees were ceased in 1969, he said.
Lowry, 83, was a staff member at the Heritage Center from 1994 until 2004. He left to begin writing the book that was commissioned for the centennial celebration of the founding of the Assembly. Despite having spent 10 years researching and organizing the historic archives at the Heritage Center, it took three years to complete the book, he said.
Recreational opportunities existed from the time the Methodist conference and retreat area was completed in 1913. People swam in the west end of the lake. However, in 1953, swimming in the lake was prohibited because of its high bacterial count and a nationwide polio epidemic. The water’s high bacterial count was a result of pollution and straight piping sewage from the towns of Waynesville and Hazelwood. That year, people were bussed to Canton to swim at the YMCA.
A swimming pool was built in 1954 that was at lake level, so it looked as though it was an enclosure from the lake. In 1995, the current pool was constructed inside the area of the original pool.
“The pool was a magnet for area young people,” Art O’Neil of Lake Junaluska recalls. O’Neil’s parents met at the pool, where his father worked as a lifeguard and was director of recreation. The elder Art O’Neil also had responsibility for the big tour boat at the lake.
“I have wonderful memories as a child spending our vacations at Lake Junaluska. I grew up playing shuffleboard and swimming at the pool,” the junior O’Neil said. “The lake is almost surreal. It’s a very inviting place and offers a sense of safety and serenity.”
The Paul Kern Youth Center, which was built in 1956, also became an area where young people gathered, especially at its soda shop. In 1996 and 1997, the center was remodeled to include central heat and air conditioning, so the facility could be used year-round.
“During the ‘60s and ‘70s, the soda shop was the place to go,” said Buddy Young, Director of Public Works for the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center.
More recently, a walking trail around the lake has attracted much interest. Ed Green, who lives near the lake, has used the trail daily for about 10 years.
“It’s a neat place,” Green said. “You don’t have to worry about traffic or safety and there are water fountains along the trail. It’s also a beautiful and relaxing area.”
Green now volunteers to help with the annual Friends of the Lake 5k Walk, which is held each year on the Saturday before Easter.
“I use the trail every day, so I felt like it was only right to give something back,” he said, adding that he hopes others feel the same.
“It would be a real loss if the community should ever lose the privilege of using the walking trail,” Green said. “I see a lot of regulars when I am there and I know a lot of people would miss being able to use the trail.”
The beauty of the lake is accentuated by the butterfly garden in the spring and the rose walk in the summer. The first roses were planted in 1962 by Dr. Lee Tuttle. In 1969, Lake Junauska property owners paid to pave the walk and place lights along it. The rose walk now contains more than 200 rose bushes.
The 200-acre lake is also known as the site of an annual fireworks show, a free museum and a variety of presentations at Stuart Auditorium, including performers of the local Folkmoot festival.
When the auditorium was first built, it was an open-air structure with a dirt floor covered with sawdust. It was initially intended to be open only during the summer. Later, the auditorium was enclosed with walls and was renamed in honor of the Rev. George Rutledge Stuart.
After renovations, the auditorium now contains theater seats and can accommodate 2,000 people, making it the largest auditorium in Haywood County. Several notable people have spoken at Stuart Auditorium, including Eleanor Roosevelt, who visited Lake Junaluska in July 1944, and the Rev. Billy Graham, who spoke at the auditorium at least six times from 1952 to 1963. The Rev. Graham was accompanied by Vice President Richard Nixon in 1963.
Opening the lake properties to the public is not without its challenges to Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center staff, from maintenance costs, to walkers who fail to clean up after their dogs and people who like to feed the ducks and geese at the lake.
In the 1990s, the Southeastern Jurisdictional Council adopted a policy restricting the walking trail to pedestrians only. The policy was prompted by complaints from people using the walking trail who objected to the amount of dog feces not being picked up by their owners and about young people riding bicycles and skateboards along the narrow trail.
The policy was later amended to allow dogs if their owners obtained a permit and agreed to keep their dog on a leash and collect their dog’s feces. The policy was abandoned because it was difficult to enforce, Young said.
“The people who obtained a permit were the ones who were picking up after their dogs and the ones who were not complying didn’t bother to get a permit,” he said. An honor system and poop bag stations are now used.
“It’s remarkable how many people bring their dogs to walk with them and how few pick up after them,” Young said.
Another issue of cleanliness of the grounds centers on the ducks and geese people feed at the lake. In the fall of 2012, a policy was adopted restricting the feeding of ducks and geese to address the sanitation issues and to prevent disruption of the birds’ migration instincts.
“The annual cost of maintaining the walking trail and recreation facilities at Lake Junaluska is over $250,000,” said Ken Howle, Director of Advancement for the Assembly. “Contributions to the Friends of the Lake help cover these costs and also help fund future enhancements,” he said.
Gifts to Lake Junaluska’s annual fund grew substantially in 2012, Howle said, adding that ongoing financial support is necessary to be able to continue offering the services to the community.
“People are excited about what is going on at Lake Junaluska and are eager to be part of our ministry by providing financial support,” Howle said. “Lake Junaluska has received considerable support from the local community since our first year in 1913. This support is a crucial funding source to assist us with maintaining Lake Junaluska as a recreation, worship and meeting destination.”