We opened TrailRidge in June 1982 and three months prior to that there wasn’t a thing on the property. There wasn’t a proper road (except a long overgrown logging road), not a single clearing, not one piece of flat property, not a building, nothing. There were a lot of trees (lots of hemlocks and poplars) and tons of rhododendron. There were two creeks. That was it. And I was hoping that would be enough.
The original marketing idea was to invite a few kids to come up for a couple of weeks or so and we would basically camp out on the property while doing some fun things mixed in with a few “building” projects like maybe making a campfire circle, maybe a hiking trail, maybe a picnic table...simple things like that. We would going to live in tents, use Coleman lanterns and flashlights for evening lights, get water out of the pristine creek, use a porta-potty for the bathroom, and take showers using a solar shower (basically a black bag of water that had been sitting out in the sun all day).
I had been living in New Orleans and had sold my house and had something like 15 thousand dollars out of that to use to help establish the camp. I also cashed in my retirement savings from Metairie Park Country Day School and had something like $4000 in that. And maybe I had another $1000 saved up..so I was “rich” with a wad of money that I thought would be plenty to enjoy that summer and figure out where to go from there. I mean how much could a cheap tent cost?
But I figured I had to find some campers so I came up with a “marketing” idea and printed a brochure. You can read the entire brochure by clicking here.
The cover said, “How can you go to camp in the mountains of North Carolina for 50 bucks a week”? and it was answered with the statement, “Help Build It.”
I’m not quite sure what happened but kids started signing up and those kids started recruiting other kids, and those kids told someone else. And before I knew it, my five to ten kids a week turned into dozens a week. I think we actually had more than 70 kids there one week of the summer. I was afraid to even mention to Bobbie and the rest how many kids were signed up for the next week. It was like magic to me and I couldn’t say, “no.” Well, I should have. There was no way we were equipped to handle more than eight or ten boys per week. We had no staff coming in except Ray & Nancy Thompson and Gus Jerdee. We also had a great gal who was going to help us in the “kitchen,” Catherine Hays.
It quickly became apparent that we were going to need lots more help with all of those kids so we started looking for counselors and parents to serve as staff...and tents...and more tents...and more tents.
But I was still figuring, you know what, “where’s the problem?” All of these kids are paying 50 bucks a week and just how much could a little food in a pot cost? And we could pick up a tent back then for about $80 and that would sleep two or three people and certainly last a whole summer.
Well, it started to get complicated.
First of all, the MItchell County Health Department knew we were starting a camp and they didn’t care how many kids were coming and how much they were paying...even if only one kid was was coming and paying one cent a week...then we had a commercial operation and certain things had to be in place before we would be given a permit to open. And remember that $20,000 that was going to last me a few years as we got established. That was gone in about ten days. We were told we had to have a dining hall finished before the kids arrived along with a commercial kitchen and it all had to be built to state specs. And we had to have a bathhouse, again health department approved. And we had to have a well with state-tested water and all of this had to happen before anyone took occupancy.
Okay, so remember I started saying that three months before opening day there was not a thing on the property. All of that started to change. Bobbie moved from our house in New Orleans up to Bakersville to be the onsite supervisor. She had friends coming who were carpenters and Gus was going to join them. Plans were drawn out for a dining hall and a bathhouse and with snow on the ground, the building started. And that $20,000 was gone. It was time to borrow...but all of that’s for another blog entry.
And of course, we had all of these kids coming who were paying fees...but we soon realized that we now had to have some kind of kitchen staff (one day you’ll hear about a near mutiny in the kitchen), we had to have plates, commercial stoves, counselors, activities, bathhouse, camp vehicles, a well. So I estimated (after the summer was over) that it was costing us about $75 per week for each camper who was paying us $50 per week. All I could do was somehow hope money would come through and we could just get to the end of this first summer and then sit back and look at what we had accomplished and start regrouping for the second year. I mean, surely we would have a second year.
Well, I’ve certainly made this entry longer than I intended...so let me just add that future entries will fill you in on what it’s like to hide 50 boys and ten counselors in the woods when the health department was coming for a visit...and what it’s like operating the first summer with boys living in more-than-rustic settings in tiny tents with a record summer of rainfall.
I’ve said this elsewhere on this website but it’s worth repeating. Those were some brave boys and staff. I personally could have never done what they did at age 10, or 12, or 14, or 18. I’m proud of them all.