Skyland Camp for Girls steeped in tradition
When Susan Courtney Harris first came to the Smokies, she was just looking for a place to escape the stifling Florida summers. What she actually found in Haywood County was the beginning of a cherished century-old legacy for thousands of girls and women.
“One of the great traditions at Skyland is that it’s always been a woman-owned, woman-run business, started by my great-grandmother and then run by my grandmother and great-aunt, and then my mother and then me, so there’s a wonderful tradition of empowered women,” said Sherry Brown, the camp’s current co-owner. “That alone really drives the culture at Skyland, which teaches that girls can do anything. We really strive to instill that confidence in girls, that they can do whatever, and be whoever, they want to be.”
That tradition serves as an important link back to Harris herself.
“There are many, many stories about her, and she was always described as a very confident woman who knew what she wanted and was able to get it at a time when women just didn’t do the things she did,” said Brown.
Harris went from staying at the Skyland Home Hotel in Clyde to leasing it, and then to purchasing it for $3,000 at an auction — before women could even vote. Family lore has it that the auctioneer had to contact Harris’ husband to make sure he approved of her purchase in Clyde.
It was there that Harris, who would soon become known to generations as “Granny Harris” started the Skyland Camp for Girls in 1917. Granny’s daughters, Frances Harris Brown and Helen “Hempy” Harris, took over for Granny sometime in the late 1940s-early 1950s, but by the 1970s, the camp was run by Bunny Canaday Brown, who’d first camped at Skyland in the early 1940s and then formally became part of the Skyland family when she married Tim Brown, son of Frances and grandson of Granny.
When Bunny retired in the early 2000s, her twin children — Granny’s great-grandchildren — Sherry and Mike took over, so throughout the camp’s existence it has retained an intimate, family-style atmosphere.
“One thing that’s great about Skyland is that it’s always been a smaller size,” said Brown. “Many camps over the years have turned into very large companies where there may be 500 campers and it’s a different experience altogether. At Skyland, we don’t have more than 60, so it really feels much more like a community.”
Brown recalled a story about a friend who’d sent her daughter to a camp in Texas and called to check in on her; after waiting on hold she was told, “Well, she hasn’t checked into the infirmary, so we assume she’s fine.”
The close-knit environment at Skyland breeds camaraderie over generations, according to Kay Anderson, parent and family liaison at Skyland for the past eight years.
“At our centennial celebration in 2017, we had 90-year-old campers, one-year-olds, and the oldest woman was 93 or 94,” said Anderson. “She talked about how these were the happiest days of her life, even though she said she’d had a happy and blessed life.”
Anderson also remembers a call from a septuagenarian who had just received an iPad as a gift.
“I looked you up,” the woman told her. “I was afraid you wouldn’t still be there.”
The woman went on to recount her experience as a 6-year-old, taking the train alone from Miami to Jacksonville, Florida, and then from there to Clyde; she recently sent her granddaughter to follow in her footsteps at Skyland.
Many activities remain little changed from the early 1900s, including the camp’s total lack of smartphones and reliance on the postal service for camper correspondence.
Every camper, said Anderson, remembers the famous chocolate sauce on ice cream night, as well as the raucous melodies of song night.
“All of the girls sit down in rows, criss-cross applesauce, across from each other and we’re doing hand motions, and the pianist plays these camp songs, and we sing at the top of our lungs,” Anderson chuckled.
During the 2017 centennial, the 90-something camp alum sat down, on the floor, criss-cross applesauce, singing the exact same songs with a 9-year-old.
“I get tears in my eyes just thinking about that bond, that connection,” said Anderson.
Like Granny Harris, many young girls found something in tiny ol’ Clyde that would end up defining their lives; alums, Anderson said, can be found in “all walks of life,” from politics to the New York fashion industry.
“Some said they found their voice, some said their confidence — some special part of their development as a young girl,” she said. “In some cases, it was a truly life-changing experience. One woman who was a third-generation camper now sends her daughters here. She said, ‘My life changed here, because it was here that I realized I loved animals and wanted to become a veterinarian.’ That was in the days when women didn’t really do that.”
The reputation of Skyland for empowering young women in the fashion of Granny Harris is such that then-Congressman Heath Shuler read a commemoration of Skyland into the Congressional Record in recognition of the camp’s 90th anniversary in 2007, specifically citing the “generations of vibrant young female leaders it has helped raise in North Carolina.”
For the 101st time, Skyland will this year welcome returning campers, as well as new ones, simultaneously perpetuating and establishing Granny Harris’ legacy for generations to come.
“It feels like a huge family reunion with a bunch of your extended cousins and family members,” Granny’s great-granddaughter Sherry Brown said. “We like that it’s a more homey feel. It allows us to know every girl individually, every camper there, if we don’t already know them from years past.”