One foot in the past, one in the future, Junaluskans weigh the worth of their identity
When Ken Zulla hung up his IRS badge and retired to the well-groomed mountain hamlet of Lake Junaluska more than a decade ago, monthly sojourns to the local feed-and-seed store weren’t on the radar for his Golden Years.
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But soon after settling in, Zulla and his wife, Evelyn, naively agreed to pinch-hit feeding the lake’s five resident swans when the last crew of volunteers became too old to do it anymore. Now, fetching 300 pounds of cracked corn concoction each month and filling the swan buckets are part and parcel to the Zullas’ life at the lake — with no hope of abdicating the duty until they get too old themselves.
It’s also a badge of honor.
“When we look at our home, we look at the whole lake as being our home,” Zulla said.
That’s a commonly held view at this 765-home community colonized by retired Methodist ministers and boasting more doctorates than a small college.
There’s no such thing as a passive bystander. Volunteering is a requisite. Philanthropic giving is engrained — from donations for grounds beautification to shoring up operations of the Methodist Conference and Retreat Center at Lake Junaluska’s core.
Homeowners’ social calendars are packed with book clubs, monthly dinners, guest lecturers, food drives, a regular newsletter — a smattering of intellectual and cultural offerings rare for a community this size.
Bragging about life at Junaluska is a favorite topic for Dr. Kenneth M. Johnson in his volunteer role narrating boat tours on the lake for summer visitors.
“There are enrichment opportunities galore at Lake Junaluska,” Johnson said. “And I don’t know of any town or any community that does as much in terms of volunteerism and financial support.”
As the residents of Lake Junaluska contemplate whether to permanently hitch their future to the nearby town of Waynesville, some Junaluskans are torn over giving up their sense of pride. They question whether the sense of ownership that makes their community so unique could somehow be eroded if absorbed by Waynesville.
“The fear was we’ll lose control,” Ken Zulla said. “It is a big concern to the people of Lake Junaluska.”
At least that’s where the Zullas stood nine months ago when a task force first set out to weigh the pros and cons of joining Waynesville, or perhaps forming their own town, or simply staying as they are — as a highly functioning homeowners association that already looks and feels like a town in many ways.
But now, their minds have changed.
“I don’t see the Junaluskans in any way becoming less involved in their community,” Evelyn Zulla said.
“Lake Junaluska is going to be Junaluska whether it is part of the town of Waynesville or not,” Ken added.
Last week, hundreds of Lake Junaluska homeowners got a survey in the mail asking them to weigh in on which of the three paths they favor. Participation has been high — with 30 percent promptly filling them out and sending them back in the first few days.
To call it a hot topic would be an understatement. Everyone is prying, albeit politely, into how their friends and neighbors responded to the survey. Some are telling, some aren’t.
Dr. Rev. Bill Lowry has found himself on the receiving end of the query more often than most.
“People ask me and I say, ‘I’m a historian. I live in the past,’” Lowry quipped.
But indeed, it’s Lowry’s anointed role as master Junaluska historian that makes his view so particularly intriguing. Lowry revels in the underbelly of Junaluska history — both figuratively and literally given the time he spends in the basement vaults where century-old records are kept dating back to Junaluska’s founding.
Lowry’s mum, for now, given the friends he has on both sides of the issue.
“I know a couple of people who are ready to go to war to stop the annexation with Waynesville,” Lowry said. “The issue is identity. The issue is nostalgia. It is an emotional issue.”
Evolution of the times
Junaluskans are pondering their future — perhaps ironically, perhaps by design — on the eve of the lake’s 100th anniversary.
“We are making a decision that will set the path for the next 100 years,” said Dr. Bill King, a member of the task force charged with studying the ins and outs of the various options.
During celebrations this summer, Lake Junaluska will remember its early days when droves of well-off Southern Methodists arrived by train to worship on the shores of the mountain-ringed lake.
Booming sermons were delivered from the pulpit in the iconic Stuart Auditorium, the first building to go up on the grounds in 1913. From a big-top roof to dirt floors, it paid homage to the old-fashioned camp revival tents — but a rugged, country revival Lake Junaluska was not.
But first, back up a few years. In Lake Junaluska’s infancy, there was no lake, just a patchwork of fields, pastures and farm houses. The vision of a summer retreat for well-to-do families of Methodist ministers and church leaders was cut from whole cloth.
Its founders bought up 1,200 acres and embarked on a lofty and grandiose development plan: a towering dam to make a lake, a colossal auditorium, two hotels, roads and even water and sewer lines. The backbone of that first campus still defines Junaluska a century later.
The homes quickly followed. And by the 1920s, a summer enclave of Methodist ministers and their families had spread along the lake shore.
For the first several decades, ties with the Methodist church were universal among homeowners. But when it moved toward a year-round community in the 1960s, homeowners with no affiliation to the church gradually began moving in.
“There are people now who build here or move here just because it is a fabulous place to live,” Lowry said.
While the Methodist roots of Lake Junaluska have been watered down in recent decades, its lineage as a summer church retreat remains surprisingly strong.
Lowry is sometime asked, “Do you have to be a retired Methodist minister to live at Lake Junaluska?”
“I say, ‘No, the place is lousy with Methodist ministers, but you don’t have to be one,’” Lowry said.
One long-time homeowner at the lake, Dr. Bill King, is asked so frequently whether he’s a retired minister, he offers as a disclaimer out of the gate when introducing himself.
His father was a minister, and his son is one, but he isn’t.
“Luckily, it skipped a generation,” King joked.
Growing up in the 1940s and ‘50s, King spent his summers at Lake Junaluska, a heritage shared by many of the lake’s homeowners today. Summer days were filled with swimming and boating on the lake, hiking up Eagle’s Nest and Utah mountains, loitering by the jukebox at the soda shop on the lake shore, and the ubiquitous ice cream socials turning out hand-cranked, homemade batches in front yards of neighborhood homes.
“It was a great place to be in the summer. You could leave home in the morning and come back in the evening and tell your parents where you’d been and that was it,” King recalled.
King gestured out the front window of his living room on a hillside overlooking the lake, rattling off the names of childhood friends from those youthful summer days who are now full-time Junaluska retirees like himself.
“Right up here on the top of this hill are second- or third-generation homeowners. We grew up here as children. They were all preachers’ kids, and we all knew each other,” King said.
That generational camaraderie still binds the Junaluska community together. But it’s hard to say how long those ties will persist, especially as more and more homeowners move there simply because Junaluska is a nice place to live.
“This used to be exclusively thought of as a church summer resort, and now, that has changed. Now it is a year-round place of residence,” King said.
And that begs the question: would being absorbed by Waynesville hasten that departure from Junaluska tradition and identity?
“Today, some people feel like they are moving to a home in the mountains. I feel like I am living in the mountains — and at Lake Junaluska,” King said. “Whether we are annexed by Waynesville or not doesn’t really affect that.”
Prudence versus passion
A faction of residents disagree, however. Just how many won’t be known until survey results are announced at the end of February. But a movement has emerged in recent weeks among those who would instead prefer to form their own town — a brand-new town of Lake Junaluska.
“You maintain your identity more clearly it seems to me,” said Dr. Kenneth M. Johnson, who retired to Junaluska full-time 19 years ago.
Johnson admits joining Waynesville is the easiest — and cheapest — option. Lake Junaluska residents are staring down $10 million in repairs to their aging and neglected infrastructure, most notably $3 million in “critical” repairs to their crumbling water and sewer lines.
Going it alone would mean bearing the burden alone, and that would cost more than joining the town of Waynesville and letting it pick up the tab.
But the risk of losing what makes Junaluska special is simply not worth it to Johnson.
“I think it would definitely affect people subconsciously. In other words, we would feel this is not the same. We would feel it. And it wouldn’t be the same,” Johnson said.
Johnson remembers the day he moved in, when a “fellow Junaluskan” brought him a hot, bubbly pot pie.
“We’ve discovered a fellowship that is so rich and so rare,” Johnson said. “In a sense, we are a fellowship of kindred spirits.”
Johnson is — you guessed it — a retired Methodist minister.
The idea of forming its own town has seemingly gained traction at the 11th-hour. Lowry said many assumed there were only two viable options: staying the same or being absorbed by Waynesville.
While he’s playing his own cards close to his vest, he did offer up what he called “his private opinion expressed publicly.”
“I have some strong feelings about its identity,” Lowry said. “But I am realistic enough to realize we are at a crucial point. We have got to do something.”
Ron Clauser, chairman of the task force that has studied the issue for the past nine months, uses an analogy harkening back to his career in the insurance business.
“How is the risk spread?” Clauser asked.
Some fear Junaluska could become insolvent if it tries to continue as an island unto itself.
But Johnson heeds caution.
“If we merge, it is a done deal,” Johnson said. “You can never go back. That’s the ringer for me.”
It’s no accident Lake Junaluska sits at Waynesville’s doorstep. Waynesville’s business community made sure of it more than a century ago.
When its founders were casting about for an idyllic spot in the mountains to build a Christian summer retreat, “there was a lot of competition,” Lowry said.
Waynesville businessmen sealed the deal by committing $100,000 if the retreat was built here instead of elsewhere.
“They knew it would bring in a lot of people and a lot of business,” Lowry said.
But building the retreat came at a steep price — equivalent to more than $10 million by modern standards.
“They incurred unbelievable debt,” Lowry said. “Sooner or later the chickens have to come home to roost.”
By the early 1930s, Junaluska declared bankruptcy, unable to pay off its debt.
“At this point, Lake Junaluska should have ceased to exist,” Lowry said.
But a great hue and cry went up within the Methodist Church — a call to arms to “Save Junaluska” that in many ways still echoes today for the columns of admirers who open their wallets and volunteer their time in the name of Junaluska.
Waynesville businessmen were once again among those who came to the rescue.
“The histories of Lake Junaluska and Waynesville are inextricably linked,” said Jack Ewing, the director of Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center. “There are several times in Lake Junaluska’s history that it would not have survived if it had not been for the people of the town of Waynesville coming to the rescue financially.”
But the opposite is equally true.
“Lake Junaluska has been good for Waynesville since its inception,” said Henry Foy, a long-time former mayor of Waynesville. “Lake Junaluska is a vibrant part of our community.”
When Ron Clauser moved to Lake Junaluska in the 1990s, he was expecting a Lake Junaluska address. But his particular street fell under the jurisdiction of the Waynesville post office, and that meant a Waynesville address.
“When I found that out, I was actually disappointed,” Clauser said. He even contemplated getting a PO Box at the Junaluska post office so he could have a Junaluska address.
In the end, however, Clauser’s affinity for neighboring Waynesville has been a pleasant surprise, from attending church in Waynesville to being a season ticket holder at Haywood Arts Regional Theatre.
Like Clauser, King has also immersed himself in his larger Waynesville environs since retiring full-time to the Lake, whether its his role on the Waynesville Public Art Commission or simply eating at restaurants in town.
“I have enjoyed being a part of the total community,” King said. “I think it is kind of seamless from Waynesville to Junaluska for some people.”
For much of its history, Lake Junaluska was seen as a private enclave. Gates at the entrance even required paid admission for outsiders.
But that divide has long since been bridged.
“Good gracious we are part of Waynesville. We can’t change that,” Lowry said.
The past nine months have been a case study of self-determination. Reams of studies have analyzed Lake Junaluska’s roads, the state of its water and sewer lines, and public services, like police and trash pickup. Reports crunched the numbers on what each option would likely cost the average homeowner: paying in to town taxes or going it alone?
“All the options have their advantages and disadvantages. If it hadn’t been that way, we wouldn’t have needed a task force at all,” Clauser said.
There have been countless public forums, community meetings and question-and-answer sessions. Audio recordings, minutes and video feeds gave homeowners access to all the same high-level data the task force had.
“It is a very healthy process. It is not a dictatorial process. It is very comprehensive,” Johnson said.
In-fighting has been nonexistent. Rational discourse, objectivity and thoughtful analysis have led the day.
It’s likely a testament to the type of folks who call Junaluska home.
“The interaction and participatory nature of this community is second to none. We try to develop consensus on things that are important,” Johnson said.
Even the property owners’ survey that was sent out was vetted by a focus group, careful to detect any semblance of leading questions or embedded bias.
Ewing, the director of the conference and retreat center operations, said it is fitting to be asking these questions at the lake’s centennial juncture.
The Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center has its own share of challenges. It’s lost money eight of the past 10 years. This year, the Lake is launching a massive, multi-year overhaul of its most outdated buildings — from hotels to auditoriums to dining halls — that are still stuck in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The investment should attract more groups booking the venue for conferences and retreats, which make up the vast majority of its business.
“Both of those entities — the residential component and the conference and retreat center — are thinking strategically,” Ewing said. “We are trying to find solutions for the immediate future but also the best way to be organized and to be funded for the next century.”