John Shearer: Camp Nakanawa In Crossville, Which Has Drawn Many Chattanoogans, Started 100 Years Ago This Summer

Monday, July 6, 2020 - by John Shearer

For decades before the proliferation of sports camps or school and church summer programs, one of the few summer camps for girls within a two-hour drive of Chattanooga was Camp Nakanawa in the Crossville, Tn., area.


Especially for a number of Chattanooga area-raised Baby Boomer women and those older, Camp Nakanawa is likely a rich part of their growing-up memories.


“It was a wonderful place,” recalled Nan Chamberlain Smith, now of Nashville, who went to the camp for several years and then was a counselor and in 1955 became the first of three sisters in her family to be a Girls Preparatory School May queen.


The camp began exactly a century ago this summer, although it actually celebrated its centennial in 2019 due to the fact that was its 100th summer of having camp for girls.

And it did so in a festive manner.


“We had 750 come from 35 states and several countries,” said camp co-director Pepe Perron, who has been co-director with his wife, Ann, for nearly four decades.


Former camper and counselor Margaret Matens, who for a number of years worked in the communications office at Baylor School, also wrote a centennial history book.


The 2019 celebration ended up working out well despite some rain, as a celebration this year would have likely had to be delayed or canceled, as have this summer’s camp programs, due to the coronavirus pandemic.


While this year has created the camp’s first pause of having no summer activities and the obvious disappointment among all involved, it has allowed another opportunity for an anniversary-like reflection back on the history.


According to some information provided at the camp’s website and from Mr. Perron, the camp had started in 1920 beside a private, spring-fed and dammed lake that had been created less than 10 years before as part of an outdoors resort.


The first camp director was Col. L.L Rice, who was president of Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon, Tn. Col. Rice had a PhD, was an amateur nuclear physicist and was a supporter of women, sports and the outdoors.


“He was infamous,” said Mr. Perron. “He was an intellect, but he expressed it in ways people could understand.”


He was also considered foresighted, as his camp offered a variety of outdoor and sports activities for girls that first year, including soccer decades before it was played competitively by girls in most American schools.


One of his early campers who arrived in the mid-1920s was Elisabeth “Mitch” Mitchell, who lived in Alabama and later Atlanta as the daughter of a pioneering electric power engineer.


When Col. Rice decided to retire, Ms. Mitchell’s parents bought the camp and she began running it in 1947. Her niece, Ann Perron, and husband, took over the camp in 1981 and continue to operate it.


Mr. Perron said many of the great traditions for this camp have continued over the years, including Col. Rice’s original idea of having two groups of teams – called the Amazons and Valkyries from mythology – for competition and camaraderie. The Amazons’ main color is red, while the Valkyries use blue.


Many of the earlier buildings, such as the Wigwam main gathering building and others are still around, while the camp has also expanded other parts of its complex. And, of course, the 150-acre lake has been a link over the 100-plus years.


Among the activities offered today for girls from ages 8 to 17 include sailing and canoeing, golf, tennis, soccer, archery, shooting, wall climbing, and such fine arts as music, dance and pottery, among a number of other activities.


While the activities have expanded, Mr. Perron said the values of learning independence and growth as a person while expanding one’s horizons have remained the same.


“It’s important for its many life lessons,” he said of the camp. “You share a bond with your cabin mates and teammates because of shared experiences.”


Among former Chattanooga campers, Estes Carter Stephens of Riverview said she went to Camp Nakanawa beginning in the 1940s for six years and served for one year as a counselor. She said Col. Rice was still there when she started.


“He wore a white suit, just like Col. Sanders, all the time,” she said with a laugh. “He was very formal and very nice, and he would preach Sunday services and walk around and observe everything.”


She also recalled the counselors, “Scooter” and “Mitch,” and that two girls in her cabin every year were from Natchez, Miss. They went on to own two homes that became tourist attractions in that town known for its stately old homes.


A Valkyrie, Ms. Stephens added that her favorite camp activity and the one where she was most skilled was shooting, even though she was not around guns much before or after her camping days. She said she and another girl were close in skill, but the other one ended up winning the award after a drawn-out competition. “I was disappointed,” she said.


Among her other memories are of riding a steam-engine-powered train up to camp from Chattanooga, and her one year as counselor. She jokingly recalled that most of the campers, including her, worshiped the counselors and thought they were perfect. However, she learned they were human once she began serving as one.


She enjoyed plenty else as well. “I loved camp,” she said. “I was an only child, so it was wonderful. I had all these people to play with.”


She also remembered that they had to stay at camp a little longer than normal one summer due to a polio outbreak in Chattanooga.


Ms. Smith was about four years younger than Ms. Stephens and went for several years in the late 1940s and 1950s and also served as counselor for multiple years. Her mother, the late Mrs. Douglas Chamberlain, was the Chattanooga representative for the camp, and they would often have 20-25 campers from Chattanooga attend every year, riding up on a train and being picked up by mule-driven wagons driven by the right-hand man named Carson, she said.


An aunt had attended beginning in the early 1920s at the same time the well-known future writer Eudora Welty attended, and that started a Chamberlain family Camp Nakanawa tradition that has lasted through her grandchildren. And all were Valkyries.


She said that she was particularly interested in the water sports like swimming, canoeing and diving. She also remembered enjoying the personal growth of taking part in fencing, taught by a short woman named “Rabbit,” and horseback riding.


War canoe races in crew-like boats were also fun, and she also remembered how competitive soccer was. She recalled that all the sports activities were competitive, but you did your best and you moved on emotionally after the friendly competition.


Ms. Smith, whose daughter and some grandchildren also went to Camp Nakanawa, remembered overall that it was a great experience and good preparation for life, from learning how to handle oneself in different situations, to learning independence, to getting to know people different from you.


“I loved everything,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to get to camp (every summer) and be out of school.”


Louise “Tootie” Chamberlain Tual, now of Memphis, was more than 10 years younger than Nan and middle sister Betsy, but also continued the family tradition of attending Camp Nakanawa, which was rumored to be a name Col. Rice invented himself, the Perrons say.


The 1969 GPS May queen started at age 9 in 1960 and stayed until 1967, when she was on “tent row,” the cabins closest to the waterfront for the older campers.


She enjoyed getting to do all the sports and activities and meet people from other areas.


“It was just a wonderful place to get away from school,” she said. “It was a nice place to go for young girls at any age to get away from everyday life. And the location is beautiful.”    


She also recalled the campers taking in the area around the camp as well and renting the entire Cumberland County Playhouse to see a show when that theater was in its early years.


Among her other general memories of the camp, she appreciated the positive lessons of teamwork, and the good values taught regarding how to live one’s life.


She did not become a counselor, but has been back to some reunions, including the one celebrating 100 years in 2019. “At reunions you always see people you haven’t seen in years,” she said.


And the reconnections continue the positive feelings she has always had for Camp Nakanawa, she added.


“It was a nice place to go for young girls at any age to get away from everyday life,” she said.


Cathy Shearer Morris of Chattanooga went as a younger camper in 1967 and ’68 while finishing her Bright School elementary years, and she had similarly positive memories, including of riding the Trailways bus up there and getting her picture in the paper with other campers.


She jokingly added that she also has a few memories of experiencing outdoor living, from finding bats in their cabin to hurriedly rushing in from the water in her boat with a Louisiana camper and friend after seeing a thunderstorm approaching.


An Amazon, she also recalled wearing a uniform during the week and wearing white on Sundays, when the vesper services were held. Sunday was also memorable for the food.


“Every Sunday we had homemade ice cream and chocolate cake,” she said.


Overall, her memories are as rich as the desserts.


“It was a very positive, uplifting place to go for girls,” she said.

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