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A History of Leaders in the Making: In the Beginning

Over 35 years ago, one man’s visit to an abandoned academy in the mountains of north Georgia would be the beginning of something spectacular. Having known many students who were already winners, S. Truett Cathy wanted to create a program to help shape them for life. The following post is a glimpse into the history of WinShape Camps as written by our first Director of WinShape Camps for Boys, Rick Johnson, in the book ‘A History of Leaders in the Making.’

In the Beginning

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

God’s plans are so great, we usually don’t see them until we look back over the course of time. That’s the way it is with WinShape Camps. Looking back we can see that six decades before the first children arrived at camp in 1985, God was already building WinShape’s foundations in hearts on the land.

Historians often describe the 1920s as the Roaring Twenties, a time when it seemed that all Americans had good jobs and cash in their pockets. But poverty still held a firm grip on pockets of the rural South and in some corners of the big cities. In three of those crucibles of hard times–a boarding house in west Atlanta, the hills of northwest Georgia, and the mountains of North Carolina–God was at work.

In the late nineteenth century, Martha Berry, daughter of wealthy parents living just north of Rome, Georgia, met some of her poor neighbors. With no public school nearby, the children were receiving no education. Most of the families had only one book in the house, a Bible, but since neither parent could read, it sat unopened. So Miss Berry invited children to a cabin in the woods on Sundays and told them Bible stories. Then she began to teach them to read, and in 1902 she founded a school on Lavender Mountain.

By the 1920s, with the help of generous benefactors and the hard work of Berry School students, the school was moving beyond its log cabin beginnings, and the campus that would become the center of “Camp WinShape” was built. In 1923 students built Hill Dining Hall with its massive stone fireplace and beamed cathedral ceilings. Two years later students went back to work building Friendship Hall, a stone dormitory with a two-story beamed cathedral ceiling and natural stone fireplace, and the Mountain Campus began to take the look of a New England boarding school in the rural South. Four years later another stone dormitory, Pilgrim Hall, was built by student labor to house sixty-five Berry residents. In 1930 a stone barn was built at the foot of the mountain.

The Great Depression

In the meantime, the Great Depression had struck a Martha Berry experienced tremendous difficulty raising money for the school’s operations. She spent days and weeks on the road traveling to Washington, New York, and anywhere else she might meet with potential benefactors. She raised enough money to build the Normandy Complex during the period from 1931-1937. Again students provided labor, this time using bricks roof tiles they had made in the campus brick plant. The barns housed Berry’s dairy operation, where cows milked twice daily, and the dormitories housed students working in the dairy or on the farm. Miss Berry had the student builders places spires on every barn so that whenever people passed, they eyes would turn to God.

At this point, the key element missing at the Mountain Campus, Miss Berry said, was a suitable chapel. She prayed that God would make the resources available, and then put a little wooden cross on the lawn with the lords: CHAPEL WANTED.

Not long afterward she received a letter form a man in Los Angeles who had been reading about the Berry schools. He would be coming south in the spring and would like to see the campus. A few months later Howard Frost and his wife called from Chattanooga, wishing they could visit but understanding that spring floods made the campus nearly inaccessible from the north. Not so, Miss Berry said, and she had a staff member drive the back roads to the Frosts’ hotel and bring them back to Rome. As she came to know the Frosts, Miss Berry learned they had lost their only son when he was about the age of her students. They wanted to create an appropriate memorial to him, perhaps a chapel. Martha Berry’s heart must have leapt, realizing God’s provision seemed so close at hand. But instead of jumping at the opportunity, she quietly suggested that they continue looking over the Mountain Campus. As they passed a long sloping hill, the Frosts said it looked like the ideal spot for the chapel they envisioned. By October of the same year, Frost Chapel was completed and ready for worship.

The Cathy Family

If the Joseph Benjamin Cathy family had lived seventy miles north of Atlanta, their children might have been prospective students for Martha Berry’s schools. Mr. Cathy went broke as a farmer in rural Eatonton, Georgia, and the family moved to Atlanta soon after their seventh child, Samuel Truett, was born. In Atlanta, Mr. Cathy began selling life insurance, but still was unable to earn enough money to support the family.

The experience affected Truett Cathy’s father deeply. He became stern, sometimes harsh, with his children, and he was rarely if ever loving. Truett never heard his father say, “I love you.” And though Truett was well behaved, as you would imagine, he often felt the sting of his father’s belt or a razor strap.

Unable to live on Mr. Cathy’s income from selling insurance, the Cathy’s rented a big house and took boarders for a dollar a day. Mrs. Cathy ran the boarding house. Unlike Mr. Cathy, who was embittered by hard times, his wife, Lilla, remained gentle and living as she relied more heavily on God to help her family. Running the boarding house was a seven-day-a-week job, including Sunday dinner during the worship hour, but she made sure that her children got dressed and off to Sunday school and church every week. At home she turned her radio to the Reverend Charles E. Fuller reading the Bible and preaching on “Old Fashioned Revival Hour.” That was church for her.

Martha Berry would have appreciated Truett’s ambition. Truett turned eight years old in 1929, the year of the stock market crack and the beginning of the Depression. He decided that it was time for him to earn his own money. He started selling Coca-Colas door-to-door, buying a six-pack for a quarter and selling them for a nickel each, giving him a nickel profit. This was no small task for a young boy with a speech impediment so severe he couldn’t pronounce his own name. But with determination he succeeded. Four years later he got his first paper route, throwing the Atlanta Journal after school and before daybreak on Sunday mornings.

About the same time, Truett’s Sunday school teacher saw this boy growing into a man without a godly male role influence. Theo Abby, who had a son Truett’s age, reached out with a loving and caring spirit, visiting the Cathy home and taking Truett and other boys on overnight trips to Lake Jackson. Truett knew then that Theo Abby would become his model as an adult. He would reach out to children whose fathers had neglected them.

Taking Shape

While Truett was growing up in Atlanta and Martha Berry was building the Mountain Campus, a summer camp was taking shape in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina. In the mid-1920s, the Southern Baptist Convention Board bought property near its Ridgecrest Baptist Conference Center and built a fifteen-acre lake with the intention of opening a girls’ camp on one side of the lake and boys’ camp on the other. A large two-story residence on the property became a camp headquarters building, and several cabins and other facilities were added in time to open for the 1926 camping season. Camp Swannanoa for girls opened, but in 1928 after only three seasons, logistical business issues caused it to close.

The Baptist Sunday School Board took charge in 1929 and focused its efforts on opening a boys’ camp. A two-week trial session that summer was deemed a success, and plans began in earnest to open Camp Ridgecrest in 1930.

Asheville and Buncombe County appeared to have everything going their way. Good times led to the building of a new city hall, and a sixteen-story county courthouse, and the relocation of a large library. When the stock market crashed, Asheville was left with the highest per capita debt in the nation.

The Sunday School Board refused to allow hard times to impede plans for its summer camp. They moved forward with the same determination that had led to the building of the Conference Center in 1907:

The men who founded Ridgecrest may have realized the same educational values of the mountains as was reflected in the words of Dr. John A. Broadus when in 1874 he wrote of John the Baptist: “He was a child of the mountains. Whenever education and religion take hold in a mountain region, the result is great strength of character.”

– Ridgecrest: Mountain of Faith, Kenneth McAnear

A young student at Yale, Charles W. Burts, was selected as camp director, a choice that would have a permanent impact on Ridgecrest and on WinShape half a century later. Burts came to Ridgecrest having worked for five summers as a counselor and an assistant director in other camps. He and Noble Van Ness, who was leading the camp effort for the Sunday School Board and was an experienced Boy Scout leader, decided to build a program around a Native American motif. In the summer of 1930, campers and staff at Ridgecrest divided into tribes according to age and met around the Council Ring for the first time.

The camp leaders believed children would be more likely to succeed in a camp if they were recognized for their achievements. They created a system of ranks that boys could earn culminating in the highest honor, Little Chief, which was to be earned only by the most outstanding campers following an overnight ordeal. That ordeal was patterned in part on the Boy Scout honor society, Order of the Arrow. During the Little Chief test, candidates had to maintain complete silence while working to keep a fire burning through the night. Then at daybreak they climbed to the top of a nearby mountain where they listened to a morning devotional, then wrote an essay about the value of their camp experience and worked all day on camp improvement projects.

The camp program at Ridgecrest offered a variety of activities, all with a strong Christian emphasis that was built into every aspect of camp life. Every day, campers gathered for morning watch and evening devotions.

Independent of one another, the Berry schools, Truett Cathy, Camp Ridgecrest, and the girls’ camp that followed later, Camp Crestridge, would glorify God while having a positive influence on literally thousands of young people. Then in 1985, God would bring these pillars together and build upon them “Camp WinShape,” a place for strengthening character and shaping winners.