Ringing the Camp Bell

The Grahams find mountain contentment at Glen Arden

Joy Bryant

Just when the temperature starts to rise in the Midlands, Columbia natives Erin and Garrett Graham will be cool and comfortable, high atop a mountain in Western North Carolina, preparing to ring an antique bell to start their second season at Camp Glen Arden. All summer long, the resonant peal of the bell will blend with the rush of a waterfall that runs through the campground, accompanying a chorus of singing and laughing girls.

Erin and Garrett acquired Glen Arden in October 2016 and are the third owners of the historic campsite. Their new home in the Blue Ridge Mountains is surrounded by Christmas tree farms and apple orchards, abundant in natural beauty.

Garrett worked at Camp Ton-A-Wandah in Hendersonville, just a few miles from Glen Arden, for 17 years, and Erin joined him there in 2009. “We knew if we were going to be in this business, we needed to own our own camp,” Garrett says. “That’s what it came down to. How long do you work for someone else until you decide that you want to make your own dream come true?”    

The couple’s shared passion for nurturing children, combined with the arrival of their son, Henry, now 4, led them on a quest to purchase their own camp. Though they traveled up and down the East Coast in their search, they ended up in the same county where they began. Having recently built a house for their family on the property, they are happy that Henry gets to spend so much time playing outside on the mountain with the family’s English cocker spaniel, Bo.

Founded by Mary Bell in 1951 as a sister camp to Camp Arrowhead for Boys, Glen Arden was initially located at Christ School in Arden, North Carolina, but moved to the current site in 1972. The property, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was first occupied in 1919 when Mary Bell’s father-in-law, J.O. Bell, Sr., built a pavilion to serve as a recreation hall for millworkers at his company, Green River Manufacturing. Now, from June to August, Glen Arden girls can relax on the porch in rocking chairs overlooking the rushing water of Arden Falls or play basketball beside an emerald-green lake surrounded by wild tiger lilies, dandelions, ferns, and violets.

According to Garrett, “In Western North Carolina, there are probably 60 summer camps. It’s the largest population of summer camps in the country — in the world, for that matter.” Working for the YMCA in Columbia right after graduating from Dreher High School, Garrett rose quickly through the ranks for four years and then took three months off to hike the Appalachian Trail in 2000 before resuming his career in Hendersonville.

Erin also graduated from Dreher, but met Garrett years later via Columbia friends Katherine and Brandon Templeton. She taught English at E.L. Wright Middle School before moving up the mountain in 2004.

“I moved up here just assuming that it would be easier for me to find a teaching job in this area than for him to get a camp job in Columbia,” Erin says. She made the 50-minute trip to teach at Greenville High School for five years before joining Garrett full time at Camp Ton-A-Wandah in 2009. While the commute was difficult, spending time in Greenville helped ease the transition from the Midlands to the relatively isolated Blue Ridge Mountains.

“It was a bit of a shock, moving from Columbia to here, especially 14 years ago; it’s changed and grown a lot,” says Erin. Erin’s siblings now live in nearby Asheville, but her parents,  Garrett’s parents and sisters still live in Columbia. The Grahams’ new camp venture keeps them from going home as often as they once did. When they are in Columbia, Erin and Garrett also enjoy taking Henry to Riverbanks Zoo and EdVenture Children’s Museum.

“Although we absolutely love the mountains and are very happy here,” Erin says, “we do enjoy visiting Columbia. It seems like the restaurants have changed since we lived there, but we still like to go to Groucho’s and Rockaway’s; we loved Devine Foods before it closed. I worked at the Baskin-Robbins on Forest Drive in high school, with just about every other teenager in Columbia, and that is still my favorite ice cream. I also worked at the Gourmet Shop the summer after college, and it has my favorite chicken salad.”

Garrett’s stint at the YMCA in Columbia ignited his career in the summer camp industry, and when Erin quit teaching, she found that many of the skills she had acquired at school were applicable to Camp Glen Arden, where, as director, she cultivates relationships and manages enrollment.

“A big part of our job,” says Garrett, “is establishing relationships with families and campers. If you’re going to send your child away to a camp, you need to know the people; you need to have a relationship.”   

Erin also gained valuable experience working for Columbia attorney Adele Pope, while attending graduate school at the University of South Carolina. She credits Adele with being very influential in her life.

“Even though I did not pursue a career in law,” Erin says, “the trust she put in me at a young age was truly confidence-boosting.”

Both Garrett and Erin naturally draw from their own childhood experiences at camp, too — she attended Camp Gravatt in Aiken, and he attended Camp McCall in Sunset near Pickens.

With dozens of activities ranging from archery to woodworking, Glen Arden keeps the girls busy. No electronics are permitted, and the Grahams encourage the girls to bring a book to read and a book to share via the camp library.

The Grahams have forged a relationship with Greenbriar Farms in Easley, South Carolina, as a source for beef and pork, and the camp boasts a raised-bed garden near its tennis courts. Meals are an important aspect of camp. “They have to sit down with each other and have relationships,” Garrett says. “They look each other in the eye and learn how to have a conversation.”

Garrett says it is important to him that the work they do produces a worthwhile result. “These vibrant young people are learning good things, having a good time, learning about themselves, and building good character. Their parents will testify that when they leave here, they are different from when they arrived. They make their beds when they get home, they talk at the dinner table, and do those things that they have to do at camp.”

Erin and Garrett have been making practical improvements to some of the camp structures, such as the bath houses. They have also been tweaking some of the programs and preparing to offer new ones, including lacrosse. But they are careful not to change too much. “There’s a reason that campers already love it here,” Erin says, “and those traditions are part of it, so what is already established, a lot of it going back to 1951 when camp was started, is all an important part of camp.”

Though it is primarily Erin’s job to ring the enormous camp bell, Garrett rings it from time to time. Resounding through the mountains, the Glen Arden bell speaks to generations of campers in a secret language that only they can understand. The oft-repeated compliment is: “That bell — it resonates in a lot of people’s souls.”