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Home's expansion sets World War II history in stone
Terrace honors veterans by recalling Swannanoa Valley war efforts
It’s hard not to feel history when you're walking the grounds of the Black Mountain Home for Children's new West Campus.
For nearly 84 years until it was shut down in 2013 because of state budget cuts, it was the site of the Swannanoa 4-H Camp, the first of its kind in the state. The old camp got a new lease on life a year ago when Black Mountain Home leased it for 60 years.
But the past, not the future, was celebrated June 3 when Black Mountain Home hosted an open house and unveiled the revived grounds to the public. Included in the tour was a dedication of the Veterans Memorial Terrace that illuminated a lesser-known use of the nearly 90-acre property.
Dozens of community members joined veterans on the terrace, which features stonework constructed by German soldiers confined at the camp from May 1945-April 1946, for a ceremony during the West Campus open house.
“We wanted to honor the history of the camp,” BMH president Tom Campbell said. “We also wanted to honor our veterans while being able to share those experiences with kids we’re taking care of today. A lot of our kids will end up going into the military.”
The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. Three days later, Nazi Germany officially declared war on the U.S. As World War II raged around the world, its impact was felt in the Swannanoa Valley as soldiers left for war and Beacon Blankets began making wool blankets for fighters overseas.
Down the road from Beacon, in 1942, the N.C. State Test Farm (the current site of the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women) in Swannanoa was torn down and replaced with Moore General Hospital, a branch of Camp Butner in Granville County. The site was adjacent to the Swannanoa 4-H Camp, which opened in 1929. The grounds had the capacity to hold 250 prisoners of war, according to Robert D. Billinger, Jr.’s “Nazi POWs In the Tarheel State,” first published in 2008.
“The camp was visited on 7 April 1946, in the waning days of its existence, by Guy S. Métraux of the International Committee of the Red Cross,” Billinger says in the book.
A report from that visit, as relayed in Billinger’s book, stated that there were only 109 men held on the grounds at the time of his visit, as hostilities in Europe ended almost a year prior. As the prisoners of war awaited their return home, they used the guardhouse as a ping pong room.
A representative of the State Department wrote the report, which included both his and Métraux' observations.
“He (the state department rep) also concluded that ‘the general impression of the IRC (International Red Cross) Delegate was that the morale is good, discipline is good and the camp very satisfactory,’” Billinger’s book says.
What was left of the stonework the German prisoners did was worth preserving during Black Mountain Home's renovations last year, Campbell said.
“There is a stairwell column that goes up from the patio,” he said. “And around 15-18 of those steps were built by the German POWs. We added four more steps to level the terrace. There is an entire stone bread or pizza oven that was done by them as well.”
Veterans from the nearby N.C. State Veterans Home, some of whom served in WWII, attended the dedication.
“One of the things we wanted to do with the terrace was make it accessible for veterans,” Campbell said. “Valley Hope Community Church, right here in the Swannanoa Valley, took that project on. They were rushing to have it done in time for the dedication.”
The Owen High School color guard, led by a Black Mountain Home resident, opened the dedication. Another resident sang the national anthem. The opening prayer was delivered by the chaplain of the State Veterans Home.
Veteran of the U.S. Air Force and former BMH resident Vestal Caldwell spoke about how his time at the home prepared him for service to his country while giving him a sense of family.
Campbell dedicated an intricate wood carving to the late Andy Andrews, who passed away in 2016. Andrews was a longtime Montreat resident, who served on the town council for two decades and mayor for two terms. He was known for his involvement in everything from the Montreat Conference Center to the Land of Sky Regional Council, to the Montreat College Board of Trustees.
Andrews was among the thousands of troops who fought on the beaches of Normandy, France on what became known as D-Day. He was an inspiration to Campbell and many more in the Swannanoa Valley.
"Andy made everybody who knew him feel special," Campbell said. "And he probably also made you feel like he took you under his wing. I hope and pray to be that type of man."
A video honoring Andrews was presented following the dedication of the terrace.
The terrace represented just one of the improvements made to the West Campus in the last year. The open house provided an opportunity for members of the community to see the grounds, which will function as a “donation-based venue for groups seeking to support BMH and its mission,” according to the home’s website.
“The level of community support from businesses, churches and individuals in Black Mountain has been absolutely incredible,” Campbell said. “So we’re excited to share our vision as a whole.”
The west campus will also serve as the site of four vocational programs, in which the home will partner with businesses throughout the community to help children achieve skills that will help them in life and in their job searches.
“That’s a really important piece of what we’re doing with that campus,” Campbell said. “We’re giving our kids opportunities to develop a skill or a trade, so when they leave us they can truly be on their own and not depend on the government or others for support.”