High Top Colony celebrates 100 years of community
The smiling faces, warm hugs and shared memories gave the July 27 gathering under a lakeside pavilion in the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly the feel of a family reunion, but the stories of decades past revealed a kinship of another kind -- one centered around a special place.
Community was the theme as generations of past and present residents of High Top Colony celebrated the 100th anniversary of the quiet Black Mountain neighborhood nestled among the thick vegetation on a mountainside overlooking the valley below.
Like many before and after him, Roy John was inspired when he arrived in the Swannanoa Valley in the spring of 1919. The former student secretary of the YMCA at Clemson University approached Blue Ridge Assembly founder Willis Duke Weatherford with an idea to establish a nearby colony of cabins to house fellow student secretaries who came each summer to attend conferences.
Weatherford and John purchased 10 acres of land from the estate of Robert Morehead. While Weatherford would leave his post later that year to establish the Southern College of the YMCA (later known as the YMCA Graduate School), John and his wife Florence quickly constructed a home complete with furniture they designed and made themselves, according to the historical records kept by the colony.
John divided the rest of the property into one-acre lots and sold the majority of them that summer when YMCA student conference delegates began arriving at the Assembly. Dag Folger and John Bergthold constructed cabins in High Top Colony that same year.
“There was no road into the colony other than an old wagon road in very bad condition. Water had to be carried from the spring on the lot retained by John, or from a stream on the west side of the property. There was no electric service,” Folger said in an account of the colony’s history he gave in 1970. “We got our mail at Blue Ridge or Black Mountain. The chief fuel for cooking was kerosene. It was pioneer-type living and some of us loved it.”
By the summer of 1920, John had purchased 19 acres of adjacent land as more people began buying into High Top Colony. Humble cabins, made up of names like Piney Moors, Trail’s End, Robin’s Nest and Hideaway began to dot the landscape.
“One of the powerful factors in developing the spirit of the colony was the cooperation of members in installing and maintaining the water system,” Folger said in his narrative. “The ‘workings’ and picnic dinners that went with them knit the pioneers in a way similar to the log rollings and house raisings of the first settlers of Appalachia.”
What John, Bergthold, Folger and the rest created was something extraordinary, according to Folger’s daughter Sally Folger Thomas.
“I loved our old house,” said Thomas, who made a 550-mile trip from Warren, Ohio to attend the celebration. “It was the place we came in the summertime, before (WWII). Of course we couldn’t get gas to come up during the war, but when the war was over, we were so excited to come back.”
Her parents talked about their cabin “all the time” back home, Thomas said.
“Daddy built it so it was very special to us,” she said. “We looked forward to coming back every summer.”
The Folgers made annual trips to the cabin until her father sold it in 1961, Thomas said.
“But because he sold it to Selma Erwin, who was a friend of the family and the mother of my best friend, it was almost as though it was still in the family,” she said.
Erwin’s daughter, Gloria McDonald, was another one of around 100 people who attended the celebration. She shared an emotional reunion with her longtime friend.
“This lady was here for years and we were high school friends,” McDonald said of Thomas. “I came up here to visit her and when her parents sold it, my momma bought it.”
As teenagers, McDonald worked at the Montreat Conference Center and Thomas at the Blue Ridge Assembly.
“And I walked over here to visit her one day,” McDonald said. “Me and another friend stopped in Black Mountain and put our laundry in at the laundromat and then we walked all the way up to the cottage.”
As lots and cabins changed hands through the years, the colony evolved beyond its initial purpose of serving YMCA secretaries.
“Everyone came from a variety of different places,” McDonald said. “But we all had common interests.”
A primary bond among colony residents since it’s earliest days has been a shared love for the mountains, Thomas added.
“We all appreciated the natural world and the mountains and all of the beauty,” said Thomas, who was inducted as a lifelong member of the colony during the celebration. “We all knew we were lucky to spend time there.”
Elaine Loutzenheiser has lived full-time in Black Mountain since 1987 and she’ll never forget her first visit.
“It was Labor Day weekend of 1945, and we drove an Oldsmobile up here from Vero Beach, Florida,” she said. “Daddy and mother took turns driving and we got up here in one night. We got up, talked to a real estate agent and my dad bought the cabin.”
The Buss family purchased a cabin known as “Slabsides” for the thick wood siding used for its exterior walls. It remained in the family for over 50 years before Loutzenheiser sold it to a family friend who still lives in it today.
“We bought our cabin from the original owners,” she said. “There was no electricity up there then. We had a kerosene stove and lamps and we got ice from the ice house and had an ice box on the back porch. Most of the people there would spend the whole summer.”
Loutzenheiser, who was also named a lifetime member during the centennial gathering, had an important job in the community as a child.
“The water was fed by a mountain stream and yours truly would go up there every time it rained and clean out the two settling tanks,” she said. “The settling tanks were long and flat and the water would flow through them and the clean water settled in a little reservoir.”
Although roads come through in the 1920s, the cabins in High Top Colony would not have power until 1948, making year-round residency possible.
Today there are more full-time residents in the colony than seasonal ones, according to president Brian McCartney, whose family has owned their cabin in the colony since 1974.
“It’s certainly changed over the years as people have built new homes to live year-round,” he said. “Now there are six of us who are part-time and 12 full-time residents. But there are still some things that have never changed, for example, we still have a get-together once a year and have a meal and a meeting.”
McCartney’s wife Joyce organized the centennial celebration and worked with colony residents Andy Rhodes and Annie Carlson to create a book honoring the 100th year of High Top Colony. Copies were given to every homeowner and honorary member.
“I worked to gather information and tried to document as much of the history and context as possible,” Joyce said. “Andy had a lot of knowledge and probably could’ve written much of the book himself, but I wrote some of it and Annie did an amazing job with the design.”
Carlson and her husband Ryan have lived in their home in High Top Colony since 2017.
“We were welcomed with such a sweet spirit of hospitality and warmth,” Annie said. “Before we even moved in neighbors were bringing us meals and stopping by to welcome us. We felt at home immediately.”
The Carlsons live in the home built by Dr. Howard Kester in 1939. “Buck” Kester, as he was known until his death in 1977, was a lifelong advocate for civil rights and his professional career included five years as the executive director for Christmount Assembly and seven years as an educator at Montreat-Anderson College, where he was the dean of students from 1968-70.
Kester met George Washington Carver through Bergthold, the chair of High Top Colony from its beginning until his death in 1955.
Kester became “very close friends” with Carver when the Tuskegee Institute scientist and inventor visited the Blue Ridge Assembly in the 1920s.
“He’d take me on walks at daybreak,” Kester said of Carver in a 1974 interview for the Southern Oral History Program. “He poured out this knowledge of plant life… So I decided that summer that I was going to Tuskegee to study under Dr. Carver.”
While the history of High Top Colony is fascinating, Carlson said, it’s only part of what makes the community so special a century later.
“To see the relationships that have formed here over the years has been pretty amazing,” she said. “Being part of a neighborhood that really takes being good neighbors seriously is really special. I think it’s important to care for your neighbors and this particular place has done that well for generations.”
Comment cards from those attending the celebration were among the items included in a centennial album commemorating the occasion. It will be added to the vast archives of the colony’s historical records.
Moments before the colony carried on its tradition of eating together nearly every year, Jack Campbell read the blessing written by William Morgan during the 50th anniversary celebration in 1969. Campbell lives in the home previously occupied by the Morgan family.
“We thank (you) for those who had the vision to create such a group where friendly people could come rest and work together...” Campbell read Morgan’s words. “Bless all of us who are knitted together and indebted to each other, far and near.”