Boys’ laughter rings out across the Green River Valley. Then you see them, a blur of sweaty bodies — sprinting, climbing, riding, splashing, singing, shooting, hiking, paddling — until there’s no energy left and they collapse in their cabins. And do it all over the next day. This is Falling Creek Camp.
To the camper, to the casual onlooker, it’s a seemingly magical utopia where everything runs like clockwork, there’s always a fresh coat of paint, cool new stuff is added constantly, and endless hours of sheer fun and positive vibes are doled out from a bottomless reservoir. But it didn’t start out that way.
In fact, the story of how it did start is almost as good as the stories its founder used to tell by the campfire — stories of sacrifice, heroism, and redemption. This is the story of the camp… that almost wasn’t.
Raised by a coal miner in Madisonville, Kentucky, Jim (Jimdaddy, as many affectionately called him) was acquainted with hard labor and didn’t even know what a camp was until later in life. His ticket out of the coal mines came when the head football coach at the University of Kentucky, the late Bear Bryant, recruited him and offered him a full scholarship as a lineman. After a year at University, when Jimdaddy didn’t keep his grade point average high enough, he became eligible for military service and was drafted for the Korean War.
Fortunately for Jimdaddy, football saved him once again when he was selected to play for the Army team, which he did for two years before returning to the University of Kentucky. He soon met a young lady by the name of Elizabeth (Libby) Hannah, whose great grandfather, Joseph Sevier, had founded Camp Greystone for girls in Tuxedo, North Carolina, in 1920.
Joe founded Greystone as the fulfillment of a longtime dream after his career as a Presbyterian minister. He was the executive pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Augusta, Georgia. A church known to be a center of political power — a big deal in the south. He gave up that prestigious job in order to start Camp Greystone, because he thought camp would be a better, more exciting, more productive platform for spreading the
Good News to young people.
Babies, Corporate Life, and the Prospect of Camp
Libby and Jimdaddy married in the summer of 1959. Jimdaddy excelled in corporate sales with various companies, including Proctor & Gamble, while Libby kept the home; prepared for their first child, Kathryn (Katie) in 1961; and continued to make the trek back to Tuxedo in the summers to work at Greystone.
After several years passed, and several more children were added to the Miller family — including Jimboy in 1963 and Stuart in 1965 — Jimdaddy got an itch to learn more about the camp business, because Libby’s parents were wanting to know if she or any of her sisters might be interested in taking over Camp Greystone.
“So there came a big decision in the summer of 1966,” says Jimboy Miller, son of Jimdaddy and current director of Camp Greystone. “My dad decided he would give up the whole corporate thing and do the camp thing as his life’s work,” Jimboy says. “I don’t think he really understood what he was signing on to. He didn’t know the full extent of what was involved.”
In order to learn more about running a camp, Jimdaddy spent a summer working at Camp Sequoyah near Asheville, North Carolina, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Sequoyah was founded in 1924 by C. Walton “Chief” Johnson, with whom Jimdaddy had the privilege of working all that summer.
“The great thing about a summer camp situation is that it is one of the few controlled environments we have left in America. It’s a place where children can come to be away from television, to be with a care group. It’s a place where a community of people can come to be together, and in a short period of time, you can create a very positive learning environment.” — Jimdaddy Miller
“Sequoyah had a fabulous reputation and Chief Johnson was an icon of the camping world,” Jimboy says. “My dad had an extraordinary experience working there. They gave him a whole lot of inspiration for what really proved to be Falling Creek. My dad thought that for the camp experience to be great, it needs to be more than just doing stuff; you need to have a platform that is impacting all aspects of what it means to be a man; and the reality of our existence has been made in the image of God — the part of the thing that, as boys grow into men, they need to wrestle with and come to grips with.”
When Jimdaddy went back to Greystone to apply what he’d learned at Camp Sequoyah in the summer of 1967, he was like a fish out of water. “They didn’t know what to do with him and he ended up doing mostly manual labor stuff, moving trunks and helping the maintenance man (Grady) around the camp. He didn’t do much with the administration of the camp,” Jimboy says. “He felt like he needed to make a place for himself that was outside of the girls’ camp. He thought that a boys’ camp would be ideal, something modeled after Sequoyah that could be a brother camp for the Greystone girls.
“I got involved in this primarily because when my wife inherited Camp Greystone, which had been in her family for some 50 years, I came with her to help. My mother-in-law, Virginia Hannah, had suggested, ‘Jim, why don’t you do a boys’ camp?’ My wife loved it. She had a passion for doing camp and I felt it was something I would be suited for, so that’s how the first seeds were planted — and I liked the idea.” — Jimdaddy Miller
“Jimdaddy had an entrepreneurial spirit and liked the idea and the challenge; he loved the idea of building something from scratch that would last for a long, long time,” Jimboy says. “He had seen the impact Sequoyah had had with boys, and the impact Greystone had had on his wife and all of her friends. So he knew it would be a worthwhile thing to do and it would be a good business.”
Jewels in a Crown
Soon, Jimdaddy and Libby began looking in earnest for camp property as they explored the winding back roads near Camp Greystone. “In hindsight, it was just meant to be,” says Jimboy. “It was a very unlikely property, because it wasn’t for sale.”
“We had heard of Virginia Prettyman, who at the time was a teacher at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and we had heard that she owned a sizeable piece of property, so we drove up there and drove in around the top of the mountain, and there, nestled just like jewels in a crown, were these two beautiful little lakes, right on top of the mountain — ideally situated for a camp. And so I looked at Libby and she looked at me and said, ‘This is it.” — Jimdaddy Miller
Jimdaddy wrote and telephoned Miss Prettyman to inquire about the land, but she initially replied that it was not for sale. He arranged a meeting in Boston to meet Miss Prettyman in person. He explained that he was the director at Camp Greystone and that he could afford to pay $200 – $250 an acre for her land to start a boys’ camp. Miss Prettyman replied that her idea for a fair price would be more like $800 – $1,000 per acre, but she did not want to sell. Jimdaddy once said: “I can’t tell you what a sinking spell I had, because I just knew that the Lord had led us here and this was the place for the camp.”
Then the unthinkable happened. Convicts broke free from a county chain gang and an FBI manhunt ensued. “These guys had broken out of prison and were killing people,” Jimboy recalls. And that’s when Miss Prettyman had a change of heart about selling her property. “She just saw herself having no defense up there by herself in this remote cabin,” Jimboy says. “And that upset her mind and she decided to sell out of concern and, in a sense, of wanting protection.”
“Miss Prettyman called me and asked me if we could get together. And she said ‘Jim, I’ve been thinking over your offer,’ and she says, ‘It’s woefully inadequate, but on the other hand, I felt that I would like to have a camp up here and also I’d really appreciate, now with this incident raging around us . . . we were just glad to have some people up here.’ And so she says, ‘I’ve decided to accept your offer.’” — Jimdaddy Miller
Pray Really Hard
Jimdaddy had secured 125 acres from Miss Prettyman, and had lofty dreams of building cabins, a dining hall, tennis courts, a shower house, a rifle range, a ball field, horse stables, swim docks and a rollercoaster in one of the lakes — and open Falling Creek Camp in the summer of 1969. But many obstacles lay ahead — lots of them.
In February of that year — with four cabins built and some excavation and concrete work done here and there for the other amenities — a deep freeze blasted Tuxedo.
“It snowed for four days. Then the temperature dropped to minus ten. This cold set in and lasted three weeks. The clock was ticking. We needed 11 cabins, but only 4 were built. The dining room, not one piece of wood had been put together. The stable wasn’t even cleared for the horses. We had excavation for the athletic field and the tennis courts, but there was nothing there. We were leveraged to the hilt, we had borrowed money on everything. I couldn’t find any carpenters . . . For the first time in my life I’m scared to death, I’m thinking we’re going to lose it all.” — Jimdaddy Miller
A little tyke at the time, Jimboy recalls riding in his dad’s yellow Jeep up to the camp site and actually driving out onto the lake; everything was that frozen. “The project was way behind schedule and my dad was under a whole lot of pressure,” Jimboy says. “I remember him being excited about it, yet scared to death about it all at the same time. He was trying to convince people to send their sons to camp, but he couldn’t even show them a picture of the dining hall because the dining hall hadn’t even been built yet! He had said, after the fact, that it was the hardest time of his life, and I’m certain that is true. There is no way he was sleeping well . . . it was a pressure cooker. I think he felt, it may be hard, it may be stressful, but in the end it will all come together and work out; all you’ve got to do is just work really hard and pray really hard about it, and it will work out.”
Ray of Hope
March sunshine and melting snow meant all systems were go, but Jimdaddy was having a difficult time finding carpenters, because most of the good ones worked for the bigger construction companies in Greenville and Asheville. Finally, he came across a good, honest man and excellent builder named Ralph Beddingfield. Jimdaddy said, ‘Ralph, is there any way you could come?’ Ralph replied, ‘I maybe could come, and maybe my brothers, too.’ Jimdaddy perked up. ‘How many brothers do you have?’ Ralph said, ‘Four. Three skilled carpenters and one rock mason.’ Needless to say, Jimdaddy could have cried.
When Jimboy thinks of how his dad undertook the task of building Falling Creek from scratch, he shakes his head. “It boggles the mind to think that someone would jump into that abyss,” he says. “I can’t imagine. In a big sense, it was like the biggest roll of the dice he ever made in life.”
To add to the challenge, Jimdaddy and Libby were buying Camp Greystone from her parents at the same time, so they had to make regular payments for that. “My grandfather said, ‘If you miss a payment, then your loan will be considered in default, and we will take Camp Greystone back,’” Jimboy says. “He told my mother and father very clearly that he thought it was a bad idea to start this boys’ camp. He said camps are not a very good business, they take a lot of money, starting from scratch is going to cost a lot more than you think, and I don’t think you are going to find that you have enough money to pull this off. And if you find this is not working, don’t come to us for the money, because I’m telling you, I’m not going to support you in this. This is your deal. You have got to make this work on your own or see it fail on your own. And if it fails you are the one pay the consequences on this.
“So my dad really did put everything on the line and his line of credit was tapped out with Greystone,” Jimboy says. “And he had no line of credit with his father-in-law, and he didn’t have money of his own, and didn’t have friends with money. He came all the way down to the point where the carpenters that were working on the job self-funded the thing for a little bit… I think he came right up to the brink of financial calamity at Falling Creek.”
“We felt if we were going to make a go of it as a business we were going to have to have a bare minimum of 100 campers. The first of March we had 13 campers enrolled. I had built a camp for 100 campers and we had 13 boys enrolled and camp was three months out. There’s two families that represented Greystone — one was the Turner family from Sarasota and the other was the Monroe family from Cincinnati. And I called and I said, ‘You know, we really need some campers.’ They were strong Greystone supporters and so they said, ‘We’ll help you.’ We prayed every night for the needs of the camp and that the Lord would provide.” — Jimdaddy Miller
Building Camp . . . on the Fly
Sure enough, 113 boys signed up for camp that first summer of 1969, but Falling Creek was far from ready, and was still lacking a program director. Then a track coach at the University of Missouri named Bob Teel, whose daughter attended Camp Greystone, called Jimdaddy and said he’d heard about the opening for a program director and said he had a great camp man on his staff named Jim McGregor. Jim came over and took a look at Falling Creek, which had an unfinished dining hall and no tennis courts. Miraculously, Jim said, ‘You know, I’d like to give it a try.’
When Falling Creek opened there were signs posted that read, “Horseback Riding – to be announced,” “Tennis – to be announced.” There was no electricity in the cabins and the campers were actually helping build the camp, doing landscaping, gardening, cutting paths, and building the campfire area. “My dad always felt and had a profound sense of life-long gratitude to those first-year camp families,” Jimboy says. “If they had not given him the benefit of the doubt, he could have lost everything he’d been working on and it would have been a devastating thing.”
“Some of the guys said, looking back, it was the best year, learning about camaraderie and team effort. Growing is not easy. And looking back, there have been some bumps in growing Falling Creek. We have to die a little to grow, and that’s been true of Falling Creek, and true in my life and true of most people. But there’s never, ever, ever been any doubt in my mind that the camp was an enduring, lasting entity. And in my opinion, even now I think that the spiritual and moral values of a good summer camp is more important than the programs. And I think any institution founded on those principles will have a lasting legacy.” — Jimdaddy Miller
Under the leadership of Jimdaddy Miller, Falling Creek Camp quickly gained a reputation as a safe, secure, fun-filled camp where values and morals were lived out, where enthusiasm and positive attitude were modeled daily, and where stability and excellence could be relied upon by parents, families, and boys across the country.
One of Jimdaddy’s true gifts was storytelling, and he often used lore and song as a vehicle for sharing the message of the Christian faith. “He did not really put a lot into sermons and that type of thing, he did more with inspirational stories,” Jimboy says. “He would tie the Gospel to poignant stories of heroism, of great deeds done of sacrifice, he taught us that all of great stories lead back to the great story of redemption. So he would introduce us to Christian ideals in an entertaining and inspirational way. Everyone loved my dad’s stories. He would paint the pictures just beautifully and the stories would really come to life. It felt very much like great entertainment to sit through one of his campfire talks.”
Passing the Torch
In order to keep up with their obligations at Camp Greystone, Jimdaddy and Libby sold Falling Creek Camp after having owned it just over three years. “During the three years it was probably always, financially, a very difficult thing to do,” Jimboy says. “I don’t think he was ever seeing any money out of it and I think he was under a tremendous amount of pressure. Plus, once he showed that he could start his own camp, my grandparents started entrusting him with more management responsibilities at Greystone. So he was in over his head.”
Since Jimdaddy and Libby opened Falling Creek in 1969, the camp has changed hands just three times, from the next owners Yorke and Barbara Pharr, to owners Chuck and Jean McGrady, and to the current owners, Yates and Marisa Pharr (no relation to Yorke). Jimdaddy continued to promote the camp and to come visit, read, and sing with campers for a number of years after it sold.
“My dad was thrilled with the success the camp had over the years,” Jimboy says. “My dad very much felt you have to improve camp — both the facilities and the program — all the time. He particularly felt it important to invest strongly in the facilities that make up a camp. Such commitment inspires confidence in the future of a camp and the vision of the directors.
“My dad liked the fact that Yates and Marisa aggressively improved Falling Creek’s property each year. That’s always been the way he liked to run a camp. The camp community really does delight in such projects. The campers love the fact that you care about it and the parents love the fact that you are not just trying to make a buck, you are investing in the place that they love and they appreciate that attitude. Yates and Marisa are running camp the way my dad would have liked to have done it. He would have loved that gymnasium. My dad would have said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s exactly what I would have done.’”
Indeed, with each owner, Falling Creek has enhanced and added new facilities, and increased enrollment. Jimdaddy’s original 125 acres have expanded to 675 acres of remarkable beauty, where boys from the U.S. and beyond come to meet again each summer, and to bond in unity and brotherly love.
Jimdaddy passed on in 2010, but many of the roots he planted almost 50 years ago have become time-honored traditions at Falling Creek, including the verse of scripture that is still recited at the opening of each Sunday night at campfire beneath the starlit sky: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!” — Psalm 133:1