Campgrounds are a way of life in Western North Carolina – and have been long before the current camping craze which helped bring more than 12-million visitors to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park last year. BPR went to Laurel Bank Campground in Haywood County. Camping there is more than a weekend activity or a vacation. It’s life – and family.
Sherrie Lynn McArthur still remembers growing up at Laurel Bank Campground in Cruso. She is now 66 years old.
“I was raised here, went to school on the school bus from the campground. People would say, ‘you smell like a campfire.’ And I look at them and say, ‘I live in a campground.’ And they never really understood that, but the camp has been here for a long time,” said McArthur.
McArthur’s father Harold Crawford started building the campground in the late 1960s and put up the first official site in 1970.
“This property that the campground is, [it] was a very old poor pasture for cattle, horses and hogs. He first built this swimming hole and then my brother and I would camp on the riverbank in this old pasture. And evidently the light bulb went on and Harold started with a shovel digging, making the campground,” said McArthur.
Those few primitive campsites grew into over 10 acres of about 100 sites including water, electric and sewer hook ups. Some of the campers were also permanently hooked up with porches overlooking the East Fork of the Pigeon River.
MacArthur took over running the campground in 2004. She says that more than half of the campers are “permanent seasonals” who live at the campground from May 1st to October 15th each year.
“The campground has so much love with all the people. Everybody knew everybody and they would carry pots of food to porch or the girls that had their card games. And we have movie night in the pavilion or on the outside screen was always fun for the kids just to sit on blankets and, uh, potlucks. And it's just, it's been fascinating and it's such a warm and loving campground,” said McArthur.
The campground is off of Highway 276 but not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Pisgah National Forest.
Lynn Collins is the executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority. She says visitors to the great outdoors in the county are a key part of the local economy – especially during the pandemic.
“I mean, the people who come here and stay in the campgrounds and parks do all the things that our other visitors do. They go out and spend money in the community, whether it's going out to eat or whether it's at the grocery store or going to attractions, participating in outdoor related activities, festivals and events. We’ve seen throughout the pandemic, we have seen some different groups of people here,” said Collins.
Unlike hotels, campers do not pay occupancy tax which makes them hard to track. There are almost 20 campgrounds in Haywood county - not including the 8 public campgrounds along the Blue Ridge Parkway. There were 1.7 million more RVs in the U.S. this year since 2019, according to the 2021 KOA report.
“I just think that it's developed as part of the original concept of the region overall. I mean, just looking at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And how some people used to live basically live this and I think it's just evolved from that. Then people see opportunities for it and the businesses out there, and it's just a different style of vacation,” said Collins.
That style of vacation is what has drawn Betty Parker to staying at Laurel Bank Campground for the last 20 years. She lives in Thompson, Georgia.
“Campers all have something in common. They liked to be out there rather than motels and concrete. We like trees and dirt,” said Parker.
She says everyone has a story about how they ended up at Laurel Bank Campground.
“So my husband's uncle and his parents were camped up at Mount Pisgah Campground many years ago, and it was too cold up there. So they came driving down the mountain on 276 beside a river, the East fork of the Pigeon River. And they saw these pretty little campers across the river. So they decided that might be a nice place for them to stay,” said Parker.
The Parkers kept coming to visit. First on the weekends and with their daughter. Then as a stopover spot during cross-country trips in their RV after retirement until they were finally able to buy a permanent spot at the campground.
“We would take what we called a ‘social stroll’ in the evenings. We'd walked through the campground and talk to people as we went by. Sometimes they would join us. We'd walk up the hill to the upper bridge - and this is just a simple little thing - we'd throw sticks over the bridge and see which one would get them down river first,"said Parker. "Just enjoying the simple things of life, watching the chipmunks and the rabbits and the birds and neighbors that know each other's porches. Sometimes after those social strolls would stop on somebody's porch and have ice cream.”
“The people that we knew when we first went there 20 years ago, we're still friends. Even though we don't see them and some of them have passed on but we are still connected and we talk on the phone,” said Parker.
Just like every summer, the Parkers were at Laurel Bank last month when Tropical Storm Fred swept through destroying the campground. McArthur explains:
“All that I've said about my campground was mentioned as yeah, before the flood, and then the flood came and it's just not there anymore. That's where, when you lose people to a flood, that's just heart wrenching, like I’ve said all through this is my people were just special. And it's very hard to wrap your head around the ugliness of that flood," said McArthur. "The water was huge and angry and it was just taking everything. Campers would be floating and if they ran into a tree or another camper, they exploded. And it was just very dangerous, very frightening, angry water, just going at an unreal speed. It was horrifying.”
Parker and her husband took shelter in a pavilion during the storm but not all of the campers were safe after the flood.
“It was devastating. You know, we lost four lives from the campground? People that we knew. One lady drove into the raging waters that was crossing the road. I had just stopped and backed up. I didn't drive into it. And just a few minutes later, she came and drove into it and people tried to stop her, but she went on,"said Parker. "I guess she thought, obviously, that she could go through it. And those of us standing there - there was 12 of us in the pavilion - watching it happen. It was horror, absolute horror. I'll never forget it. I wish I could get out of my mind, but I can't. Thank the Lord. We were all okay.”
Of the six people killed in Haywood County during the storm, four were Laurel Bank campers according to the campground: Frank and Charlene Mungo, Judy Mason and John - known as Jack- Krolak.
BPR met with McArthur at her home next to the campground. She has been working tirelessly since the flood but there are still piles of twisted metal along the uneven dirt road and a pile of sand in her front yard where the water came up to her house.
“It has washed my campground basically away. I don't think I can fix it. It's just too much. The office got clobbered and campers went floating down the river and I lost four people to the water and it was such a happy place that has changed into a very sad spot,” said McArthur.
“The happy days are great conversations on the memories, but this is just such a bad memory, that it is very hard to wrap your head around all of the destruction that has happened," said McArthur. "But I hope, I just hope I can get it cleaned up. I don't get any help because it's a private road. It's not state-maintained. So all the debris are in piles like you see on the news in New Orleans or something.”
Laurel Bank Campground sits near two other campground: Riverside Campground and Blue Ridge Motorcycle Campground. Both were also damaged in the storm.
Although Parker and her husband made it through the flood. Gene Parker’s health had been in decline. He passed away six days after the storm.
“Some of the other ladies are just, are still, I think they're having a harder time with that part than I am because my other tragedy, the death of my husband has overshadowed that one. So I've had two traumas, six days apart.” said Parker.
Parker says there is one image from the flood that she will always remember.
“I could only take about six pictures during that flood, but I took one of my husband sitting in a chair. You could tell it was an old man from the back holding a, he was using a long stick for a walking stick. He was sitting there at the front of the pavilion and looking out on the flood and you could see stuff's going down the river in front of him. And that just told the whole story to me,” said Parker. “I wish that the campground could be again. I don't know that it ever will. I won't be able to go back. I can't buy another camper. But I'll never forget those days and I'll always keep in touch with those people.”
McArthur sums up her love of Laurel Bank Campground – where she grew up and raised her three sons – this way.
“There's something special about that little spot it's magical. It's just, and like I say, it's not for everybody, but the ones that love it, love it dearly, but it's just been a super little place here in the community of Cruso,” said McArthur.
There is a Go-Fund-Me for the campground. So far it has raised just over $23,000.