This is the tale of two mountains – each with a history all its own – that together have played host to our beloved Camp Highlander.
Our story begins in 1957 when Ben and Polly Wax, with dreams of expanding on a day camp and after-school program they had started in Baton Rouge, purchased a large piece of property in Highlands, North Carolina, and founded Camp Highlander.
While under the ownership of the Wax family, Camp Highlander spent its first six summers as an all-boys camp, offering an array of activities including hiking, camping, horseback riding and canoeing. In later years, they added a three-week girls’ camp session running simultaneously with boys’ camp – pioneering the Highlander co-ed camp experience.
Shortly after the death of Mr. Wax in 1964, Mrs. Wax sold Camp Highlander to Pine Crest Preparatory School of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Pine Crest wanted to extend the educational process by taking advantage of the many teachable moments that arise during the camp day, so they reopened Highlander in 1965 as a co-ed camp, housing 85 campers and bolstering a family atmosphere. In addition to many of the same options we still offer today, activities included prospecting, ruby mining, shuffleboard and boxing. The first Color War took place in 1965 but was limited to one afternoon of competition including mountain relay and rope burning. Due to its location on the side of a mountain, Camp Highlander established the cabin unit system for safety and security practices … a defining feature that has shaped the Highlander experience ever since!
Then, in 1974, a second mountain home became part of our story. Camp Highlander had outgrown the facilities in Highlands, so Pine Crest purchased Camp Blue Ridge in Mills River, NC, and moved Highlander to its current location atop Forge Mountain.
The story of Old Forge, as it pertains to Camp Highlander, begins in 1927. It was then that Dr. Silver, while operating a tent camp for boys on nearby Lake Osceola, built a summer vacation home for his family – the building we know today as ‘The Lodge.’
In the late 1930’s, Dr. Silver moved the tent camp from Lake Osceola to Old Forge Mountain and built two additional cabins (what is now Cabin 1 and The Cottage). Dr. Silver’s son, Herbert, and his wife, Belle, inherited the camp and established Camp Osceola for boys and girls, building most of what we know as Camp Highlander today.
In 1948, they built a girl’s camp section (cabins 14, 15, 16 and 17) and, in 1951, a boy’s camp section (cabins 18, 19, 20, Fox & Hound, and Bunker). In fact, for the next two decades, the Silver family worked tirelessly to improve camp, adding two more cabins (Hilltop and Box Canyon), the tennis courts, the gym and the dining hall. Eventually, the Silver family sold Camp Osceola and it briefly became Camp Blue Ridge – before Camp Highlander purchased the property and moved in for the summer of 1974.
In its new location, Camp Highlander saw great expansion. Pine Crest quickly began adding to the campus to accommodate the growing number of campers. In the 1980’s, Tenny Top, the arts and crafts barn, the pottery barn, and the stables were built. In 1991, Pine Crest added an in-ground competition pool, becoming one of the first camps in the area to have one. Then, in the summer of 1999, Camp Highlander played host to the Disney Channel’s reality kids’ camp TV show, “Bug Juice.”
As the dust from one millennium began to settle and the dawn of another began to break, Pine Crest School decided to sell Camp Highlander. And, when November of 2000 rolled around, a couple from Baton Rouge, Karl and Shelley Alexander, entered the pages of our story when they purchased Camp Highlander, fulfilling their lifelong dream of owning and operating a summer camp.
Over the next 18 years, the Alexander family committed themselves to completely refurbishing the decades-old facilities atop Old Forge Mountain. Historic buildings were renovated while new buildings and activity spaces were constructed. New landmarks arose: The Hotel, The Alamo, The Bell Tower, and The Crow’s Nest. New traditions were born: Reflect at the Rock, The Peanut Drop, cookies and milk after campfire, five-year pins, and a renewed dedication to Highlander’s core values (known today as CHIF) of courage, honesty, integrity, and faith.
Then, as 2018 drew to a close, the proverbial torch was once again handed down, as Bryan and Melissa Fitzgerald (the son-in-law and daughter of Karl and Shelley, who had served in virtually every role on camp since joining the Highlander family in 2002) purchased Camp Highlander, officially becoming our current owners in addition to their role as camp directors.
The journey of Camp Highlander is long and winding, traversing two mountains, spanning more than 60 years, and impacting the hearts of countless boys and girls across the country and throughout the world. The Highlander story, truly, is their story – one of discovery, laughter, triumph, friendship and love.
As we continue into the future, we proudly carry our past with us. We wrap ourselves in the traditions of those who came before us and are warmed by the knowledge that the Highlander story will live on – in the hearts of campers and counselors who have already tread these hallowed mountain trails, and in the hopes of those yet to experience the wonder, the magic, and the love of our mountain home.