Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the April 2010 issue.
From the ground, some 500 feet beneath it, the knob is not all that impressive.
But put on your walking shoes and start climbing toward the sky.
The path up follows a series of switchbacks, snaking ever closer to Raven Knob, less demanding than the trail straight up the steep mountainside that once awaited Boy Scouts and others who dared take the challenge. These days, it’s a 40-minute hike, give or take a few minutes, depending on your stamina and determination.
Once you’re standing on the knob, a panorama unfolds and the gray outcropping takes new meaning. Look north, and you can see the mountains of Virginia in the distance. Look down, and Camp Raven Knob spreads out like a miniature playland for energetic youth, with a collection of campsites and trails, a climbing tower and a ropes course, and a pristine, private lake for swimming and boating. Use a little imagination, and the outline of that lake, Lake Sabotta, resembles a raven.
You understand why, for more than half a century, scouts have clambered to the knob during their weeklong stay at summer camp — some more than once — and then proudly worn a patch to announce that they had done so.
History of the land
Camp Raven Knob — officially Raven Knob Scout Reservation — stands on 3,200 acres of unspoiled land in Surry County that the Saura Indians hunted long before white settlers carved a rugged road through the Blue Ridge Mountains from Mount Airy to Galax, Virginia. In the latter days of the 19th century, a few hardy souls ventured up the road to set up homesteading in the isolated Indicott Creek valley.
Local folks, less poetically but perhaps more accurately, called the rock outcropping “Buzzard Rock,” according to a 2002 booklet entitled The History of Raven Knob by Keith M. Bobbitt, who has been director of the camp since 1990. The name was fitting, Bobbitt writes, because the barren spot attracted hawks, buzzards, and other birds of prey on the prowl for a meal.
A Winston-Salem furniture executive purchased the property and a two-room cabin on it in 1937 to use as a family retreat. Bobbitt’s booklet notes that the man later had a notion to develop the parcel, so he had a concrete dam built on Little Indicott Creek to create a small pond. Such development did not come to pass until 1946 when businessmen Herman Coe and Sherman Simpson acquired the tract.
Coe envisioned building “a blue-collar country club” on the property, but knew that promoting a place called Buzzard Rock would be a marketing nightmare. He named the venture Raven Knob Park. Coe built a larger lake and a bathhouse and, next to them, a dining room that doubled as a dance hall and an outdoor bowling alley. Soon he was selling building lots. Fortunately for generations of future Scouts, the venture failed.
“They were just ahead of their time,” says Bobbitt.
Boy Scouts under the umbrella of the Old Hickory Council in northwestern North Carolina did most of their camping at Camp Lasater in Forsyth County from 1921 until 1954. The place served well for years, with a little lake, a dining hall, and 10 campsites on about 100 acres.
In the early 1950s, leaders started scouting for land on which to establish a bigger camp. They thought they had solved the problem in 1953 when they reached an agreement that allowed the Scouts to develop facilities on private property on the Mitchell River, not far from Raven Knob. That collaborative effort eventually went south after property owners and Scouts disagreed on how to proceed.
A few months into 1954, Coe and Simpson offered to sell Raven Knob to the council. It was an unexpected turn of events, since Coe had turned down a Scouts request earlier that spring to have a camporee on the property.
According to Bobbitt, Coe did not like the idea of hundreds of boys running wildly through his park. He reconsidered and allowed the gathering. Coe visited on the weekend of the encampment after a storm deluged the area with rain.
“He was more than a little surprised by what he found,” Bobbitt writes. “Instead of boys running rampant, he saw scouts building check dams and filling sandbags.”
The scouts’ industriousness impressed Coe, leading to the sale of the property a few weeks later. This summer will mark the 55th year that Boy Scouts have made memories that last a lifetime at Camp Raven Knob, which has 35 campsites bearing names such as Sequoia and Sitting Bull, Dan Boone and Davy Crockett, Piney Ridge and Deer Valley.
Some of the campsites are on platforms outfitted with permanent frames; camp staffers can toss canvasses over the metal frames to make tents. Scouts also bunk in three-sided shelters constructed of timbers from the property; there are enough shelters to sleep 250.
The dining hall seats 800 easily — 1,000 in a pinch. With military-style precision, 800 Scouts make their way through the chow line, sit, eat, and are back out of the door in about 20 minutes.
There are special events throughout the year, such as Learning for Life for school groups, offering more than 30 programs in areas from agribusiness to public service.
Scouts can choose from 100 sessions on a given day, everything from rifle and archery, photography and personal fitness, basketry to citizenship. Older scouts itching for a test can opt for the Mountain Man program, living much like the original occupants of the valley for a few days, cooking on open fires, trying their hands at blacksmithing and black-powder shooting.
Wahissa Lodge #118, the Order of the Arrow lodge serving the Old Hickory Council, overlooks Lake Sabotta, across from the knob. An amphitheater that seats 2,000 overlooks the lake, too.
“In the summertime,” says Dave Whitfield, who has been the park ranger for 16 years, “it’s a bustling little ‘town’ of about 900 to 1,000 people — something going on all the time.”
About half of the scouts who camp here hail from North Carolina and about a third of those are from the districts that comprise the Old Hickory Council. Some of the scouts come from as far away as Florida and New York to enjoy the great outdoors.
“The camp sees a lot of use,” says Bobbitt. “It reaches to every boy. If he needs a campership or he needs a sleeping bag, we’ll find a way to get boys here. It’s a place to enjoy nature, be with God, and become better friends. Scouting lives well at Raven Knob.”
Doc Bennett, who lives in Davidson County, brought his troop to Camp Raven Knob in the summer of 1955, the first sanctioned summer camp in the new digs. He was a scoutmaster for 26 years; the 79-year-old was a member of the camp staff in 2009 and plans to continue in that role as long as he’s able. This summer, he is slated to receive an award honoring 55 years of service to the camp.
“I think it gives a boy a good experience,” Bennett says. “He comes up there and takes some merit badges and learns to take care of himself in an emergency. It just has an all-around good program. Our camp is, I feel like, one of the outstanding camps, especially on the East Coast. I feel like I’m sort of bragging about it, but I think it’s something to be proud of.”
Arvil Sale of Boone is the camp handicrafts director, a position he’s had for 30 years. The retired schoolteacher has been a scoutmaster since 1968 and has attended summer camp at Raven Knob at least one week every year but one since 1961.
“I think (Boy Scout founder Robert) Baden-Powell said ‘Scouting is a game’ where boys learn the skills
they need for life — and they have a good time on the way,” Sale says.
Camp Raven Knob, Sale adds, allows the “game” to be enjoyed to its utmost.
“Raven Knob is a unique place, kind of a sanctuary for those of us who enjoy getting a little bit back to nature and having a respite from the everyday life that we live.”
One hundred years of scouting
Keith Bobbitt, director of Camp Raven Knob, says, “Scouting lives well at Raven Knob.” Scouting’s past lives well at Raven Knob, too.
The Old Hickory Council authorized the creation of a Historical Association in 1994 with a couple goals in mind: development of a museum and an archive.
The Raven Knob Boy Scout Museum, unveiled in 1998, contains documents and memorabilia representing nearly 100 years of scouting, from 1912 to the present, with an emphasis on items from northwestern North Carolina.
Among the displays in the 1,200-square-foot museum is a collection of Camp Raven Knob patches.
“Once, the only way you could see a patch collection was to go to a patch collector,” says Ken Badgett, the association historian.
The museum also keeps collections of information and memorabilia about development of the Order of the Arrow — the Boy Scout National Honor Society — in North Carolina, and the scouting “careers” of hundreds of volunteers, along with collections of Boys’ Life and Scouting magazines.
The Raven Knob museum is open during the summer camp season (June and July), for special events, and by appointment. There is also an exhibit at the Old Hickory Council Scouting Center, 6600 Silas Creek Parkway, in Winston-Salem.
Raven Knob Scout Reservation
266 Raven Knob Road
Mount Airy, N.C. 27030