A Reason to Stop

  • By Karen Haywood Queen
  • Photography by Elizabeth Zongolowicz

North River Campground is a slice of Americana, an old-fashioned lodge and campground that will take you back to movies on the lawn, swimming in a lake, and marshmallows toasted over an open fire.

Elton and Judy Sawyer revel in the wholesome fun they watch unfold at their campground.

Driving up to the North River Campground and RV Park in Shawboro, it’s hard to believe that six years ago this place was a deteriorating hunting lodge that decent people avoided.

Today, freshly mulched beds bursting with mums surround a Halloween display at the entrance; a scarecrow completes the scene. Inside the grounds, campfires reflect on a lake surrounded by red maples. Campers relax under the stars.

Elton Sawyer rides the manicured grounds in a golf cart, checking on RV campers, commiserating with people whose rolling homes need repairs, and offering rides to the store. He points out one family who arrived planning to stay a night and now has been here more than a week.

Sawyer is happy to share stories like that. When he and his wife, Judy, bought the distressed property five years ago, few people had faith in their business sense. But the Sawyers believed in the area, and they saw what this place could be.

Wholesome getaway

Shawboro is one of those small towns along North Carolina’s northeastern edges. It’s beyond any significant population points but not quite on the coast. It’s the kind of community that people pass through on their way to someplace else, like the Outer Banks.

The Sawyers have created a place worth a stop.

RVs surround the small, stocked lake. A neat lawn sweeps up to the lodge, small cabins, and spaces for tent campers. In the lodge, which offers a row of crisp rooms and studio suites, a small general store holds those things that go along with camping — marshmallows, bug spray, charcoal, and ice. In the restaurant right next door, guests can munch on pizza, barbecue, onion rings, and ice cream.

On pretty days, children hitch rides on the miniature train Elton drives across the grass. When the sun sets, campers line up on the lawn behind the lodge to watch movies on the outdoor screen. Some weekends welcome bluegrass festivals, and the Sawyers throw seasonal parties, like the costume party coming up this month.

At the end of a long drive, North River Campground is quiet, a nice place to stay in an area short on lodging options.

People from all over have discovered its charms. Guests from Germany, England, Austria, Denmark, and Bermuda have camped here, sometimes alongside locals, Judy says.

“We had some people from just up the road five miles who came and camped,” she says. “They said it was like being 1,000 miles from home.”

‘Diamond in the rough’ 

The Sawyers, who lived at the other end of Camden County, were scouting out-of-state campgrounds to buy when they heard about the hunting and fishing lodge then known as Camden Acres. 
Others saw only the problems: “Alcohol, drugs, prostitution, fights,” Judy says. “It was a real hangout.” Sheriff’s deputies were called out regularly, and many locals were afraid to drive anywhere near the place.

Here’s what they had after closing the sale in February 2005: no grass, geese taking over the pond, and common bathrooms in the lodge. Each room had beds, a towel rack, and curtains glued to the windows. The concrete floors were cracked, and half-inch openings under outside doors welcomed mice and insects. The health department wouldn’t even give the Sawyers a rating — but did give them time to clean it up.

“It needed some TLC,” Judy says. “It was a diamond in the rough.”

The Sawyers cleaned and caulked. They put in a security gate. They sacrificed rooms to add bathrooms to every room.

They built their own home onto the lodge. Construction also added two meeting rooms with full kitchens. The
Camden County Sheriff’s Department, no stranger to the place in its early incarnation, holds its annual meeting here.

Over time, the Sawyers added the restaurant, horseshoes, a volleyball net, miniature golf course, a video-game room, cabins, two new bathhouses, and a laundry room. For the lake, they brought in hydro bikes and pedal boats.
Their vision has transformed an area of Camden County that was once nearly forgotten.

North River Campground
256 Garrington Island Road
Shawboro, N.C. 27973
(252) 336-4414

Additional stories on the Great Dismal Swamp that appeared originally with this one:
The Last Wild Place
Shimmering Passage
Untamed Spaces
An Unexpected Destination

This entry was posted in Coast, October 2010, Outdoors, Sports & Recreation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Reason to Stop

  1. Pingback: The Last Wild Place | Our State Magazine

  2. Pingback: An Unexpected Destination | Our State Magazine

Leave a Comment:

Comments are moderated and once approved will appear in the space above. Your name will appear as you provide it in the block below. Your email address will not appear or be shared. Required fields are marked *.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>