John Gordon had never been to Camp Cherokee until he became director. But he soon realized what a special place it is, both for present-day campers and those from previous generations.
“This has been such a big part of kids’ and, too, adults’ lilves for such a long time,” Gordon said of the Upper Palmetto YMCA camp, which has been operating since the mid-1940s.
Gordon, 31, a 1998 graduate of Clover High School, recently completed his first summer as director of the camp. The previous director, Chet Tucker, moved on to new responsibilities with the YMCA.
The YMCA summer camp, which hosts one- and two-week residential camp sessions for children and youths ages 6 to 14, is located at Kings Mountain State Park on S.C. 161, about 14 miles northwest of York. It was built by the Civilian Conservations Corps during the 1930s, Gordon said, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
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Because of its long tenure — the first campers are believed to have stayed there in 1945, Gordon said — and its origins, the camp holds a special place in the history of York County and in the memories of many locals.
The history is so rich, in fact, that Camp Cherokee is expected to be the subject of a new book, “Legends of Camp Cherokee,” by Lee Q. Miller, which is scheduled to be published in the fall.
And despite the history, Camp Cherokee is changing. Four new cabins have been built in recent years to expand the capacity of the camp — which has room for about 170 campers and 50 staff.
And more improvements are planned this year. During the fall and winter, a renovation and expansion is planned to enlarge and modernize the existing mess hall. The mess hall project will include a new, modern kitchen addition, new windows and a wood floor and an expanded dining area.
Gordon, who earned a degree in history at Winthrop University, has broad experience in camp management. He has worked in several capacies at Camp Thunderbird on Lake Wylie, running off-site excursions, overseeeing the boys camp and supervising an environmental education program.
His most recent post was operations manager at the Whitewater Center in Charlotte.
“I always wanted to get back into residential camping because I realize it makes a lasting impact on people, and on kids,” Gordon said. “I wanted to get back into this type of program.”
Gordon said he has no plans to change Camp Cherokee — which serves more than 1,200 residential campers each summer. Rather, he said, he’d like to add on to what already is working.
One addition, he said, is expanding the camp’s off-site excursion; campers visit different places to experience hiking, skating, rafting, climbing and more. The camp has offered such trips in the past, he said.
“That’s where the bonds are made, when you take kids somewhere and show them a good time,” he said. “Those are the kind of outdoor leadership trips kids love to do, and it takes them out of their comfort zone and stretches them.”
Gordon, who started work in April, said taking over leadership of Camp Cherokee was challenging. “This is a special place, and it’s got a real good thing going, but I had never seen it in action,” he said.
He said some kids have been to other, more elaborate camps that offer most costly activities, but still tell him they prefer Camp Cherokee. “I can’t put my finger on it, but I think it has to do with counselors and the relationships with them, and the traditions,” he said.
Sally Bell, 22, director of Camp Cherokee’s counselors in training, said that when Gordon spoke to staffers after he was hired, he asked each about favorite Cherokee traditions.
“He embraced it,” Bell said about the camp traditions, which include songs and annual activities like campout night and Rambo night. “He kept everything that camp is about. He didn’t change anything that makes it camp.”
Bell said Gordon has been a good leader. “He’s a very positive role model,” she said. “He is so positive all the time. You feel like you can go to him with any issues, big or small.”
As director of Cherokee, Gordon said a related part of his position is overseeing a YMCA envionmental education program that is held on the camp site in the fall and the spring.
During the school year, he said, school groups and other organizations can visit the park and learn about habitats. Weekend camp rentals for church groups and other organizations also are available, he said.
Between the two programs, Gordon said he will spend most of his time living at Cherokee.
He said plans are in the works to expand the environmental education aspect of Camp Cherokee, which may eventually include an overnight stay option. “You can read about turtles in books, but when you’re out here, you can actually pick up that turtle,” he said.
Gordon said he enjoys working with kids at Camp Cherokee in what can be a life-changing experience for them. “When we do the closing ceremony, I know we’ve done our job when kids are crying,” he said. “They’ve had a good time, forged a lot of bonds.”