Exploring the ghost camp

I never expected it to take me 20 years to get back.

After 20 years, I wasn’t even sure I could find my way back — at least not without the aid of a map (which I deplore; I’m a man, after all).

As I bounced my Jeep across a couple hundred thousand potholes on Overton County backroads, that thought crossed my mind — that it had taken me 20 years to come back even though I live less than two hours away — and that struck me as quite ironic. Many years ago I wrote a short story that was set in the same woods I was headed to, and towards the end of the story the protagonist talks about how he had never come back even though he lived a short ways away.

I was headed to an abandoned group camp deep in Standing Stone State Forest outside of Livingston. I was first there in 1992 — nearly 30 years ago — on a family deer hunt. I killed my first deer that morning, a small four-point just outside the camp.

I was always fascinated by this abandoned group camp, at how the cabins were just standing in the middle of an empty forest as if there was nothing odd about more than a dozen buildings quietly fading into the landscape, the once-paved roads running amongst them crumbling and disappearing into the earth.

That’s how it was even then, in the early ’90s. I made many trips there through my teens. Later, when I was in college at Tennessee Tech, Standing Stone became my primary hunting destination, although I hunted on the other side of the state forest and rarely ventured as far in as the group camp. Then, when I moved back east, I stopped visiting Standing Stone completely.

But that old group camp has been on my mind a lot in recent years. Even years ago, when I myself was about the same age as the kids who once spent summers there, I would stand in the midst of the cabins and various buildings and wonder what it must’ve been like when the place was alive. Lately I’ve been wondering if the buildings were even still standing. I figured they must’ve surely fallen down by now. I even googled the old camp every now and then, just to see if someone else was posting anything about it online. Information was scarce.

In fact, there’s almost no information that’s ever been published about the old group camp, except that it was apparently used in the 1950s and 1960s, then abandoned in the 1970s. For nearly 50 years, it has stood vacant. When I started going there in the early ’90s it already had the feel of a ghost town, an abandoned settlement deep in the mountains. I wanted to go back to see what it looks like — and feels like — now, with the passage of another generation.

Could I remember my way in? I wasn’t sure. Into Livingston, to the town square, right on Church Street, and then continue onto Celina Highway. I remembered that much. But where did I turn left? I remembered that there used to be a church at the turn-off. It was still there. I think there used to be a store, too … but it’s apparently long gone.

For a while, I drove crumbling black top through Overton County. I was struck by how much damage was done by the recent winter storms. I thought we had damage back home, but it was nothing like what they experienced west of Livingston. The treetops hadn’t even been cleared from the roadways; there had been just enough sawing done to create a path to drive through. When I met another vehicle, I had to stop because the tree debris effectively created one-lane roads. It seemed like homeowners were out everywhere, taking advantage of the warm and dry weather to start cleaning up their yards.

I became convinced that I had taken a wrong turn, that the old camp wasn’t this far off the highway. But, slowly, it began to come back to me. I found the place where I wrecked my almost-new car before daylight in the pouring rain one morning in 1997. Totaled it. No insurance. I also found the place where I ran into a game warden’s road block and was issued my first — and only — citation (at least for something other than speeding). I had a loaded deer rifle in my vehicle that day. One of the wardens asked if I wanted to follow him into town and pay my ticket that day rather than go to court. I said yep. When we got to the courthouse, he got out a literal armload of rifles that had been confiscated. He told me if I hadn’t agreed to pay the fine that day, he would’ve confiscated my rifle, as well.

Finally, the road dipped down a hill, and I could see the manmade lake — complete with its stone walls — just ahead. For whatever reason, the main road leading on into Standing Stone State Park had been gated. This was literally the end of the road.

The old road leading into the abandoned group camp

As I got out, I marveled — just as I did 30 years ago — at the paved road running through the forest. Maybe it’s because I come from a place where pavement is a luxury; where most of our back roads are graveled. Or maybe I’m just easily impressed. But a paved road that can’t be driven on, headed into the forest to nowhere, except to a bunch of abandoned buildings, seems somehow surreal.

The concrete slab that the mess hall used to sit on.

By the time I first visited this place, in November 1992, the mess hall — the largest building in the camp — had already collapsed. It was a pile of rubble in the middle of a clearing back then, and I wondered if it would even be visible now. As it turns out, it almost isn’t. New growth has crowded around, the rubble has decayed into the dirt. Only the concrete slab where the mess hall once stood is visible.

The concrete slab where the group camp mess hall was once located. Campers gathered here for meals. Now it’s just a piece of concrete covered in moss and disappearing into the forest.

Just past the mess hall site was a hog trap. That certainly wasn’t here in 1992. I read somewhere that Standing Stone has come under siege from wild hogs. It looked like this was where the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency was staging its pig extermination project.

A large hog pen built by TWRA. The pens — similar to those used by the National Park Service at Big South Fork — are baited and the pigs are allowed to come and go freely, getting accustomed to the free food. Then, when enough pigs are visiting the trap at once, the door is dropped with them inside.
Shotgun slug hulls littered the ground outside the hog pen, a telltale sign of death.

As I got closer to the pen, I noticed blue objects littering the ground. Shotgun slug hulls. Dozens of them. There has been a lot of pig-killing that has taken place here. I struck me as odd that state workers (or agents working on their behalf) would leave their empties just strewn about on the ground. But that’s none of my business, I suppose.

The road leading from the mess hall to the cabins.

From the pig trap, I headed on up the mountain to the main part of camp, where the cabins had once stood. The old road once formed a loop that began and ended at the mess hall. I wondered, not for the first time, if any of the cabins were still standing.

The old road through the abandoned group camp looks like a dirt road. But in places the crumbling pavement can still be seen.
An old bunkhouse that has collapsed.
Another collapsed bunkhouse.
Still another collapsed bunkhouse.

The first cabins I came across as I worked my way up the hill had all collapsed, which seemed to confirm my suspicions that there would be little to nothing left of the old camp. But then, off the road and up the hill through the trees, I saw a standing cabin.

The first standing cabin.
A view inside the quickly deteriorating cabin. Each of the cabins could bunk eight people. Most had wooden lockers between the sets of bunk beds.

I trepidatiously walked across the rotting and unstable porch and into the cabin. I was careful to be sure I was stepping on the floor joists, because the flooring itself is just about completely gone. I was afraid that one misplaced step would send me through the floor and to the hospital for a tetanus shot …. or worse.

A view inside another of the cabins, which is in better shape and shows the integrity of the structure when it was still being used. There were no air conditioners in these cabins, just screened windows on the back and vents along the sides, where the bunks were located. There were wooden lockers between the bunks.
A cabin that has been knocked off its foundation by a huge uprooted oak tree and is collapsing.

A little further up the hill, I came across what had always been my favorite cabin — just because of the way it was situated on the edge of the hill with a grand view across the forest valley below it. A huge oak tree had uprooted, knocking the cabin off its foundation. It was partially collapsed but not safe to enter. It looked like it could finish collapsing at any moment.

The cabins are in poor condition and won’t withstand the elements much longer.
A chimney at a cabin that has long since collapsed or been otherwise destroyed.

At the top of the hill, I came across the remnants of a cabin that I don’t recall from years ago. It must’ve collapsed or burned at some point before I began visiting this place. All that remained was the chimney. It was the only cabin with a heat source, and from the layout of the foundation it appeared to have a separate room on the end that made it different from the other cabins. It was apparently not a regular bunk house. Maybe the camp director’s headquarters?

The original cabins stood in two groups. And as I continued along the side of the hill to the second group of cabins, I realized that almost all of the cabins are actually still standing. They won’t be for long. Most are borderline unsafe to enter. No one in his right mind would consider spending the night in one of them. Within a few years, most or all of them will succumb to the elements. But, for now, they’re still standing, even after all this time, and awaiting exploration.

Not all of the cabins were still standing. Fallen trees had taken out a couple of them.

There are several beech trees growing in the middle of the camp. And, like all beech trees in old settlements, they have carvings in their bark. Two of the initials that stood out best on one of the trees were D.E. I wondered who D.E. is? Was he a camper? A counselor? Is he still alive?

The bath house.

In the center of the old camp was the bath house. Yes, they had plumbing in the camp, but not in each of the individual cabins. There was one bathroom facility for the entire camp.

Inside the old bath house, which had a dirt floor.
Shower stalls in the bath house.
What’s left of an old toilet in the bath house.
The well head near the bath house.

As I stood amongst the cabins and listened to the sounds of late winter — or early spring; the temperature was in the low 60s and birds were beginning to sing — I found myself imagining, just like I used to when I came here, what it must’ve been like when these hills were alive with the sounds of laughter and banter, of campers headed to and fro between the cabins, the mess hall and the swimming hole. Again I found myself wondering how many of them are still alive and where they’re at these days.

The manmade lake that served as a swimming area for the camp.

Back at the foot of the hill there is a lake. It has an elaborate stone dam, not an earthen dam, and its south shore was made of rock retaining walls. It is full of sediment now, hardly deep enough for swimming, but the water is still as clear as can be imagined.

A set of stone steps — now covered in moss — along what was once a path from the cabins to the swimming lake. The path has long since disappeared into the undergrowth.
A second set of steps leads to the water’s edge. Like the first set, they’re covered in moss.
The steel frame of the lifeguard’s chair at the lake.
What’s left of an old ladder used to get in and out of the water.

The last time I was here, beavers had done significant damage around the lake, and that’s only continued in the past 25 years or so. Looking up the holler, towards where I killed my first deer on that frosty November morning in 1992, I could see the beavers had felled trees and flooded the valley floor all the way up. I intended to hike up and see if I could pick out the very rock I was sitting behind 29 years ago when I hissed at my dad to stop fumbling around with his Thermos because I could hear a deer coming. But with all the beaver damage, I instead turned the other way and headed back to the Jeep.

As I was leaving, I saw a sign just up the road: “Hardwood forest established naturally from seedlings in 1992.” Interestingly, the forest was planted the same year I made my first trip here. The absence of mature trees and the thick stands of young growth showed that this forest is still in its infancy. Obviously, trees age more slowly than people. And as I headed back towards town I wondered if it will be another 20 years before I’m back again … or if I’ll come back at all.

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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