Fireworks, music, wacky parades and prayer — for almost 100 years, Lake Junaluska has been the most consistent provider of Fourth of July celebrations for Haywood County citizens.
Every town has offered Fourth of July celebrations, sometimes for years, and while those events drew many a crowd, it is the Methodist Assembly that has endured through decades.
With its auditorium and a lake that serves as a magnificent reflecting pool for fireworks, Junaluska Assembly has been ideal for providing Independence Day celebrations. And with the assembly’s energetic and youthful staff and summer schedule that draws notable musicians and speakers, it is natural that Independence Day becomes a colorful memory for people throughout Haywood County and the South. The assembly’s historic focus on worship has also created a musical heritage that has become key to the celebrations. Perhaps it is the atmosphere, perhaps it is coincidence, but significant events there have often occurred right at the beginning of July. Here is a look back at some of the lake’s more colorful Independence Day celebrations.
Junaluskans and record offerings
The first days of July 1913 marked not only the birthday of our nation, but the debut of the Southern Assembly of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, as the church and the Junaluska grounds were then known. It was a spectacular debut. The four days of the church’s Second General Missionary Conference closed on Sunday, July 3, with a $151,000 pledge of money for missions. It was the largest offering ever committed in the church. That pledge included the donation of 500 acres of land in Mississippi to be used for an industrial institution for Black Americans. The size of the offering immediately put Lake Junaluska in the national spotlight, with the Associated Press carrying the story.
The first of the lake’s fireworks were also mentioned, though there is nothing in newspaper reports regarding the scale of the pyrotechnics. Their mention comes in a community report, which states about 50 people gathered on that day to organize a community group in support of the assembly, to be known as the Junaluskans. Col. J.R. Pepper was named president — he also agreed to donate a large flag to be flown on the grounds; Rev. George Stuart, for whom Stuart Auditorium was named, became vice president; C.E. Weatherby became secretary; and Edgar Hart was the first treasurer.
Going into the lake
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, athletic competitions became a big part of Junaluska’s Fourth of July festivities and would continue well into the 21st century.
“Chief among the many things offered for the entertainment of those attending were the boat and water sports, including boat races of various kinds and swimming and diving contests,” stated a 1932 article. “A golf tournament was staged at the Junaluska course. This was 16 holes and club handicaps applied. A tennis tournament was also arranged for those who were interested in that form of sport.”
“Outstanding on the Fourth of July will be water contests, tennis, softball and horseshoe pitching tournaments in the afternoon,” stated a 1940 article. Those water contests, including swimming competitions, were conducted in the lake until the 1950s, when the Health Department prohibited swimming there. Until that time, Waynesville was piping its untreated sewage into Richland Creek, which fed into the lake.
Assembly leaders did not neglect the spiritual and patriotic nature of Independence Day. Events frequently included addresses by local and nationally known ministers as well as government officials.
“Probably the most thrilling feature of the day was the flag service,” the newspaper reported in 1932. “The service consisted of the official lowering of the nation’s flag as taps were blown. A member of the summer school faculty read the Declaration of Independence as a part of the ceremonies.”
The night stays dark
World War II subdued Independence Day celebrations at Lake Junaluska. In 1942, seven months after the U.S. entered World War II, the assembly offered a less boisterous observance of the Fourth, with an address by N.C. Gov. J.M. Broughton, but without fireworks. Broughton also would be the key speaker for the Junaluska Fourth celebrations in 1943 and 1944.
Speaking of leaders …Many a notable figure has spoken at Lake Junaluska during the Fourth celebrations. In addition to Gov. Broughton, other speakers through the years have included a senior judge for the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, Admiral W.N. Thomas, retired chief of Naval chaplains, who was also a resident of Lake Junaluska; an atomic energy scientist from Oak Ridge, Tenn., and a former congressman and White House aide to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
During the 1960s and 1970s, those notable speakers included some who were actively campaigning for office. Thousands greeted former Haywood County resident Dan Moore when he was the Democratic nominee for governor and spoke at the Lake on July 4, 1964. Moore would be elected governor. In 1972, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles spoke at the lake on the Fourth — he was defeated in the race by Republican James Holshouser.
In 1949, organizers fittingly chose Independence Day to dedicate the Memorial Chapel at Lake Junaluska. The chapel contained the names of thousands of Methodist young people who had served in the armed forces during World War II.
“It is more than a memorial,” Bishop Costen Harrell said at the dedication. “… It is dedicated particularly to the dead and (the) fine things of the soul. It is the spot at Lake Junaluska where people may experience the presence of God.”
Because the chapel seated only 300 and crowds filled the surrounding grounds, organizers made arrangements so that everyone waiting could file in and receive Communion.
Other dedications made during July Fourth celebrations included the opening of the new Children’s Building in 1953 and dedication of the Cherokee II, a new excursion boat, in 1952.
Heritage of music
One of the early draws to the Southern/Junaluska Assembly was its series of music workshops. Each summer, beginning in its early days, the lake hosted at least one singing camp, focusing on music for worship. It was a natural progression, then, to have those events near the Fourth, and have those choirs available for concerts on Independence Day.
This event received extra headlines in 1948, when Homer Rodeheaver, “noted evangelist, singer, trombone player, lecturer, composer and leading apostle to putting music into the minds of all people,” directed the Sacred Music Conference. For 20 years, Rodeheaver had been song leader for Billy Sunday, probably the nation’s most famous traveling evangelist in the years before Billy Graham.
In 1956, the new music director, Glen Draper, offered a July Fourth concert by the Junaluska Singers. He would guide the singers into national prominence, and many of its members would tour the world, performing with Draper. The July Fourth concert became an assembly tradition that continues today. Draper died in 2019 at the age of 90, 10 years after retiring as director of the Junaluska Singers.
Fireworks and movies
In the 1930s, Junaluska Assembly offered another attraction following fireworks on the Fourth — a movie. “The high spot of the outdoor activities at the lake will be the fireworks from the hill at the electric cross in the evening,” the newspaper announced in 1935. “Immediately afterwards there will be a movie, featuring Graham McManee in ‘The Gift of Gab.’” In 1937, the movie offered was “Modern Times,” starring Charlie Chaplin.
Deep plunge, light landing
In 1979, Mark Hardesty stepped out of an airplane and parachuted into Lake Junaluska as part of the July Fourth celebrations. Hardesty, a summer employee at the lake and an engineering student at N.C. State University, had been training for his expert license with the U.S. Parachute Association. The stunt may have been more nerve-wracking for his pilot, Steve Sisk, then a sheriff’s deputy, who recently recalled the event and his concerns about holding the right elevation for Hardesty’s jump.
Different kind of parade
Because Junaluska employed a great many young people during the summer, the assembly organized an annual Fourth of July parade in the 1970s that became part of its summer culture, particularly for employees who indulged in humor, creativity and hijinks. In 1982, one parade float represented a “staff meeting,” with volunteers impersonating assembly leaders. Another vehicle was simply labeled “a float” and ran out of gas before the parade was complete. Lake security staff portrayed themselves as being held in jail by moonshiners.
In 1987, the parade theme was to be “The 50 States.” Employees put together floats portraying the “State of Confusion,” “State of Disrepair,” and “State of Leisure.” In 1985, the theme of “Welcome to Our Neighborhood” brought out a number of Fred Rogers impersonators.
In 1983, a tendency for lake officials to delay the fireworks until its Fourth of July concert ended created a public protest. As brilliant as Glenn Draper was, he was not prone to stick to a concert schedule. When starting time for the fireworks was delayed by 35 minutes, The Mountaineer wrote an editorial.
“When the kids get cranky, the crowd begins to rumble,” it read. “And pretty soon it begins to rumble on home. A quicker match to the fuse would keep folks around longer.”
The next year, lake officials announced the fireworks show would begin promptly on schedule. Ironically, the first year after the policy change, the fireworks actually started early, to avoid rain showers. Thereafter, however, the fireworks would begin on time, even if the Junaluska Singers were still performing.
If it weren’t for Charlie …
For at least 27 years, Charlie Green, supervisor of the maintenance department at Lake Junaluska, was in charge of the fireworks display as the “fuse igniter.” In a 1986 interview, Green said the 30 minutes of the fireworks display was the hardest work he did all year.
Green would light the fireworks fuses with his blow torch. He kept that job for himself because of the level of danger.
“I am the only one that sets them off here because I know what I’m doing,” he said. “You get somebody inexperienced in there, and you’re going to have trouble.”
Reporter Elisa Turner described the process:
“Green starts the display preparations by blocking off the road and digging holes early July 4 morning. The men did nine holes about two feet deep to place the pipes. There are nine pipes to shoot the fireworks from. A different sized pipe is used for each sized firework. … On the big night Green and his men position themselves to start the display. The assistants load four of the pipes set approximately three feet apart, then Green ignites them. While he is starting the first four, the assistants are loading the other set of four approximately 12 feet (away). While Green is setting off the second set, the paper (debris) is picked up, and the pipes are reloaded in the first set. The cycle continues for about 30 minutes with all the men running at full speed.”
Green was trained in fireworks operations, but that did not guarantee that everything would go smoothly. The Rev. Jim Hart witnessed one accident in 1982 that apparently did not put an end to the display, as it was not reported in the newspaper.
“One of them got loose and hit the box of fireworks, and those guys scattered all over the place,” Hart recalled recently. “There was an explosion, but I don’t think anyone got hurt.”
Green retired after 30 years as a maintenance supervisor and died in 2015, at the age of 81. Today, the assembly contracts with professional fireworks companies to provide the annual display.