I recently had a chance to visit the North Carolina Baptist Assembly at Caswell and write a story about it for Baptists Today‘s June issue. Space is always limited in the print edition, so some of the material had to be cut, and only a few pictures could be used. Since I believe the full story will be of interest (especially to North Carolina readers, as the summer season kicks into high gear), I’m posting the full version here, along with more pictures.
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OAK ISLAND, NC — They come from near and far, Baptists and not, because there’s nothing else like it, nothing else like the coastal treasure known as Caswell. Officially, it’s the North Carolina Baptist Assembly. Staff members’ shirts bear the logo “Fort Caswell.” But for generations of campers, staffers, and volunteers who have fallen in love with the place, it’s just “Caswell” – and going there feels like coming home.
Caswell sits on more than 250 acres of prime property at the eastern end of Oak Island, where North Carolina’s cutaway coastline begins its westward swing. Sandwiched between a mile of scenic beachfront to the south and a wildlife-filled marine estuary on the north is a Baptist bastion as filled with military history as with people who seek a closer walk with God.
Long before the coastline was commercially developed or the towering lighthouse was built, the mosquito-ridden tip of Oak Island was recognized for its strategic location at the mouth of the broad Cape Fear River, home to a major port in Wilmington and navigable all the way to Fayetteville. In 1825, the U.S. Congress approved funds for the construction of a fort to protect the valuable waterway.
The only access to Oak Island was by sea. The remote location and a scarcity of both labor and materials hampered construction of the pentagonal structure of brick and stone, which was not completed until 1838. It was named for Richard Caswell, a veteran of the Revolutionary War who had served in the Continental Congress and was elected as North Carolina’s first governor after the Declaration of Independence.
The fort was commandeered by Confederate forces in 1861 and withstood Union efforts to regain control until January of 1865, when the fall of nearby Fort Fisher prompted Confederates to abandon all surrounding forts and batteries, spike the guns, and blow up as much ammunition as possible. The considerable munitions in Fort Caswell’s magazines included more than 100,000 pounds of black powder, and the resulting explosion was so massive that residents in Wilmington could see the fireball and feel the ground shake from 30 miles away.
The ruined fort entered caretaker status until 1896, when several additional earthen and concrete batteries were built and armed over the course of a decade, serving during the Spanish American War of 1898 and the early years of the 20th century. New construction included a hospital, headquarters, officers’ housing, and a protective sea wall extending for more than a mile around the eastern tip of the island.
During World War I, Fort Caswell served as a training base for thousands of fresh troops preparing for the European front. Soldiers lived in a tent city before a dozen two-story cantonment barracks were constructed, largely of pre-fabricated materials, just inside the gate. The parade ground was a busy place.
After the war, the batteries were disarmed and the fort once again fell idle. A bridge and road across Oak Island was built in 1928, and in 1937 the fort was sold to private developers who sought to turn it into a health resort. The hospital was repurposed as a luxury hotel (now called Lantana), and two sunken concrete gun emplacements atop Battery Caswell (connected to the old masonry fort) were walled off to form swimming pools boasting hot mineral-rich water from an artesian well that had been drilled during the expansion phase leading up to the war.
During World War II, Fort Caswell was again turned to a military purpose, repurchased (for $75,000) by the Navy for use as a submarine tracking station, communications center, and as a supply/repair base for small craft used in patrolling the area. Many wounded servicemen were brought to Caswell for staging before being shipped to inland hospitals. A hundred tons of metal was donated to the war cause, much of it almost certainly from the old fortifications and batteries. Additions included the buildings currently known as Long Bay, Boys’ Barracks, and Girls’ Barracks.
Following the war, the property was again decommissioned, declared surplus, and put up for sale. North Carolina Congressman Charles B. Deane, who also served as the Baptist State Convention’s recording secretary, envisioned a more peaceful purpose for the fort. He led a small contingent of Baptist leaders to Washington D.C. to discuss a purchase: Fort Caswell was about to receive a new mission.
Late in 1949, the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSCNC) purchased Caswell’s 248.8 acres “plus any accretions thereunto” for a total of $86,000. Richard K. Redwine, who had previously led “Camp Seaside,” a small Baptist camp at Carolina Beach, became the first director. Redwine and a small staff went to work: Navy gray and Army olive barracks were painted white, and in 1950 the “Seashore Retreat” began hosting summer camps for Baptist youth and children, utilizing a summer staff of college students.
Fred Smith followed Redwine as director in 1957, and the campus was remodeled and expanded in various ways. Officers’ quarters became cottages for housing while other buildings were converted to classrooms. The 1,000 seat Hatch Auditorium was built with funds from the estate of Episcopalian Rachel E. Hatch, who believed that “Baptists have their finger on the pulse of humanity and seek to touch the needs of the people.”
Road improvements led to the commercial development of Oak Island during the 1960s, increasing Caswell’s visibility and value. Programs continued to grow after Tom McKay took the reigns in 1977, but in 1984 an unsolicited $5 million offer from developers put the future of Caswell in question. Some wanted to sell the property, but a study found that North Carolina Baptists not only wanted to keep the assembly but to upgrade it, leading to a $1.75 million capital campaign designed to expand the facilities and add a year-round conference center so Caswell could serve in every season.
In 1985, Rick Holbrook, then Dean of Admissions and Enrollment Planning at Gardner-Webb University, was hired to become the new director. Holbrook, a pastor’s son who had come to Caswell as a child and had worked eight years as a summer staffer, faced a daunting task: Hurricane Diana had just inflicted heavy damage on the facilities, and the new projects loomed. As the BSCNC’s Tom Womble headed up efforts to raise the needed funds, Holbrook oversaw campus renovations including the relocation of Bald Head, Atlantic, and Sea Oats cottages to make room for the construction of the three-story Smith Conference Center, Redwine cottage, and a classroom building (now named for long-time supporter Dewey Hobbs) located behind Hatch Auditorium. With the dedicated assistance of contractor Wayne Honeycutt, North Carolina Baptist Men, and a host of volunteers, construction and many upgrades were accomplished by 1989.
In the years since, Holbrook has overseen an ongoing renovation of facilities to provide more comfortable and efficient accommodations while adding a variety of appealing programs. Countless Baptists from North Carolina and surrounding states can point to youth weeks or other events at Caswell as the genesis for life-changing encounters with Christ. Up to 1,100 youth at a time crowd into the assembly during busy summer weeks of camp with a spiritual or missions focus, as more than 70 summer staffers learn what it means to serve. Few leave untouched by either the thematic programs or the austere beauty of the setting.
As times have changed and BSCNC funding has declined, Holbrook and his staff have sought new ways to generate needed revenue while simultaneously offering creative ministry opportunities.
Recognizing that the natural environment of Caswell’s location at the nexus of ocean, river, and marsh offered a rare educational opportunity, Holbrook hired environmentalist Jenny Fuller to build a program focusing on environmental stewardship. In five years, the program has grown to include two full-time employees plus an intern. The Cape Fear building was renovated as an exhibit-filled educational center, offering a rich new resource for campers and church groups. School teachers who learn of the program through science fairs and other means bring students to Caswell on field trips for an educational dose of the coast, providing needed income for the assembly and introducing new cohorts of young people to Caswell.
When the BSCNC stopped planning regular events for senior adults, Caswell took on and expanded the program. Now a dozen or more themed retreats, including a December “Christmas By the Sea,” attract hundreds of retired and semi-retired adults each year.
In 2012, Caswell gained its first major addition since the 1980s with the construction of Sandpiper Cottage, which can house more than 100 persons in two mirrored halves. Two more large cottages are planned.
The assembly has advanced in other areas, too. In late 2013, Fort Caswell was added to the National Register of Historic Sites, recognizing its historic significance.
Caswell’s appeal grows from more than its coastal charm: many staff members have been on board long enough to serve multiple generations of campers. While Holbrook recently marked 30 years as director, assistant director David Lloyd has been on board for 37 years. Guest services director Brian Hemphill has been assisting churches for 22 years, and his assistant director Kevin (Yam) Cruise has been around as a summer staffer or full time employee since 1987. Maintenance director Mike Adams has worked at Caswell for more than 40 years, as has David Johnson, his cohort in the garage.
Pat Blackmon, a longtime fixture in reservations, said people sometimes ask when she plans to retire. “Why retire,” she replied, “when you’re working in paradise?”
“People often congratulate me for the fine staff we have here, but I can’t take any credit for it,” Holbrook said. “I’ve been very fortunate that the right people came along at the right time.”
Caswell’s nimble staff has long been bolstered by volunteer labor from men and women who have grown to love the campus, and who come back year after year to assist with various maintenance or renovation projects. Coastal weather can be hard on buildings: “Once you start painting something,” Holbrook said, “you never stop.”
While some Baptists may have felt alienated from the BSCNC due to changes in its direction, Holbrook wants all to know they are still welcome at Caswell. The BSCNC gets first dibs on the popular summer weeks, but Caswell’s facilities remain available for church groups or other events year round. “We don’t draw any lines,” Holbrook said.
The assembly’s wide variety of resources and talented staff make many types of events possible. On a recent weekend, Caswell hosted a choir group from St. Stephens Methodist Church in Charlotte, a group of volunteers from First Baptist in Elkin who came to do pool maintenance and painting, a parent/child retreat from First Baptist in Raleigh, an assortment of women’s retreat groups, and an advanced science class from East Wake High School in Zebulon – all while serving the local community as the starting and ending point for the annual Oak Island Run, which attracted more than 1400 runners or walkers for half-marathon, 10K, and 5K events.
Holbrook recalled another weekend when guests included Eastern Orthodox, Korean, Chinese, and Hispanic events, among others. Methodist and Roman Catholic groups are also frequent visitors.
In a typical year, Caswell also plans a February women’s retreat that may soon expand to a second weekend, and North Carolina WMU holds an annual gathering for Hispanic women. Planning meetings or retreats for deacons, church staff, choirs, and other groups are common. Caswell will soon offer discounted rates to harried ministers who could benefit from some quiet time at the coast.
After 65 years as a Baptist assembly, Caswell has become part of the spiritual DNA for generations of campers and staffers. For many others, the coastal outpost remains an undiscovered treasure, just waiting to be found.