From the age of 25 to 75, Laban Lacy Rice devoted most of his energies to developing young minds and bodies.
As an educator and administrator, he proved a major influence on the success of both Castle Heights Military Academy and Cumberland University. The outdoorsman and keen observer of the nighttime skies also organized a boys’ camp near Lebanon and a girls’ camp near Crossville. The latter would flourish and thrives to this day.
From 1895 to 1920 he also served on the State Executive Committee of the Young Men Christian’s Association, which he had been introduced to while a student at Cumberland, where the group proved to be an important part of the scene in the 1890s. (Cumberland reportedly had the first “student YMCA” in 1856 when it was established on campus by Professor A.P. Stewart.)
As for family, he and wife, Blanche, raised two daughters in Lebanon, Katherine and Annie, who would marry Dr. James H. Shaw and Perry O’Neil, respectively. Rice once described his mate as “a woman of the old South, charming and gracious.” In 1921 he published and dedicated a book of poetry to her, titled “Sonnets to BBR.”
The Rice family lived in three houses in Lebanon, all still standing. The family’s first home sits at 116 South Hatton St. on the lot he bought in 1900. In 1902 he and his wife had a house built at 321 West Main, which they sold in 1909 to J.L. Shannon, the patriarch of J.L. Shannon & Sons Drug Store on the square. The Rice-Shannon House serves today as the office of THW Insurance.
From Main Street the Rices moved to the Heights campus in 1909 into a house Rice had built to the exact dimensions of the one they left, except this structure was made of brick. Already a one-third owner of the school, in 1913 he became sole owner of Heights. His latest home became known as the President’s House. The two-story building would be converted into Rademacher’s Chop House in 1997 and is occupied now by Sammy B’s restaurant.
Also erected on the Castle Heights campus was Rice Tower, a four-story dormitory with an infirmary on the bottom floor. Opened in 1905, it was demolished in 1995, according to Castle Heights Military Academy archivist Rob Hosier.
Hosier recollects hearing Rice speak at chapel at Cumberland University in 1966.
“He gave an awe-inspiring lesson on astronomy. The other thing I remember I liked, he spoke in Latin and then translated it to ‘we who are about to die salute you.’ And then he lived seven more years.”
Running Castle Heights
During his tenure as headmaster at Castle Heights and before he became sole owner, Rice in one fell swoop expelled 52 boys who had broken school rules. They had skipped classes together to attend a special event in town. It seems most likely while at the school he gained his nickname, “The Colonel.”
About his shift from Cumberland University to Castle Heights, Rice wrote, “In 1904 I was professor of English and American literature in Cumberland, and unusually happy in the work. However, with a wife and two young children to support, I found the meagre salary of about $600 inadequate, so when the owners of Castle Heights offered me a third interest, I borrowed the money from my father, resigned my university position, and thenceforth devoted all my time and energy to the build-up of the young institution.”
In 1913, he became sole owner of the school. The following year World War I erupted. The great conflict had an unsettling effect on the students, and in 1917, just before the U.S. entered the fray, Rice converted the non-military school into Castle Heights Military Academy. It was no easy task readjusting the school into one of accepted military standing.
Rice recalled the era, noting, “The transformation in the midst of war hysteria was a constant nightmare. Since 1913 the attendance had increased from about 223 to 325, when in 1920 I decided to sell the academy to a stock company headed by three of my teachers. In the spring of 1921, the transfer was accomplished.”
The educator had been busy with other projects during the last few years of that decade. Among these was a personal donation of $8,000 to Wilson County High School, Lebanon’s black high school on East Market Street. The money was for the construction of a gymnasium in honor of his African-American friend John E. McDaniel, who had served as a waiter in the Castle Heights dining room and became the principal of Wilson County High.
Creating camps for boys and girls
In 1918, Rice opened Camp Kawasawa, a summer camp and training facility for boys that ran from late June to late August on the banks of the Cumberland River a few miles north of Lebanon.
An advertisement in the Houston (Texas) Post newspaper described the site as follows:
A superbly located and splendidly equipped educational, military and recreational camp for boys aged 10 to 20. Experienced faculty. No extra charges for instruction. Military and Naval Departments under direction of expert officers. Trapping, Canoeing, Fishing, Boating, Swimming, Hiking, Track-work, Baseball, Tennis. Cumberland River Bluffs. Forty-five-acre forest, rugged bluffs; a beautiful stream and magnificent athletic field, afford the kind and variety of outdoor life a red-blooded boy craves. Perfectly balanced combination of study and recreation guarantees a normally developed boy. Thorough, conscientious oversight of all campers, especially the youngest. U.S. Government furnishes campers fourteen and over latest model Enfield rifle, ammunition, targets, mess kits, etc. R.O.T.C. privileges open to all boys of fourteen and above, who have daily target practice at ranges of two to five hundred yards. Campground lighted by electricity. Sanitation excellent. Pure drinking water. Excellent table fare. Col. L.L. Rice, Ph.D., Director, Lebanon, Tenn.
In 1920, he started Camp Nakanawa for girls on a 1,500-acre tract near Crossville, originally planning it as a sister camp to Kawasawa.
(As if two camps were not enough, Rice was part owner and associate director of Camp Sequoyah for Boys near Asheville, N.C., from 1929-1935.)
Also in 1920, he began Junior Military Academy in Bloomington Springs in Putnam County. He would sell the school in 1925 to Roy DeBerry, and it would be renamed DeBerry’s Academy. The school operated into the 1980s and since 1988 has been utilized as CHANCE Residential Center.
Rice wrote about his decision to sell Castle Heights, saying, “I was never perfectly domiciled at the Heights, for all the time I was longing for leisure to read serious books, so when in 1920 I found myself financially in the red because of the creation of Camp Kawasawa for boys and Camp Nakanawa for girls, plus the Junior Military School, I was glad to find among the faculty three men who succeeded in corralling sufficient funds ($200,000) for the purchase. In June of 1921, I left the Heights with no regrets.”
Getting back to Cumberland
Across the 1920s until 1947, Rice devoted his summers to the girls’ camp near Crossville. But he always kept a close pulse on the affairs at Cumberland University.
At least twice he alluded to a curious incident that occurred one day when he was 18 years old. He wrote in his diary: “In the spring of 1889, I was a sophomore in Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee. An idea from the unknown unexpectedly hit me with such force I was startled, immediately dropped my book, pushed back the chair and for a few seconds was dazed. … I seemed to hear a voice saying, ‘Your life is to be bound to Cumberland’s destiny.’”
Rice had been offered the position of president of Cumberland four times: in 1906, 1915, 1921 and 1926. In 1939, he accepted the role of chancellor and began to collaborate with President Ernest Stockton in securing endowments.
The position came two years after the demise of his wife, Blanche, who died June 28, 1937, at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville. She was 66 and had been in failing health for four years.
After Stockton’s resignation in 1940, Rice became the 11th president of the university on Nov. 4, 1941. They were trying times, and he confessed to being in “constant hot water.”
Keeping Cumberland in Lebanon
Among other problems, a Dr. Campbell, the secretary of the board of education of the Presbyterian Church USA, according to Rice, began to push for the “unnatural idea of killing” Cumberland University’s department of liberal arts and merging it with another school.
Rice summed up the dire situation writing that since the board of education believed there were too many Presbyterian institutions of higher learning in Tennessee, Campbell had proposed that “Cumberland University should be liquidated and its interests, lock, stock and barrel merged with Maryville College (a Presbyterian school) in East Tennessee.
Cumberland’s Board of Trustees, also believing the Northern Presbyterians’ notion to be unacceptable, sided with Rice. This led Rice to suggest the university align itself with the Tennessee Baptist Convention.
Rice recalled, “After the Presbyterian Church so regrettably refused further financial aid in 1945, we felt we had no other course than to engineer a transfer of the school to an agency which was willing and able to put large funds behind it.”
The board of trustees approved, and in June 1946, Rice resigned as president and passed the baton to his Baptist successor.
Cumberland University historian G. Frank Burns documented Rice’s tenuous years at the school, noting that a month after Rice took the lead Pearl Harbor was bombed.
“The problems that faced college administrators in those days seemed almost insuperable. Enrollments of course dwindled, but there was also the almost complete shutting off of funds available for endowments, shortages of equipment, a growing scarcity of quality faculty personnel,” wrote Burns.
He continued, “Three factors enabled Dr. Rice, business manager Sam Bone and the trustees to hold the school together: the section of the college as a site for the 10th college Training Detachment (Air Crew), the use of college buildings and grounds for Second Army Maneuver Director Headquarters and the willingness of the few remaining faculty members to work on a ‘share and share alike’ salary basis. War’s end brought hundreds of G.I. students and their families to the campus but other changes were in the offing.”
Lebanon physician Robert Bone, who has been on the Cumberland Board of Trustees for more than 50 years, shared that his father, businessman Sam Bone, worked closely with Rice as he managed Cumberland University finances from 1932 until 1945. The elder Bone also served on the board from 1929 into the 1990s.
“My father was the business manager during the Depression and knew Rice well. Rice was the centerpiece of all things going on at Cumberland University. He was amazing,” Bone said.
“He was a Renaissance man. I only knew him the last years of his life. I heard him speak at Cumberland, and he was really remarkable. I remember he rambled a little bit during his speech, which had more to do with philosophy. The baseball players came up, and one of them had a baseball, and he showed them how to throw a curveball. He was quite a guy.”
Death of brother Cale
The WWII years were also tough on Rice as he lost his beloved brother, Cale, and sister-in-law, Alice, who for the last 11 years of their married life spent each July and August at his summer camp on the Cumberland Plateau.
Rice recounted that loss in an article that appeared in the “Filson Club Historical Quarterly” in July 1954, writing, “Following Alice’s death in 1942, Cale must have destroyed the letters he wrote, for I did not find a single one among the multitude of papers I inherited as his literary executor.
“On the contrary, every letter Alice wrote from a hospital bed was treasured by him; and on that tragic night in 1943 when he took his own life without her gracious presence appeared no longer bearable and was ended by suicide, he wrote me a long letter of instructions as calm in temper as if he were discussing the merits of a poem, and specifically directed that Alice’s letters be placed in the casket that would hold his remains. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate them in time, so the letters were not placed next to his heart.
“With the exception of Alice, no one else was so close to Cale as I. My junior by only 26 months, he was my constant companion from infancy. In youth we were bedfellows, and for three years at the university we occupied the same room. We formed the battery for the varsity baseball team and were on the track squad. After his marriage about 1902, I often visited them in their lovely Louisville home, and through the years exchanged letter with both.”
Getting Camp Nakanawa off the ground
Of his multi-faceted pursuits and accomplishments, none may have been dearer to Laban Lacy Rice’s heart than Camp Nakanawa, the summer camp for girls he established near Mayland, a small community a few miles northwest of Crossville on the Cumberland Plateau.
At the time the site was called Mountain Lake Park, and one of its choice features was a 150-acre body of freshwater named Cooper’s Lake, built in 1912. Rice would rechristen it Lake Aloaloa.
Later this month, the camp celebrates its 100th year of operation. The original camp sits on the east side of the lake while the junior camp rests on the west side.
Recounting the early days of the camp in the pages of his diary from December 1965, Rice wrote, “In 1919, I decided to enter the summer camp work for girls, so I purchased a thousand acres in Cumberland County, including a 250-acre lake. The Nakanawa Camp for Girls opened its first season in 1920, the year I sold Castle Heights Military Academy. Fortunately, the girls’ camp succeeded when I decided to create a separate Junior Camp for small girls on the western side of the lake. The name —Nakanawa Camp for Girls — was then adopted.”
(According to Rice’s great-grandchildren, the idea for the junior girls’ camp sprang from his daughter, Annie Hays Rice O’Neil, who had to convince her father it would prove a good decision.)
Rice and his son-in-law, Perry O’Neil, purchased the property on March 24, 1920, for $30,000.
Later, his Nakanawa stationery boasted two cool facts across the top stating “Thousand Acres” and “Elevation 2,000 feet.”
‘A little bit of heaven’
Camp biographer Margaret Hawkins Matens, in her 1982 book, “Nakanawa: The First Fifty Years,” shares the rich history of the camp. She reported that, according to Rice’s daughter, Annie Hays, Nakanawa “was his fictitious name for a Cherokee tribe that had supposedly lived nearby.”
Rice envisioned the girls’ camp as “a little bit of heaven” and saw it as “a place of high ideals and moral wholesomeness.”
A strong writer, he penned a recruiting pamphlet titled “Your Daughter, Our Camp” to contrast a summer vacation stuck in the city to a summer enjoyed in “the simple wholesome life of a great camp pitched in a mighty forest.”
Rice wrote, “City Vs. Organized summer camp — what a contrast! Personality, conventionality, artificiality — fine clothes, boys, parties, dances, unchaperoned gatherings, etc. over naturalness, simplicity, mutual trustfulness, joyous life in the open devoted to swimming, canoeing, hiking, tennis, volleyball, basketball, rifle practice, hockey, soccer, horseback riding, supplemented by …. Various entertainments, pageants on land and water, Sabbath observances. Really, can you afford to deny her this privilege of spending a wholesome eight weeks at Nakanawa?”
Camp traditions thrive
The first day of camp at Nakanawa was held July 1, 1920, and many of the girls arrived via the Tennessee Central Railroad from Nashville. Its inaugural eight-week season was open to ages 9 to 21 and cost $250. One-hundred-and-sixty-five young women from 15 states showed up. The staff included 28 counselors, all college graduates. The girls were divided into two groups, the Amazons and the Valkyries, a tradition that remains intact.
Rice, whom most people by now called “Colonel Rice,” had developed a philosophy for camp life that aimed at three main goals: “First, to give enjoyment through games, sports and amusements … Second, to enable those desiring it the privilege of retrieving academic failure … Third, to teach the art of genuine companionship, as art calling for the graces of patience, courtesy, consideration … and unselfishness.”
Over the next 27 years, the camp was where his heart was. In 1926, he daughter, Annie, opened the camp for junior girls. He would spend $30,000 on constructing such buildings as the original 22 cabins, referred to as “bungalettes,” and the bodacious Wigwam. Built in 1920, the Wigwam became the most important structure at camp as it was used for meetings, rituals and plays. Designed by Rice’s son-in-law, Perry O’Neil, the rustic-style 12-sided log building has a 12-sided, low-pitched pyramidal roof covered by asphalt shingles.
In 1999, the Wigwam was added to the National Register of Historic Places, following in the steps of two other sites haunted by Rice: Cumberland University’s Memorial Hall (1977) and the Castle Heights Historic District (1996).
The summer of 1928 brought 336 campers. A year later Rice purchased one-half interest in and became associate director of Camp Sequoyah in North Carolina (which he considered a little brother to Nakanawa) until 1936.
Depression dampens camp spirit
In 1933, Rice’s daughter, Annie Hays, officially filled the role as Nakanawa’s associate director and took much of the load off her father’s shoulders. However, the Great Depression began to take its toll.
In his diary from December 1965, Rice wrote: “Both camps flourished until 1930 when the money crash in Wall Street brought on the greatest panic of the 20th century. The $30,000 I had paid for the camp property, plus the thirty odd thousand I had used to construct buildings on both sides of the lake, unhappily were not liquidated by the receipts from both camps, so for the next three years my losses were tremendous. By 1935, I was in debt to the extent of about $34,000. From that date the struggle toward liquidation of indebtedness was the heaviest burden I had ever carried.”
Matens, in “Nakanawa: The First Fifty Years,” recorded the memories of Deanie Hart, who spent her first summer as a camper in 1935 at the age of 8 and who was associated with the camp for more than 40 years.
Hart recalled, “To the campers of our era, Nakanawa was first, foremost and forever Col. Rice and Annie Hays — the Colonel molding his ‘lovely Nakanawa girls’ through his scholarly idealism and Annie Hays helping to recruit and guide them with humor and understanding. We all eagerly awaited Annie Hays’ visit with the camp movies each winter. We were enriched by her role at camp each summer.”
Many campers remembered the long hikes with Rice as he wore high boots and carried a forked snake stick in case of a reptile encounter.
Collierville’s Lucia Chandler Outlan, who grew up in Memphis, went to the camp from the early 1940s until 1950 and witnessed the final years of Rice’s leadership.
About Nakanawa’s founder she said, “A group of men wanted to buy this lake and dam up the springs and make a fishing resort, and he bought it for a camp. He thought there were so many nice boys’ camps in the Adirondacks, and he had a daughter and thought women ought to have a nice camp, and so he felt it very important that women have the same chances as men.
“He was very thoughtful, very much a figure of authority, and his daughter, Annie Hays O’Neil, ran the camp. He took us on an all-day hike over to England’s Cove.
“We would get blankets out and lie on the soccer field on a clear night, and he would talk astronomy and teach us about the stars. He told ghost stories. He was always very gracious but you had the feeling of command. You did not step out of line. He was never unkind and believed in saying the blessing. We sang. He used the Methodist Cokesbury Hymnal. He would preach for maybe 10 or 15 minutes. It was always a lesson with a moral and then he would take up a little collection to take to the needy in town,” said Outlan, 86, who continues to visit the camp every summer.
Another alumnus of Camp Nakanawa is Lebanon’s Dot Jenkins, 89, who went there in 1940 at the age of 10.
“We took an overnight hike and that night he told us the story of the Bell Witch (the internationally-famous tale of a Tennessee witch). I’d never heard that story until I went off to camp,” she recalled.
Jenkins, who taught education classes at Cumberland University from 1978 to 2012, heard Rice speak at Cumberland when he was 99 in 1969.
“I knew he had been president of Cumberland University and his brother was a poet. He offered his materials to the school, and it made me really sad because they didn’t take them,” she said.
(Most likely Rice had set a condition that his papers be stored in a climate-controlled room, and the school was unable to oblige. However, while Western Kentucky University holds the bulk of Rice’s papers, Cumberland possesses three boxes filled with manuscripts, letters and photographs that belonged to the school’s 11th president.)
Good-bye to camp
In 1946 at age 75, Rice decided it was time to retire from camp life. It was now debt free, and, after drawing 355 campers in 1945, Nakanawa could claim the title as the largest private camp for girls in the U.S. Thus, he agreed to sell the camp to W.E. “Pop” Mitchell and his daughter, Elisabeth, aka “Mitch.” Rice stayed one more summer with “Mitch” as his apprentice.
Decades later Rice looked back at that final summer of sharing the camp with his daughter as one of great joy. About the decision, he wrote in his diary: “I felt it was time to make the change at Nakanawa, especially since the preceding year I had the profound satisfaction of knowing that the camps were free of debt. During the years the camps (senior and junior) had become the largest private camps for girls in the United States with a senior camp enrollment of 225 and junior enrollment of 130, capacity enrollment at each camp.
“The final year of our joint direction was almost perfect. Campers were happy and patrons delighted. I was at last out of debt and with a bank deposit of a little over $20,000 since the income that year approximately was $18,000. The only satisfaction I have derived through the years is that the former Nakanawa counselor, Elisabeth Mitchell, who bought the camp, has operated it with financial success so that today what I built on the Cumberland Plateau sweating tears, if not blood, is not a tragic camp ‘has-been.’ ”
Rice transferred ownership to the Mitchells on Sept. 17, 1947. When he left the camp that fall, he never returned.
Since 1981, the camp has been in the able hands of its third guardians, Ann and Pepe Perron, who took the reins from Elisabeth Mitchell, Ann’s aunt.
Over the years, Rice had been invited back on several occasions. When asked to attend the camp’s 50th anniversary in 1969, he responded, “Please, leave an old man with his memories.”
On his final Sunday at camp, on Aug. 17, 1947, the Colonel met with the campers in the Wigwam and began to read the Last Nakanawa Will and Testament of Laban Lacy Rice. After completing the first page he became so emotional that he handed his notes over to another person who shared his message which included the line: “As long as there is a Nakanawa, my affections will center there, and — whether living or dead — my spirit lovingly will haunt this sacred spot hallowed by many years of beautiful fellowship.”
Sources: Stockton Archives in the Vise Library of Cumberland University, The Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of Western Kentucky University’s Library of Special Collections, A Backward Look at 80 by Laban Lacy Rice, Phoenix Rising: The Sesquicentennial History of Cumberland University 1842-1992 by Frank Burns, Nakanawa: The First Fifty Years by Margaret Hawkins Matens (1982), The Caduceus of Kappa Sigma (August 1971) the Kappa Sigma Fraternity Magazine; Laban Lacy Rice Diary (1965-1966); Boyhood Recollections from the Evansville Courier, Cumberland University Magazine (1892), Hail, Castle Heights! by James A. Crutchfield (2003), A History of Cumberland University by WP Bone (1935).