A Visit to a Lost Bluegrass Music Temple


First view of the Blue Grass Park stage through the brush

First view of the Blue Grass Park stage roof line through the brush

By Art Menius, August 31, 2014

Barnum-like music promoter and artist manager Carlton Haney produced the first three-day bluegrass music festival with camping on Labor Day weekend 1965 on Cantrell’s Horse Farm near Fincastle, Virginia. Haney combined his and Bill Clifton’s idea of a big show with all the top bluegrass artists with the concept taken from Newport Folk Festival of a curated, multi-day festival offering some kind of narrative. Carlton capped off the three days with the “Blue Grass Story” on Sunday afternoon, creating a narrative arch for the community that brought the string tribe together. This was folklore being constructed on the ground. View 11 minutes from that first festival here,

After a second year in Fincastle, the original bluegrass festival moved to Watermelon Park near Berryville, Virginia for another two years. On Labor Day weekend 1969, the original festival arrived near Haney’s hometown of Reidsville, NC. On land besides Pat and Hazel Smith just south of Cherry Grove Road on the western edge of Caswell County, NC, Carlton built Blue Grass Park, the prototype for bluegrass festival venues for the next score.

Camp Springs Stage close up 8-30-2014

Camp Springs Stage close up 8-30-2014

There Carlton enjoyed his glory years, promoting bluegrass as a gospel, publishing Muleskinner News, telling the story, using up almost every ounce of energy Fred Bartenstein had. The theatrical documentary, Bluegrass Music, Country Soul, captured the third,  1971 festival. He added events there including the spring New Grass Festival, while also presenting famed festivals in Gettysburg and Berryville. By the late 1970s competition had grown fierce, while Carlton’s physical, mental, and financial health declined. Mike Wilson and John Maness helped promote three or four very presentable Labor Day weekend festivals during the middle 1980s, before the pair moved the event to Maness’ park. 

At one of those events, Carlton took me up the house, still standing on site, which already looked as if vandalized in 1986. Painstakingly, while he was supposed to be stage managing, Carlton located each issue – in order from Vol 1, No 1 – in the chaos. He seemed to have maintained every check book he had ever owned, including banks long out of business. Meanwhile, Maness and the Bass Mountain Boys had been on stage for 75 minutes with no stage manager to wake up the emcee, Bill Hill. When Carlton return to livid Maness, Haney responded, “Art, show John what I gave you! The whole history of bluegrass music.”

Stage right, where I can still see Bill Vernon standing, and remains of a speaker stand

Stage right, where I can still see Bill Vernon standing, and remains of a speaker stand

Camp Springs stage in 1970, still from Bluegrass Music, Country Soul with Lilly Brothers and Tex Logan

Camp Springs stage in 1971, still from Bluegrass Music, Country Soul with Lilly Brothers and Tex Logan

The Saturday of Labor Day Weekend 2014, my wife Becky Johnson decided we should head up to Camp Springs for the 45th anniversary and see if we could still find Blue Grass Park. It did not prove easy. First, I made the mistake of turning off of Cherry Grove Road on to Camp Springs Road and driving fruitlessly up its 2 miles thrice. Finally back on Cherry Grove east bound, both Becky, who had only been there twice, and I felt drawn to turn right on Boone Road. After a couple of passes looking for the “Blue Grass Park” sign that was still hanging in the 1990s, we pulled up to a lonely gate with several no trespassing signs.

Camp Springs Bathhouse

Camp Springs Bathhouse

I had feared a trailer park. What we found was kindly worst. We followed the remains of the entrance road, passed a pine thicket where the band vehicles used to park between Boone Road and the stage area. Turning the corner, feeling like seekers of lost Mayan temples in the jungle, we faced heavy woods, thick underbrush, and to the right of an area where trash had been burned and cans and bottles dumped, stood the Carlton’s old bathhouse. Numerous no trespassing and one “Dead Man Walking if I Catch You Here” messages decorated the cinder block walls. Becky saw a sign warning of “Boobee” traps. The thought of a cannabis plantation crossed my mind.

Becky Johnson drawn like a magnet to this historic Camp Springs stage

Becky Johnson drawn like a magnet to this historic Camp Springs stage

We pushed through widespread poison ivy and briers as if no deer or other wildlife cleared the brush out in what was once the seating area. Finally like a red clay Angkor Wat, the remains of the stage, one so many festivals copied, stood before us in tatters. Where thousands saw New Grass Revival for the first time, where Tony Rice jumped ship from Bluegrass Alliance to J.D. Crowe, where Carlton told the Blue Grass Story, where Bill Vernon and Fred Bartenstein emceed, looked like a burned out mobile home. Carlton doing an impromptu version of the story with Mac Wiseman, Lester Flatt, and Chubby Wise at Renfro Valley, KY in 1971 can be seen here.

The "new" stage at Camp Springs

The “new” stage at Camp Springs

Something of “Kathaleen’s” Kitchen could be seen in the distance. More adventurous than I and possessing two good knees, Becky 

campgrounds at Camp Springs 8-30-2014

campgrounds at Camp Springs 8-30-2014

took off through the underbrush and pine trees. She found a logging that took her to Carlton’s old house and the pond behind the stage. 

We drove on to Milton, NC. We talked about Caswell County’s need for more tourism attractions and how Blue Grass Park reminded us of the once-overgrown Historic Occaneechi Speedway looked in Hillsborough, NC before citizens took action together to restore it. As many bluegrass music devotees are exist, cannot Carlton’s Blue Grass Park be saved in cooperation with Caswell County Economic Development and the Caswell County Historical Association to created a living historical site that tells the bluegrass music story while presented concerts and festivals.

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Concerts at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, NC


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My commitment to the community is to restore The ArtsCenter (300-G East Main St; Carrboro, NC 27510) to a position of primacy among folk and roots presenters between Alexandria, VA and Decatur, GA. Although we present concerts in the 355 seat Earl & Rhoda Wynn Theater and 106 seat West End Theater mostly Thursday through Sunday evenings, we sometimes present on any night and host jam sessions and song circles on Monday evenings. We share the use of these facilities with ArtsCenter Stage, the ArtSchool, more than a dozen resident theatre, comedy, improv, film, and dance companies, ArtsCamp, Youth Arts Blocks, and rentals ranging from Cat’s Cradle concerts to community square dances to bat and bar mitzvahs. For that reason, The ArtsCenter presents an average of 60 concerts for adults per year. Visit our website to learn about shows and concerts for children and families.

I have three decades experience in folk and bluegrass music and the support of outstanding concerts at The ArtsCenter sponsors including Chapel Hill Restaurant Group, Giorgios Hospitality Group, Atma Hotel Group (including the new Hampton next door), Furniture Lab, Brooks Pierce, and the North Carolina Arts Council.Image

Most of all we need your support as a donor, business sponsor, or ArtsCenter Friend, and as a ticket buyer. All these can be accomplished by visiting artscenterlive.org or calling 919-929-2787.

The ArtsCenter currently has this remarkable lineup of concerts scheduled

Monday, October 21, 2013 Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys
Wednesday, October 30, 2013 disappear fear (SONiA)
Saturday, November 09, 2013 Sam Bush
Friday, November 08, 2013 Quiet American with Adam Hurt & Beth Hartness
Friday, November 15, 2013 The Honeycutters
Sunday, November 17, 2013 Charlie King & Karen Brandow
Wednesday, November 20, 2013 Jake Shimabukuro
Thursday, November 21, 2013 Kirk Ridge, Lizzy Ross, Rebecca Newton, Jack Herrick, Joe Newberry, Nancy Middleton
Saturday, November 23, 2013 John Gorka
Friday, December 06, 2013 Dar Williams
Wednesday, December 18, 2013 FiddleX Holiday Concert
Friday, January 03, 2014 Robin & Linda Williams
Tuesday, January 07, 2014 Genticorum
Friday, January 10, 2014 Nu Blu
Saturday, January 11, 2014 Hot Club of Cowtown
Sunday, January 12, 2014 Dana & Susan Robinson
Thursday, January 16, 2014 Sparky & Rhonda Rucker
Friday, January 17, 2014 Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen
Saturday, January 18, 2014 GangstaGrass
Thursday, January 23, 2014 Cahallen Morrison & Eli West w/Bevel Summers
Saturday, February 01, 2014 Grace Pettis
Saturday, February 08, 2014 Joe Pug
Sunday, February 09, 2014 David Jacobs-Strain
Friday, February 21, 2014 Ennis
Saturday, February 22, 2014 Lucy Kaplansky
Tuesday, February 25, 2014 Clive Carroll
Sunday, March 09, 2014 Guy Davis
Wednesday, March 12, 2014 Rory Block
Thursday, March 13, 2014 Paul McKenna Band
Wednesday, March 19, 2014 Pete & Maura Kennedy
Friday, March 21, 2014 Missy Raines & the New Hip
Saturday, March 22, 2014 John McCutcheon
Thursday, March 27, 2014 Archie Fischer & Garnet Rogers
Friday, March 28, 2014 Scott Ainslie
Saturday, March 29, 2014 Foghorn String Band w/Piney Woods Boys
Friday, April 04, 2014 Sultans of String
Thursday, April 10, 2014 Drew Nelson
Friday, April 11, 2014 Seldom Scene
Sunday, April 13, 2014 Brother Sun
Wednesday, April 16, 2014 Paddy Kennan
Thursday, May 01, 2014 Cathie Ryan
Friday, May 02, 2014 April Verch
Friday, May 09, 2014 Rolling Roots Review
Sunday, May 11, 2014 Tret Fure
Sunday, June 08, 2014 Jeanette & Johnnie Williams with Louisa Branscomb
Saturday, June 28, 2014 Songs from the Circle 3
Thursday, July 31, 2014 Local songwriters featuring Katherine Whalen
Friday, September 05, 2014 Jonathan Edwards
Friday, September 12, 2014 Steve Forbert
Thursday, September 18, 2014 Sarah McQuaid
Saturday, November 15, 2014 Tom Paxton