Last weekend I journeyed with Corinne Foster on a pilgrimage to Tazewell, Virginia to find the gravesite of one of Merrie-Woode’s founders, Mary Turk. Corinne is a long time camper and counselor, and she is my invaluable archiving assistant in the CMW Archives. She loves camp history as much as I do, and we have mentioned for months that we should make a trip to Virginia to find where Mary Turk was buried. With the Centennial Book finished and Mary Turk’s story finally documented, it seemed time to make the journey.
We left early on a Saturday morning and headed north with our iPods stocked with musical soundtracks, ready for us to sing along to. During the majority of the drive to Tazewell we recounted parts of Mary Turk’s story, reminding ourselves how she ended up in this tiny Virginia town as her final resting place. Mary Turk was not from Tazewell. She grew up in Staunton, a town much further north in Virginia. An only child, her father died when she was only three-years-old. Raised by a single mother who made sure that she had the opportunity to graduate from college, Mary grew up to be a strong, independent, and progressive woman of her era. Shortly after graduating from Mary Baldwin Seminary in her hometown, she moved to Tazewell to teach high school for several years. She soon realized she had bigger dreams and headed to Wellesley College in Massachusetts where she earned a graduate degree in physical education in 1917. She returned to the South, accepting a position as professor of physical education at Converse College in South Carolina. She was athletic and gregarious. She loved sports and music, spoke German, and was a member of a recreational camping club.
One of Mary’s friends and a fellow camping club member during her time in Tazewell was Marjorie Harrison. Mary began a new adventure when Marjorie purchased some property on the shores of Lake Fairfield with the intent of opening a summer camp for girls. Mary was on board as her right hand woman and head counselor. And thus began the history of girls spending their summers under the gaze of Old Bald. Within a few years Marjorie was ready to explore other opportunities, but Mary was not ready to leave the summer camp world. She convinced her good friend and colleague, Mabel “Dammie” Day to come and visit the camp in the hopes that perhaps Dammie would fall in love with the place as much as she had and they could purchase the camp together. And the rest, of course, is history.
Mary stayed at Merrie-Woode until 1929. After that she moved on to pursue other opportunities in Washington DC, and in 1936, at the age of 51, she married Carter Johnston, a native of Tazewell, VA. He was a federal judge stationed in the Philippine Islands. But within two years of marriage, Carter had grown ill and the newlyweds returned home to Virginia. Carter died before their second wedding anniversary. Mary never remarried. She worked all her life, traveled to faraway places, was a cancer survivor, and resilient to the end. She died in 1967 just two days after her 82nd birthday and was buried next to her husband, returning her to Tazewell, Virginia.
Corinne and I drove into the little town of Tazewell just in time for lunch. We parked the car on the historic Main Street and ate at the one and only restaurant on the street. I told you, this is a tiny town. We walked up and down Main Street for a bit. We found the building which once housed the town’s newspaper, a particular thrill for us as we have read through many of their archived newspapers in our research of Mary Turk and Marjorie Harrison. We found the building which we believe was probably the original high school in town where Mary taught all those years ago. It was exciting to walk that street, following the footsteps Mary would have traveled over a hundred years ago.
After exploring downtown, we drove over to Maplewood Cemetery in search of Mary’s gravesite. We found a small office on property, a one room brick building with no heat on a chilly November afternoon. There were three elderly men there that day who appeared as though they had recently finished digging a new grave. I asked one of the gentlemen if he could tell us where a person was located within the cemetery. He called over the oldest of the three men who slowly came over to help us. As we gave him Mary’s name and year of death, he walked over to a pair of filing cabinets that had to have been there since at least the Second World War. He pulled out a binder and starting looking for Mary Turk in its pages. We looked and looked and couldn’t find her. We tried the last name Turk, we tried the last name Johnston, and we tried variant spellings of both names, but we found nothing. We looked for her husband, Carter Johnston to be listed. Nothing. I started to get concerned. Had we come all this way only to find she wasn’t actually here? The man told us to follow him and he’d take us up the hill where many other Johnstons were buried. We followed him up to the top of the hill overlooking the rest of the cemetery, just below the main sign saying “Maplewood Cemetery.” And there, amongst the Johnstons, right next to Carter’s headstone, was Mary H. Turk. We thanked the man and he headed back down the hill to continue setting up for a service later that day.
Corinne and I knelt down to brush the flat headstone clear. We realized moss had grown over most of the headstone’s words. We found some sticks and spent a while scraping the moss free so you could read her name and the information engraved there:
Mary H. Turk
Carter Dupuy Johnston
Feb. 6, 1885
Feb. 8, 1967
We laid the last of the hydrangeas from camp this season on her grave. It seemed comforting to see something which had been growing at Merrie-Woode placed there. We sat by her grave for a while, and I read her chapter from the Centennial Book aloud. We talked about her spirit at camp, her strong and independent nature, and wondered whether she ever could have dreamed her legacy would reach this far. So many lives made better because of one life lived. That’s a pretty remarkable legacy. We also had some time to just stand in silence. I don’t know exactly what Corinne was thinking in those quiet moments, but I’m sure they were similar to my own thoughts. Mostly, over and over again, I just said thank you. All I really wanted to say to Mary Turk was thank you. Thank you for dreaming up a camp for girls. When Marjorie was ready to move on, thank you for finding us Dammie. Thank you for setting an example which has trickled down over decades and decades of camp philosophy: to be strong, independent women, to stand up straight and tall, to trust in our own autonomy. I felt like I was saying thank you not just for myself but for every single one us; every single Merrie-Woode girl who has been made stronger because of camp. There were tears shed over Mary Turk’s grave that day. They were not tears of sadness but of gratitude. Mary Turk had no siblings and no children. Her family line ended with her, but her Merrie-Woode girls are thousands strong. I hope she could hear it, the gratefulness of countless women.
It’s a lovely spot, her gravesite. It sits at the top of a hill in a little valley. It’s quiet and peaceful and has a beautiful view of the mountains. I liked that. I think you would have, too.
I know our pilgrimage to Mary Turk’s grave will be a day Corinne and I both remember. I’d like to set out one day to visit Hugh’s grave, and Fritz’s and Augusta’s…so many Merrie-Woode heroes I’d like to pay my respects to and give my thanks.
The drive home was not somber, but it was reflective. Once we could attempt to articulate what the day had meant to us, Corinne and I let the Hamilton soundtrack play us home. I learned on that leg of the drive that Corinne Foster knows ALL of the words to Hamilton. And I do mean all. As we continued to drive through the Virginia and North Carolina Blue Ridge, we were treated to the most spectacular mountain sunset I have ever seen. It seemed to just go on forever. Even when it seemed as though the light was slipping away entirely, the sky would fade into some brilliant new color. We even saw a rainbow in the middle of all of that striking orange and crimson sky, though there wasn’t a raincloud in sight. Nature gave us a pretty phenomenal evening show. In the back of my mind I thought, perhaps that rainbow is Mary Turk smiling down at us tonight. Who knows? You never know what you might find on a day when you set out to find your heroes.