James Wilson preserved Quaker stories for the ages

CorrespondentOctober 27, 2013 

  • James Wilson

    Born: July 12, 1943, in Morganton

    Family: Marries Snow Camp native Louise Wilson in 1962, and the couple moves to Snow Camp in 1965. They have two sons, Bryan and Jon, and eight grandchildren.

    Theater: During 1969 begins working on the Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre, receives nonprofit status in 1970, and in 1971 founds the Snow Camp Historical Drama Society. The theater opens its doors in 1974 with the first production of “The Sword of Peace, adds “Pathway to Freedom” in 1994.

    Career: After high school works for a funeral home in Morganton before moving to Snow Camp to help with his father-in-law’s dairy farm. For a few years he works for Byrd Tractor in Burlington, but the third season of the theater he leaves that job to work full-time as general manager. In 1969 he opens Ye Olde Country Kitchen, a restaurant in Snow Camp, just prior to co-founding the theater, which he helps maintain long after his son, Bryan, takes over.

    Died: Sept. 5

In the 1750s, Quaker families traveled as far as 30 miles each way to worship at the Cane Creek Meeting House in Snow Camp. Until a meeting was established in their own settlements, some made this journey twice a week.

More than 200 years later, others began making a similar pilgrimage, but this time families traveled from all over the country, their destination a different structure alongside the banks of Cane Creek: the Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre.

James Wilson co-founded the theater in 1970, and since then more than half a million patrons have visited Snow Camp for the summer theater season, turning an otherwise quiet, rural community in Alamance County into a tourist destination. Wilson died last month at the age of 70 after suffering a heart attack while driving a tractor. He survived the accident but died shortly after from brain injuries.

For 40 years the theater has been home to historic plays about the history of the Quaker people who settled that area, as well as to children’s productions and musicals. It’s all happening on the same ground where General Cornwallis camped during the Revolutionary War, slaves fled their captors, and generations of the Wilson family celebrated life’s joys and sorrows.

The Snow Camp community is struggling to come to terms with the loss of a man who not only inspired a love of both theater and history, but who also treated everyone like family, friends say.

“The theater was sort of like his third child,” said Bryan Wilson, one of his two sons.

Spreading Quakers’ story

It was a family affair from the start. Wilson co-founded the theater with his late brother after a road trip to Valdese, where he saw the historical drama “From This Day Forward” performed outdoors. He had a love of theater since his youth, but his family viewed drama as impractical work, and he had done no formal acting since his school days.

Wilson felt strongly that the history of the Quakers in Snow Camp would be compelling on stage. Though he was not raised Quaker, his wife, Louise, was deeply devout and when the couple moved to her hometown of Snow Camp, Wilson became a “convinced friend” as well.

The theater brought the arts to a part of the state that otherwise would not have had access to such dramas, said Chelsey Wilson, one of James Wilson’s eight grandchildren and interim general manager of the theater.

The first stage production took place in 1974. Called “The Sword of Peace,” by William Hardy, the play depicted the Quaker role in the Revolutionary War. In 1994 the repertoire grew to include Mark Summer’s “Pathway to Freedom,” which looked at the role the church played in the Underground Railroad.

“He really helped the community understand the history,” Chelsey Wilson said.

Audience members smell gunpowder, hear the croaking of frogs and marvel at the live horses brought on stage during performances.

The children’s plays and musicals supplement the mainstay historic dramas. All performances call upon the talents of both professional actors and local volunteers. Wilson made a point of telling the professionals they would be learning a lot from the amateurs who had done the show for decades.

At news of his death, actors who had gone on to perform around the world made trips back to Snow Camp in his honor. He gave countless young actors and stage techs their first jobs, and was known for his patience and encouragement.

Keeping history alive

Wilson brought Chelsey Wilson on stage for the first time when she just 9 months old. At 23, she is beginning a career in nonprofit management and thanks her grandfather for her passion. Wilson’s family acknowledges that it will be a challenge to find anyone willing to do all that he did – from carpentry to stage management, fundraising to making popcorn.

In the 2000s Wilson spent two years dealing with an infection following knee-replacement surgery, and puttered around the campus on a motorized chair, refusing to slow down.

Wilson felt a deep respect for history, and it showed in the more than 30 historic buildings he salvaged and preserved from all over the state, creating a Quaker Village on the 16 acres set near Cane Creek.

“I think he felt a connection to those people who were here at that time. He felt the need to keep them alive, their spirit alive,” Bryan Wilson said.

“The plan is for the theater to open for the 41st season. Our dream is to keep that alive.”

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