Jay Young grew up not far from Hanging Rock State Park, where he spent his free hours seeking adventure in the woods around the Sauratown Mountains.
An avid hiker and retiree, Young now devotes much of his time to those mountains, which are home to both Hanging Rock and Pilot Mountain state parks. As president of the Friends of Sauratown Mountains, he does everything from clearing trails and leading hikes to advocating for greater funding and raising awareness of the parks’ economic impact.
Young was also a leader in the negotiations that led to the state adding a property with a historic hotel, recreation center, cabins and campground to the park. Known at the Vade Mecum Springs site, the former 4H camp became part of Hanging Rock in 2014, and funding for renovations on the property was included in the state bond issue passed in March.
The friends, the park and others are still working to raise more funds for restoring and upgrading the 700-acre site, which will add significant acreage and activities to Hanging Rock, located around 30 miles north of Winston-Salem, and are working as volunteers to do some of the work.
“This site has tremendous potential for all kinds of outdoor recreation, lodging, education, dining, all sorts of things, and it’s just down the road,” says Dave Cook, a former superintendent of Hanging Rock who is now vice president of Friends of Sauratown Mountains.
Becoming a friend of the parks
Young’s family has deep roots in Stokes County, where he grew up on a tobacco farm a few miles east of Danbury. He and his siblings worked on the farm, and even after a long day of work, Young was always eager to spend his free time exploring the woods beyond the farm.
“I’d clean up all the tobacco off of me, put on a clean pair of pants and go exploring,” he says.
Young’s father moved the family to Rockingham County to take a job when Young was 11. For several years, Young returned to the farm every summer to stay with his grandparents. He still has the family land, though he doesn’t farm it.
“It’s just a place for me to come back to connect,” he says.
Despite the time he spent outdoors as a child, Young says he never went to Hanging Rock State Park. Farm kids, he says, didn’t have a lot of extra time or money for such things.
He had moved to Greensboro and made his own career as a surveyor, and later an engineer, with the N.C. Department of Transportation before he entered the gates of the park in the 1980s.
He was hooked after the first hike, and returned frequently over the years to explore the park’s many trails – formal and informal – leading to cliff walls, waterfalls and impressive views of the land where he grew up.
Young said in his early days of hiking the park, he had inquired about volunteering there, but there were few such opportunities available.
After he retired, a chance conversation during a walk with his Piedmont Outing and Hiking Club led to the creation of Friends of Sauratown Mountains to support the Hanging Rock and Pilot Mountain parks.
“All the stars aligned when I had that chance conversation,” he says, “and I was able to get involved with this organization. It was the right time and the right place in my life.”
Leading funding efforts
Young quickly emerged as the leader of the group, which fills several roles, mainly centered on contributing money and volunteers for park projects.
Among his favorite activities is clearing trails. He led volunteers in clearing a new trail on a part of the park that overlooks the Dan River – a much-needed, less challenging hike compared with the park’s many steep trails to high peaks.
The group held two work days a month trudging through dense vegetation, and now returns frequently to keep it clear.
“There’s an endless supply of trail work, and these guys are always out there,” says Robin Riddlebarker, superintendent at Hanging Rock, noting that her park alone has 22 miles of trails.
Young also holds members-only hikes about once a month to parts of the parks that are off the beaten path, and helps arrange fundraisers, such as a Reach the Peaks run that is expected to draw 750 runners this fall.
But the group’s role as advocates expanded in 2013, when the Camp Sertoma 4H Center was one of four 4H camps statewide to be closed.
The uncertain future of the site, which had first been developed as the Vade Mecum Springs resort in the 1890s, riled the community where it was a local landmark.
The property includes miles of trails, a horse barn, pool, and the old hotel that served as a residence hall. “Save Sertoma” signs went up around the area, and the friends became key advocates for its future.
“It was something that galvanized the community,” Young says of the camp’s closure.
At first, the friends group tried to persuade the county to take it over. Then they turned to the state parks, petitioning local and officials. Throughout the process, Young became a spokesperson for efforts to make sure the property remained a benefit to the public and the local economy.
“Tourism is the future economy of this county and a lot of counties across the state,” Young says. “People aren’t just coming to the park. They’re spending money at local businesses.”
The property became part of Hanging Rock in the 2014 budget, though funding for needed renovations has been scarce. The friends have held fundraisers including a photography contest and festival, and have held work days to clean the old hotel.
They also advocated for passage of the statewide bond in March that included $2.1 million for Hanging Rock, which will be used mainly to renovate the Vade Mecum property.
Young also is helping to coordinate an event in December at the site as part of the state’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of its parks system.
While he is deeply involved in park projects, his passion for hiking has recently found a new outlet in the Appalachian Trail. He’s been hiking sections of it whenever he gets a chance for a couple of years, he says.
But that hasn’t lessened his love for the mountains near his childhood home. “I never went very far away,” he says. “This always felt more like home than anywhere.”
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James Branscome Young III
Born: June 1951, Stokes County
Position: President of Friends of the Sauratown Mountains
Fun fact: Young’s great-grandfather at one point owned the Vade Mecum property. A local historian recently found that Young’s ancestor managed to buy it and quickly resell it to the developers who planned to build the resort for a tidy profit. “Somehow he knew the deal was about to happen,” says Young. It’s just the beginning of an unusual history. One of the original developers, for instance, died in a lion attack, and at one point visitors could purchase monkeys there.