THE HISTORY OF CELO COMMUNITY
by Ernest Morgan
Celo Community has been an active part of Yancey County for the past 58 years. Probably the oldest and most successful land trust in America, Celo Community was founded by Arthur E. Morgan in 1937.
Arthur Morgan was the world's leading flood control engineer, former President of Antioch College, first chairman of the TVA, and author of twenty books on a variety of subjects.
One of his major concerns was community--he held that it was in the face-to-face relationships of the small community that the best qualities of human society emerged, including the basis for healthy civilization.
In 1937, he was approached by Henry Regnery, a wealthy textile manufacturer in Chicago, who asked him for advice on something socially useful he might do with some of his money. Never lacking in ideas, Arthur suggested that a tract of land be purchased as a site for an "intentional community"--a community in which people come together with the intention of cultivating community values. The location should be in an area with a good climate, congenial people, at least sone fertile soil, and should not be too far removed from urban centers.
After an extended search, he purchased a tract of 1200 acres in the South Toe Valley. Nine hundred acres of this, on the east side of the South Toe River, was from the Erwin tract and purchased at $20 an acre. The remainder was on the west side of the River and purchased from the Autrey family. Celo Community was launched as a not-for-profit corporation with a board of directors composed of Arthur Morgan, Henry Regnery, and Clarence Pickett, Executive Secretary of the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers).
For the first few years there was rapid turnover of residents in the community, but after a few years it developed good self government and converted itself into a land trust. A land trust is a form of land tenure designed to avoid the abuses often associated with private land ownership, such as damage to the environment, excessive rental charges, and speculation. In the case of Celo Community the corporation holds title to the land, and members purchase "holdins" which carry most of the privileges of outright ownership but avoid land abuse and profiteering.
A distinctive feature of Celo Community is a phenomenon characterized by Arthur Morgan as "human uranium". He said that a cubic yard of granite contains enough uranium to blow up a mountain, but the particles are inert because they are separated. If they are brought together in what is known as a "critical mass" they can have great power. Thus with people, if persons with common ideals and social concerns come together, energy is created for cooperative projects of all kinds. There have been many such undertakings initiated by members of Celo Community and joined by others in the valley.
An early project was the Celo Health Center, which opened in 1948 with Dr. Elpenor Ohle, a recent graduate of Harvard Medical School. Dr. Ohle retired after thirty years, to be succeeded by Dr. Steven Hill, Dr. Judy McGahey, and most recently, Dr. Woody McKay and Dr. Dorothy Bobbe. The Health Center serves many people throughout Yancey County and stresses the concept that doctors should not only treat their patients, but also educate them to take greater responsibility for their own health.
Probably because of the nearness of Penland School of Crafts, some of whose students and teachers settled in Celo, a number of craftsmen have joined the community. As a result, the largest single economic activity in Celo Community is the work of craftsmen such as potters, glass blowers, etc. To help merchandise their products they got together and opened a cooperative shop on Route 80 where their items are displayed. A majority of the craftsmen taking part in this activity are from outside the community.
Likewise there are several Quaker families in the community and these families formed a Friends Meeting, most of whose attenders are from other parts of Yancey County.
A group of Celo Community people launched a cooperative food store which has been highly successful. Eighty percent of the members of the food cooperative are from outside the community.
"Cabin Fever University," launched by Celo Community members, operates through the winter months and is a schedule of events through which people share their knowledge and skills and carry on a special group activities without any money changing hands--except $1 for the catalog. Much of its activity and leadership comes from outside Celo Community.
The support of the community has helped members to start a number of enterprises. Camp Celo, a Farm-Home Camp for boys and girls ages 7-10 began in 1948 under the leadership of Community members Doug and Ruby Moody. Bob and Dot Barrus succeeded them as owners of the camp, which is now run by their son and daughter-in-law Gib and Annie Barrus, and their daughter Barbara Perrin. Called a "Farm-Home" camp, its campers care for a variety of small animals as well as engage in a full camp program of activities. Camp leadership stresses cooperation rather than competition among the campers.
Another successful project, launched in 1962, was the Arthur Morgan School, initiated by Arthur Morgan's daugter-in-law, Elizabeth Morgan. It serves about 24 junior high school students, both boarding and day, and stresses the concepts of cooperation, mutual responsibility, and sharing of work and responsibility.
Camp Celo and the Arthur Morgan School have been racially integrated since their opening, which may have contributed to the fact that Yancey County public schools were among the first in the South to be integrated, and without violence or serious conflict.
The Celo Inn, a charming bed-and-breakfast inn on the South Toe River, also provides an intimate setting for occasional musical and theatrical performances. It was begun by community members Charles and Suzannah Jones and is now carried on by Nancy and Randy Raskin.
Under the wing of Celo Community and the Celo Friends Meeting, the Rural Southern Voice for Peace (RSVP) was initiated in 1981 by Herb and Marnie Walters. RSVP provides training and a networking journal Voices for grassroots efforts for justice, peace, and environmental protection in rural areas of the southeast. RSVP is well-known for initiating the "Listening Project" which has helped build bridges between diverse groups in many communities.
Celo Community people also take an active part in organizations originating elsewhere, such as Music in the Mountains, the Toe River Arts Council, Hospice, Western North Carolina Alliance, Adopt-a-Highway, and Meals on Wheels.
At the present time, Celo Community includes some 34 family units, and accepts two new trial member families each year. It has become widely known and receives much correspondence. At the present time it has a waiting list of some 20 families hoping to become members.
The community considers itself fortunate in being located in Yancey County, and undertakes to carry its full share of civic responsibilities.