Thousands of Atlanta’s former children, and grateful parents, remember Horace Holden Sr. because of the summer camp he created and owned, Camp Chattahoochee in Roswell.
“It was an amazing place, and Mr. Holden was an amazing man,” said Alpharetta resident Becky Elkins Berry, a regular at the camp from ages 5 to 12.
Berry attended the camp in the late 1960s, swimming in the lake, riding horses, camping out and singing campfire songs.
“It was adventurous,” she said.
Horace Pope Holden Sr., who also co-founded the Georgia Canoeing Association and the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina, died Sunday at his Decatur home. He was 85.
Born in 1933, Holden grew up in the Buckhead and Morningside neighborhoods of Atlanta, where his father, Frank Alexander Holden, was a federal magistrate. Holden developed his lifelong love of canoeing while attending the popular Fritz Orr Camp, where The Westminster Schools now stand.
He attended Georgia Military Academy, now Woodward Academy, in College Park, and graduated from Emory University with a degree in philosophy in 1955.
The naturally athletic, Holden was on the track and swimming teams at Emory, earning a trophy as best all-around athlete and a spot in the university’s Sports Hall of Fame. He married after graduating, taught briefly at The Westminster Schools and then enrolled in seminary at New College at the University of Edinburgh, where he doubled as interim pastor at a couple of churches and became enamored with Scotland. He later attended Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va.
He had trained for a career in the ministry but decided to respond to another strong call, from the great outdoors, his family said.
“He most liked to mix his love of community, the outdoors and service,” his son, Howard Holden, said. “In all of his businesses, his philosophy was to be of service.”
In 1961, Holden started the popular Camp Chattahoochee and the American Adventures Family Club, where the Chattahoochee Nature Center now stands. For about 30 years, the camp offered youngsters the chance to learn skills such as canoeing, swimming, horseback riding, archery and tennis.
“Tens of thousands of kids from north Georgia went there,” Howard Holden said.
He said his father “wanted to give children the opportunity to learn and grow in an outdoor setting.”
For former camper Berry, that included a trip to Chastain Park to see actor and singer Gordon McRae in a production of the Broadway musical “Oklahoma.”
In 1968, Holden and longtime friend Bill Crawford, now of Augusta, co-founded the Georgia Canoeing Association to encourage better paddling skills in response to a drowning in North Georgia’s Chestatee River. The association began with a handful of people and grew to several hundred members as it expanded to include decked boats such as kayaks.
In 1969, Holden and other association leaders organized the first whitewater slalom race in the Southeast, which became a July 4th weekend tradition on the Nantahala River in North Carolina. That evolved into the Southeastern U.S. Canoe and Kayak Championship, a major annual event attracting paddlers from across the country.
“We were pretty close over the years,” Crawford said. “We did lots of outdoor activities, and we had many adventures on the rivers.”
At Camp Chattahoochee, Holden created a 100-foot slope covered in artificial turf that campers skied down.
“He was pretty much an innovator,” Crawford said.
Holden’s family lived at the camp, and all four of his sons shared his passion for sports and the outdoors. Each son became a whitewater raft guide, and three were canoe and kayak instructors.
Son, Horace Jr., even competed in whitewater canoeing at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Howard Holden said.
In 1972, Holden helped establish the Nantahala Outdoor Center, a still-thriving enterprise built on the thrill of whitewater rafting. One of the biggest operations of its kind, it also is a big draw for backpackers and rock climbers.
Holden was “a great father” and a “gregarious and outgoing person,” son Howard said.
He ran a tennis tournament at the camp each April during Atlanta’s Dogwood Festival. Camp Chattahoochee closed in the early 1990s and the land sold. It is now the Chattahoochee Nature Center.
He also participated in the Friendship Force started by former President Jimmy Carter and maintained decades-long friendships from his college years in Scotland.
Holden is survived by his four sons, Charles L. N. Holden, Howard Preston Holden, Horace Pope Holden, Jr., all of metro Atlanta, and William Aiken Holden of Colorado; seven grandchildren, brother Frank A. Holden of Clayton, and sister Betty Holden Ford of Cornelia.
A memorial service is planned at the pavilion of the Chattahoochee Nature Center on Willeo Road in Roswell April 27 at 2 p.m.
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