SALUDA —A hidden gem in an out-of-the-way holler to outsiders, Twin Lakes is a well-known touchstone of memory for the people of Saluda and Mountain Page.
They know Twin Lakes from a first Boy Scout outing, when they caught a fish or got dunked in the cool mountain pond. They know it for family reunions, church baptisms, weddings. For more than 50 years the Wilkes family has owned the two small lakes and surrounding property, sharing it in an unofficial capacity with anyone who was enough in the know to ask. Now, after the donation of the property to the Saluda Community Land Trust, the rural retreat will be preserved for generations to come.
"We're thrilled," Betsy Burdett, president of the land trust, said under gray clouds in the August evening. "Our whole reason for being is to build community relations through responsible land use and Twin Lakes is a huge asset for the community. It's always been this. Our Sunday school came here. The Boy Scouts came here. Family members got married here."
An informal meeting on Sunday evening attracted members of the Wilkes family, including Bill Wilkes, who is 73 and the last caretaker among his extended family, land conservancy members and neighbors. Some of the neighbors were anxious about the consequences of the conservation easement.
"It's got some good points," said Joseph Forrest, who owns adjoining land up on Mountain Page Road. "Nobody can build on top of us. It can't be sold. But the bad point is, how restrictive is it going to be?"
Neighbors wanted to know how the property lines would be marked, who would be in charge of access and who would respond to bad behavior.
Burdett assured them that Twin Lakes "will be used exactly as much as possible as it has been since 1956."
"Is that in writing?" someone asked.
Yes, Burdett said. "The Wilkeses have the Land Trust by the ears on that," she said.
Bill Wilkes, who lives in Hendersonville, said it is the family's intent to allow folks in Saluda and beyond to use Twin Lakes as they always have. Use of the two lakes — the upper lake has always been used for swimming, the lower one for fishing — will be by reservation. There is also a picnic shelter and a small cabin. Fires and overnight use are prohibited. There's no charge but donations are encouraged. In 56 years of allowing churches, Scout troops and wedding parties to use Twin Lakes, "they've only got stiffed twice," Burdett said.
Burdett has no cell phone and, on Sunday anyway, had no shoes. She's an outdoorsy type who goes barefoot all summer long and can walk on little stones, twigs and other sharp edges of nature without noticing. She had her hair pulled back. Confident in the cause without being too pushy, she explained how the new ownership would work. She had braced for hostile fire, though everyone was courteous.
Who we gonna call, someone asked her, if something goes on we don't like?
"You would call the Land Trust office and I would probably be the sucker you would deal with," she said.
James T. and Helen Wilkes bought the land in the mid 1950s. Bill recalled that his father had work done on the dams at the time. For 35 years H.P. "Junior" Pace served as caretaker of the lakes and grounds. With "loving care" Pace nurtured and protected the beauty that nature provided, says a wooden plaque next to the picnic shelter, erected by the Wilkes family in 1994.
Katie Wilkes, a rising junior at Davidson College, said she was representing the Chicago branch of the family. A pretty redhead who does have a cell phone, Katie recalled her growing up years, retreating to Saluda for a month every summer.
"We'd use the lakes almost every day," she said. "If it means they'll fix it up, it's definitely OK with me."
What needs fixing first is the lower dam. The Saluda land trust vows to get the work done. Burdett said she hopes the work will be done by next spring. After that, offered the men sitting around a log, it would be a good idea to stock the pond with bass and bluegill. Burdett said she'd see to it.
Carey Pace, a whittler, a professional whittler actually, is another adjoining landowner whose family roots go back generations. He brought along Dog, a gentle watchful companion who Pace said is a service dog. Dog — that's his name — knows when Pace's blood-sugar gets too low. He alerts him. One time, Pace was having a bad a diabetic attack, so bad his wife called 911. Dog got up and laid right beside of Pace in the bed. Dog wanted to hop on the gurney too but had to stay behind.
"This was my grandfather's land," Pace said. "About half the people sitting over there are the Pace clan. I used to work here a lot laying rock." There is a nice rock fountain on the edge of the upper lake, rock steps leading down the bank and a rock bridge over a stream, among other rock features. "The Wilkeses have been great, the Wilkeses and the Hayeses. They used to blow the horn at the top of the mountain for us to meet 'em here, and we still beat 'em (on foot). It's 499 steps to the house. That was back in the younger days. Now I don't know."
Dog, 11, rested his head on Pace's thigh as he went on. He pointed to Leon Morgan, who had walked up. "That ugly mug," Pace said, "came walking down the street in Saigon when I was stationed there."
Turns out that the two men from the same holler in tiny Saluda stumbled into one another in the Vietnam War in 1968, Morgan in the Army, Pace in the Navy, though Pace had never been on a boat.
Pace could tell you how to spell his friend's name, too. "That's Noel backwards," he said. "I won't never forget he told me that one time when we were on the school bus."
Morgan pronounced a cautious verdict on the new ownership of Twin Lakes, a retreat that generations have cherished and that the neighbors all hope will stay as it always has been.
"I don't think it's gonna affect us as long as they know where the lines are," he said.
Dog stretched out on the bench next to Pace. Dog didn't look up.
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