Not many wives would tolerate a husband who camps out year-round, and nobody but Jane Johnson would go camping with him! For 34 of Sam and Jane Johnson’s 50 married years, they’ve camped in a thicket 35 miles west of Nashville, Tennessee. That’s how long 71-year-old, red-haired Sam has been director of Hillmont Camp.
Hillmont is Red Sam’s dream job, 157 acres of trees and meadows bristling with 30 buildings 20 miles off I-40 north of White Bluff. He and Lady Jane started with the land, a hunger for leadership training, a few old buildings...and the dream.
They Did It All
“When we started in 1971, we cooked and cleaned and painted, mowed and cut brush, nailed lumber, and prayed a lot. We did it all,” Sam says. “Come to think of it, I suppose we still do a lot of that now.”
His fiery red hair may have lost some of its brilliance, but Sam remembers why he launched the Hillmont dream. “I originally hoped to develop a camp providing ministry opportunities for Free Will Baptist youth in the Cumberland Association. We wanted the camp to become a laboratory for leadership training.”
Sam chuckles, “We do a lot of repeat business here. They come back for Jane’s homemade yeast rolls. We pay close attention to good food and clean buildings.”
Turning the Corner
Even though Sam has a quiet way of getting things done, folks began taking notice of the easy-going Free Will Baptist layman from North Carolina. He was named Layman of the Year in 1967.
Christian Camping International (CCI) tapped Sam for its President’s Award in 1969. He served four years (1974-1978) as editor of CCI’s Christian Camping International Magazine and six years on the International Board of Trustees. In 1997 CCI jointly honored Sam and Jane with the organization’s prestigious “Kingsley Living Tribute Award.”
During one of Sam’s most creative decades (1962-1972), he led the Church Training Service Department and organized the Hillmont Engineers (1967), a leadership training program for Free Will Baptist boys. Hillmont hosted the early Free Will Baptist Leadership Conferences for national and state leaders. Red Sam’s dream was blooming in the denomination he loved.
Flexibility and Stewardship
Hillmont attracts 150 events annually with no advertising other than word of mouth. Whether it’s a small executive session with a half-dozen guests or a boisterous group of 350, the camp welcomes all comers and operates 12 months a year.
“We can handle five groups at the same time and still give them the privacy they require,” Sam says.
From unique Frontier Village to the Long House near Pineview Lodge, Hillmont resembles a swirling chess match in mid-game. It’s a user-friendly facility that doesn’t require a coat and tie. Rustic board fences, industrial-grade kitchens, gymnasium, swimming pool, and more spread the word that the Hillmont stamp means excellence.
Sam explains, “Most of our business comes from churches. We’ve never had a group use the camp and not pay when they finished. I told the Lord years ago that this was His business, and I was just going to work and watch. Look at what God has done here. Give Him all the credit.”
Hillmont has been debt-free 10 years. With a handful of year-round employees, Sam and Jane stand back in amazement at God’s provision. Sam estimates that the $1.5 million investment in buildings, land, and equipment would cost twice that today.
Charitable Remainder Trust
The Johnsons got in on the ground floor with the Free Will Baptist retirement plan. They invested all they could because, as Sam says, “We didn’t know of a safer or better place to put our retirement funds.”
About a year ago, Sam and Jane converted their retirement plan to a charitable remainder trust with the Free Will Baptist Foundation. “We did this for two basic reasons,” Sam says. “First, the Foundation offers the flexibility we need. Second, the Foundation provides us an opportunity to continue supporting the Free Will Baptist agencies we’ve prayed for through the years.”
Sam explains, “The trust we set up through the Foundation will, at our deaths, channel funds to Free Will Baptist Bible College, Home Missions, Foreign Missions, Master’s Men, the Tennessee Children’s Home, Cumberland Camp and others. And in case anyone asks, Hillmont is not included in our list of trust recipients.”
The charitable remainder trust provides the Johnsons a tax-deduction now as well as a revenue source, and will continue to benefit Free Will Baptist work after they die.
What Would I Do?
Asked about his retirement plans, Sam’s eyes twinkle, “Me, retire? What would I do with my time if I retired? I plan to continue serving here as long as God gives me health to do it.”
Perhaps all that camping out kept him young, or maybe Sam’s just too busy to age. He’s dreaming about the next building project, planning for tomorrow’s group, praying for a new generation of leaders.
Red Sam’s legacy to the future of God’s work rises majestically out of the meadows and trees in a holy place called Hillmont. Leaving the camp with his smile flashing in the rearview mirror, I wanted to shout, “Play it again, Sam!”