From the first Scottish families to the establishment of a community that would bridge the campus to the river, we share a history of Campbell’s connection to the Cape Fear
Story by Billy Liggett
Photography by Catrina Moretz
Drone photography by Evan Budrovich
The Cape Fear provided the sawmill that built what is today the oldest and most iconic building on the campus of Campbell University in 1901. Over 160 years earlier, the river delivered the men and women whose names have since withstood the test of time.
Buie. McNeill. Campbell.
The year 1739 saw the first wave of Scottish immigrants who would call the central region of a 10-year-old colony named North Carolina home. These families crossed the Atlantic to escape persecution and unfair rent and tax hikes from their English king to find new land and a new life.
Among the group was a man named Archibald Buie, who set foot on North Carolina soil for the first time at the mouth of the Cape Fear in Wilmington.
According to legend, his only possessions were the clothes on his back and whatever else he and his family could carry with them. The Buies were part of the first organized group of Highlanders from Argyllshire to reach Wilmington before sailing up the Cape Fear and settling in what would one day become Cumberland and Harnett counties.
Other Scots would follow over the next few decades to escape strict English rule under King George II. They were drawn to promises of a 10-year exemption on all land taxes in North Carolina, and by the time the first U.S. Census was drawn up in 1790, over 27 percent of the state’s population was Scottish.
Buie and a small group boarded small pole boats and made their way up the Cape Fear, their journey lasting over a week. He found a place to settle where “the bottomland faced the Cape Fear near the mouth of a small stream,” where the creek that bears his name today meets the river. He would return to Wilmington the following year to officially sign for the title of 320 acres of what is now Buies Creek, North Carolina.
Another family that would settle in the area that same year was led by a man named James Campbell, the great-great-great grandfather of James Archibald Campbell, eventual founder of a small academy over a century later.
“The Cape Fear region where the progenitor of our present Campbells settled was a ‘goodly land,’” wrote Campbell historian J. Winston Pearce in his book, Big Miracle at Little Buies Creek. “It was, to quote a historian, ‘A land of rolling hills and fertile bottoms covered with forests of longleaf pine [and] mighty oaks. Through these forests ran scores of streams, emptying their waters into a great river, known as the Cape Fear.”
The region along the river that would eventually become Harnett County saw two wars — Gen. Cornwallis marched along the west side of the Cape Fear on his retreat from the Guilford Courthouse to Wilmington in 1781, and the Battle of Averasboro (near Erwin) became one of the final fights of the Civil War in 1865. By 1887 — the year J.A. Campbell founded Buies Creek Academy — just over 10,000 people lived in Harnett County.
In the 1955 book, They Passed This Way, the local population was described as follows: “There are gentlemen and scholars; elders and deacons among them; roughnecks, drunks and cardplayers, too. … Occasionally, they have shot one another for good cause — or no cause at all. They have never taken a beating lying down, and they get up most unexpectedly. They have left undone the things they should have done and done the dangdest things instead. There is good blood in the worst of them and bad blood in the best.”
When the school’s founder and patriarch J.A. Campbell died in 1934, his vision had grown from a class of 16 students meeting in a small wooden school house to a two-year junior college with an enrollment of around 700. He oversaw considerable growth in his nearly 40-plus years with the school, but even he likely couldn’t predict what the next 40 years would have in store.
By 1973, Campbell’s third president, Dr. Norman A. Wiggins, had set in motion plans to launch a law school in Buies Creek, an idea that spawned great excitement locally but drew criticism from the outer circles. How could a small then-college in a rural area — far from big city courthouses and other amenities a law student or professor would demand — support such an ambitious idea?
A new community along the Cape Fear River with large lots, surrounded by a professionally designed golf course was one way of attracting faculty, according to Joe Wynns, a 1975 Campbell graduate and member of the NAIA powerhouse men’s golf program. Wynns was teaching in Murfreesboro, N.C., when he received a phone call from Lonnie Small — Campbell’s vice president for business and treasurer at the time — asking him to work for the new Keith Hills Country Club.
Small, Wynns says, was the brainchild of the golf course and the man who picked renowned golf course architect Ellis Maples to design Keith Hills’ course. The course was up and running by 1976 — with Wynns running the pro shop and serving as head golf professional — and in December of that year, the University announced it had sold 100 out of 180 possible home lots and had begun installing water and sewer lines, the final steps of the “pre-construction” phase. That same month, the law school was wrapping up its first semester in Kivett Hall, and plans were in place for the transformation of a major portion of Kivett to house the new school.
Big things were happening at Campbell, and Keith Hills was a big part of it.
“Campbell and Keith Hills go hand in hand,” Wynns says. “Campbell needed Keith Hills, and Keith Hills doesn’t exist today without Campbell. There are residents today who were part of that original group of faculty who moved here [50 years ago]. It’s a unique community, and it’s a close-knit community. Not everybody here plays golf — but you can’t deny the importance of the course and the country club here.”
The two empty grain silos near the eighth green of Keith Hills’ White Course are remnants of an old Harnett County dairy farm that existed long before the country club. Maples kept the silos — now part of the visual branding of Keith Hills — to honor Buies Creek’s agricultural history.
Fifty years since its opening, Keith Hills Golf Course remains an important draw to both local golfers and out-of-towners, and more importantly, it’s a training ground for Campbell’s renowned championship golf programs and a 27-hole classroom for the University’s PGA Golf Management program.
“Our students play here, obviously, but for our PGM students, it’s part of the business school,” says Martha Sutton, a 1996 Campbell graduate and golf team alumna who’s been with Keith Hills for 27 years (joining shortly after graduation). “They can see our budgets, see the number of rounds played and work in merchandising in our pro shop. They’ve used it as a laboratory, so there’s an important learning element to what we do here.”
According to Sutton, Keith Hills averages about 42,000 rounds a year, and it’s consistently named to statewide and regional lists for best “bang for the buck,” as a round of 18 holes will only set one back $45 during the week (with a cart) and $69 on the weekend.
Braxton Wynns, the son of Joe Wynns, has known Keith Hills all his life. Braxton grew up there, the golf course was literally his back yard, and the nearby University his playground.
“As a kid, this place was magical,” he says. “I could go to the soccer fields, the baseball field or the basketball courts any time I wanted to. A lot of the professors here had kids my age, and so we had our own local soccer team. And then you had this community of students and professors who came from all over the world, so I was introduced to all of these different cultures. I always loved that aspect of living here.”
His father a college golfer and a golf pro, golf was inevitable for Braxton. And he made the most of his four-year career at Campbell — he was the only Camel to be a four-time ASUN All-Conference selection and the only to earn three first-team selections. He finished in the top 10 at the ASUN Championship in 2002 and 2004 (finishing second in his senior year), and he compiled 19 career Top 10 finishes (second in school history). In 2020, he was one of four Camels named to the ASUN All-Decade Team. He played on the PGA Tour from 2004 to 2008 before trading in his clubs and founding his own audio-visual company.
He and his wife, Jessica, whom he met while both were students at Campbell, returned to Keith Hills to raise their two daughters. Braxton says the makeup of Keith Hills is ever-changing — professors come and go, and families grow up and move on. But they’re seeing more younger families with children the same age as theirs, and now the 50-year-old community is home to multiple generations.
And their home in Keith Hills has become a second home for a number of Campbell students — every Tuesday night, anywhere between 20 and 50 “college kids” come by for a weekly Bible study and worship group. There’s teaching, testimonies and guest speakers, but most important, it’s a welcoming environment for a group of young people who, for many, are far away from home.
“We wanted to create a space for students to feel welcome, to follow the Lord and to grow,” says Jessica. “We’re supporting these kids, and we feel like we’re supporting the University, too.”
Keith Hills Ghost Stories
Looking for his assassin: Nathaniel Smiley was among the large group of Scots who arrived in America in 1739 (along with Archibald Buie). He settled in Erwin and became a prominent businessman with his brother. In 1773, his son Matthew was shot “by an unknown assassin through the open shutter of his cabin, killing him dead at his table.” Matthew had no known enemies, and an investigation revealed no suspects or motive. After his burial, citizens reported seeing a glowing figure along the river —”a man who approaches people inquisitively, then vanishes after having inspected them.” Was it Matthew Smiley, looking for his killer? (They Passed This Way, 1955)
Mermaids on the Cape: Where the Deep River and Haw River meet to form the Cape Fear, there’s an area known today as Mermaid Point. Before the Buckhorn Dam raised water levels, the confluence of those rivers gave way to a sandbar that — legend has it — was a popular spot for mermaids who’d “swim 200 miles from the coast to relax on the sand and rocks and wash the salt from their hair.” In the mid 1700s, when patrons of a nearby tavern would leave for home at end of the night, they would often pass the sandbar. The mermaids, they said, would sit on the sandbar and comb their long hair in the moonlight. People walking home from the tavern would see them laughing, singing, playing and splashing in the water. They would dive below the surface if anyone should call out to them or try to approach. The fact that these sightings often followed a trip to the tavern is irrelevent.
The red-bearded specter: Neill “Red” McNeill was a huge man, a 6-foot-6 former Scottish sailor who roamed the river and claimed unpatented land with his friend, Archie Buie. According to legend, Red was traveling west beyond the Yadkin Valley when he was overcome with fever in 1761. “Knowing death was inevitable, he cut a gum log, split it length-wise and began hewing out his own coffin … between spasms of chills and blood-filled coughs.” Before he died, he gave instructions to be buried across the Cape Fear near Erwin. At the time of burial, the river was too high to cross, so friends buried him on the other side instead. Soon after, travelers in the area “claimed to see a red-bearded ghost pointing, his hand extended west pointing toward Smiley’s Hill.” A “great flood” hit in 1765, and McNeill’s coffin was found washed ashore. It was moved and buried on the other side of the river, and the satisfied spirit was never seen again. (They Passed This Way, 1955)
Keith Hills Golf Course | A Hidden Gem
When you think golf in central North Carolina, Pinehurst usually comes to mind first. But the Piedmont and Sandhills region is home to a number of championship golf courses, and Keith Hills Golf Course in Buies Creek is considered among the best. Nearly 50 years ago, renowned golf course architect Ellis Maples, a native of Pinehurst, designed the first 18 holes of Keith Hills near the end of his illustrious golf course architecture career. In 2001, Dan Maples created what is today known as the White Course, a nine-hole tract that complements the original 18-hole design of his father. Martha Sutton, a Campbell grad and current director of golf operations at Keith Hills, says the course is considered one of the top values in the state. “People travel from all over the state, and the majority of them to come play because of the great price that we offer,” Sutton said. “And, of course, because of the great course that they get to play.”