Canton — When Bill Horne wants to get away from it all, he simply heads outside, where there’s nary a noise except for the breeze of the trees and an occasional hoot owl.
“It’s a nice place to come to, to get some cobwebs out,” said Horne. “Fortunately, that’s my work environment every day.”
As executive director of The Duncan M. Gray Episcopal Camp and Conference Center in Canton, Horne arranges for business people to share the same experience.
“Here in the country it’s very quiet,” he said. “No ambulances, no sirens. People are really being drawn to that kind of environment today.”
The Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi owns and operates the 750-acre retreat, which includes Camp Bratton-Green, the Duncan M. Gray Conference Center and The Earth Lab at Gray Center. Private companies, civic organizations, government agencies and church groups from across the state have found the Gray Center an ideal venue for meetings, retreats, training programs, strategic planning sessions and other activities requiring a serene setting.
“We’ve seen a move toward more intimate, focused meetings,” said Horne. “What’s driving most corporate people to that setup is a need to get to a greater depth of exploring issues. One client was here five times this year, bringing in people from all over the country. Instead of hosting a three- or four-day conference with 50 people and highlighting various issues, like safety or union concerns, they held concentrated work sessions with fewer numbers of people.”
Leadership training sessions are becoming more popular, with the Gray Center’s ropes course being used as an integral part of teamwork-themed meetings.
“Last spring, an entire Jackson law firm came in with 62 people for a session,” said Horne. “I’ve never seen so many BMWs and Mercedes in one place in my life.”
Between clustered cottages, a 24-room inn and “The Big House,” built circa 1905, up to 130 people can be accommodated overnight. The camp facility, established in 1946, can shelter another 150 people.
“One of our largest day groups will be here July 4, an enormous family reunion of nearly 700 people,” said Horne. “I haven’t yet figured out where I’m going to put that many cars.”
Most conferences allow downtime for exploring walking trails that meander through the woods, seeking solitude in the chapel or respite on shaded benches tucked in nooks and crannies, playing tennis, volleyball or ping-pong or swimming, or paddling across one of two lakes in canoes or flat bottom boats.
“We have some wonderful fishing, with monster-sized bass,” said Horne. “Two weeks ago, a couple of ladies attending a conference brought their husbands. They had no more than gotten the luggage out of the car before these two guys were on the banks of the pond casting fishing lines. It’s all catch-and-release but is very popular.”
The Gray Center also shuttles guests to the Caroline Golf Club, not far down the road, for those who want to play a round of golf.
Horne is so pleased with what he calls “the Gray Center’s greatest amenity” that he doesn’t want to talk about it very much.
“I don’t want anyone to steal away our executive chef, Brian Huckaby,” said Horne. “Nobody ever leaves here to find food, that’s for sure. People come back over and over, mainly because of his cooking. Lots of people have suggested that we open our restaurant to the public, but we haven’t seen fit to do that.”
A graduate of The Culinary Arts Institute at the Mississippi University for Women, Huckaby studied under French Chef Roland Parney and apprenticed at Monmouth Plantation in Natchez. Fond of Louisiana-style cooking, Huckaby “cleverly puts a real twist on old staples,” such as jambalaya and red beans and rice, and is well known in Memphis in May competition circles for his special barbecue, said Horne.
“I like to tell people he can do barbecue for 100 or Chateau Briand for two and anything in between,” he said. “Albert Gooch from Kanuga (a retreat in western North Carolina) came here recently to put on a fundraising program for us. He’s a guru for talking people out of their money. Albert followed up with a letter asking me how we have such wonderful food. I took that letter to Brian and told him that was the ultimate compliment. Here’s a man that heads up the place that everybody thinks of for large conferences and international speakers. He has all the money in the world to get anything he wants and he comes to our little place and asks: how do you do that? Thank goodness Brian loves this lifestyle. I don’t want anybody to talk him into leaving.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.