I had heard such places existed but had never seen one. Now I was just two miles from seeing one. Just off I-26 near Ridgeville, South Carolina, I began to see signs. I followed them, took a side road, and the place came into view. Time for a deep breath. Old photographs of Nazi concentration camps came to mind. It was an illusion, of course, created by the way the old cabins sit shoulder to shoulder. Dark clapboards, rusty tin roofs, and stark chimneys strengthened the impression.
How ironic that this soul-saving place reminded me of a concentration camp. But it’s just an illusion, for the Cypress Methodist Camp Ground is where old time religion is alive and well. Georgia’s got some campgrounds too. One is near Cumming, the Holbrook Campground. People have been meeting at Holbrook for 175 years. Folks say Holbrook is where you can get “some of that old time religion and it is the next thing to Heaven on this earth. Once you drink from the waters of the Campground, it will never leave your soul, till you cross the river Jordan into Beulah Land in that sweet by and by.” They say too that at Holbrook children can run, jump, and play and adults can sit around and talk about the past, present, and future and wonder where the next freezer of homemade ice cream is going to be.”
The Marietta Camp Ground has had an annual camp meeting since 1837. In the old days, for months before camp “tenters were busy preparing for camp meeting. In the early days, spinning and weaving and making cloth into garments consumed much time, for there were no sewing machines and all this was done by hand. Water buckets were of cedar, many of them homemade. They were scoured with soap and sand until they were bright and the brass hoops looked like gold.
“The churns were of wood, also the bread trays. The white-oak chairs were also scoured until they looked like new. The corn and wheat were carried to mill. Cakes were baked, pickles and preserves made. Beans, corn, and tomatoes were gathered from the vegetable garden; they had been planted at the right time to be ripe for camp meeting. A cow was tied behind a wagon and carried to furnish fresh milk. There was no such thing as manufactured ice. The tent holders met according to custom, the last Thursday in July, to clean the encampment and get the tents in readiness to occupy. Water was supplied from the springs. Pine-knot fires made the lights. The tabernacle was built before the next camp meeting.”
All campgrounds have such histories and tons of hard work behind the scenes. Cypress Methodist Camp Ground, one of a few campgrounds in South Carolina, continues to host annual weeklong camp meetings. Georgia and South Carolina’s annual gatherings are a carryover from the Great Awakening in American religious life that swept through the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. The Awakening led people to “new birth,” inspired by preaching the Word.
The afternoon was steamy and there I was on Holy Ground in the Lowcountry down Jedburg way. Driving up and glancing at Cypress Methodist Camp Ground, it looked too like a shantytown, though, of course, it isn’t. Cypress Camp Ground, I’ll shorten it, has a beauty all its own and it’s no flash in the pan. Folks have been gathering here to sing, pray, and hear the gospel for 219 years. Families own the tents and specific guidelines determine how they are passed down. It’s an heirloom, a heritage.
I parked beneath a big oak dripping Spanish moss and walked the grounds, trying to imagine what a meeting must have been like in the old days. Had to be full of sounds, sights, and sensations. Gospel songs ringing out. Maybe an old foot-pedal organ too I figured. Greens and sweet potatoes cooking. Lots of good food and conversation. Way back then I have no doubt the aroma of venison floated over the grounds. For sure, far-flung families looked forward to a bit of a reunion. Kids played and laughed while old folks caught up. And at day’s end they “camped’ in the rough-hewn tents.
I stood in the campground’s center and looked in all directions. It takes the general shape of a rectangle bordered by “tents.” Didn’t count them but should have. I heard there are thirty-four. Calling the rough-hewn wood cabins “tents” is a carryover from the days when people slept in canvas tents. These cabins, roughly rectangular, are generally 1.5 stories with earthen floors. A small stairway or ladder leads to the upper story.
Several cabins stood out because of their fresh wood. In April 2008 a late-night fire burned five cabins and damaged a sixth. A month later another fire started where the first one was stopped and eight more tents burned. Had to be the work of firebugs though it was never officially deemed arson. Anyone burning houses dedicated to the Lord had better like burning sure enough.
In the center of the rectangle stands the tabernacle, an open-sided wooden structure. It looks a lot like a shelter in a state park. Its pews, washed by rains blowing in, are weathered and worn smooth by many a rear end. A storm was blowing in this late-August Friday afternoon and all pews sat empty awaiting the rain sure to come.
Jagged bolts of blue crackled to the north, cutting short my explorations but not before I checked out the nearby cemetery. In it are a good many graves of Confederate soldiers. I’ve come across many graves of the boys of Dixie this summer and last. We all know the War Between the States was the costliest war of all in terms of American lives. It took me a long time to see evidence of this grim fact but I’m now starting to see a lot of Maltese crosses and small confederate flags throughout South Carolina and Georgia.
Across the lane running along side the campground stands a row of around a dozen privies.
Lined up they look like an old-fashioned version of the plastic portalets we see at football games and festivals. The old wooden outhouses possess more class by far. The door of one outhouse stood open, as if someone had just paid it a visit. A vine hung from the ceiling like Christmas garland. Some were padlocked and two had wildflowers blooming yellow in front. Using one with a neighbor perched next door requires a bit of courage I’d imagine. The people come though and use them they do.
Five communities support this campground: Givhans, Lebanon, New Hope, Ridgeville, and Zion. Serving crowds too large for church buildings or homes, the campground responded to religious and social needs. Some campgrounds provided courtship opportunities. Of one campground Charleston’s Post and Courier reported, “It says a lot of what you need to know about Camp Meeting that it’s always been and still is a place of courtship. The meetings are open to the public. An invitation into a family tent is considered a cachet.”
“Cachet.” Being admired, a mark of status.
The tents allowed people to stay overnight, and the campground term remained even though rough-hewn cabins gradually replaced the tents. Cypress Camp Ground opened in 1794, and an adjacent cemetery contains graves from the early 1800s. This old campground is on the National Register of Historic Places. And deservedly so.
A friend’s family owns a tent at Cypress Campgound. I told her Robert Clark and I wanted to participate in camp and document it for our book, the very last photos we’ll take.
“Camp meeting,” she said, “starts Monday, September 30, and my family will be there the entire week closing up after lunch on Sunday, October 6. If you want to spend the night, you may have to come during the week to get a bed. And, you won’t get much sleep, so think about this. It is definitely an experience!”
Expect to hear more from me on this unique experience.
Close by Cypress Camp Ground are other campgrounds. Near St. George is Indian Fields Campground and you’ll find Cattle Creek Campground near Rowesville. Other campgrounds are out there off the beaten path but you seldom hear of these throwbacks to the days when folks would live and pray together a week at a time. That old-time religion was rustic and it was passionate and it carries on.
It was a time for the Lord and a time for family. It was a time to stand over the graves of loved ones. More often than not it was hot and now and then cold. The winds cut right through the walls. Sleep did not come many nights but each morning broke with hope in the air.
“We’re going to camp.” Those words carry the weight of well over 200 years. It was and is a lot of work and I’m glad people carry on the tradition, living in a rustic religious way for a week once a year. They don’t need plumbing, televisions, or air conditioning. Just give them that old time religion. It’s good enough for them.