LIANE HANSEN, host:
For some families, summer vacation means a visit to an amusement park or a trip to a faraway place. For others it's time at the beach or by a lake in the mountains. And for some, summer means camp meeting. The tradition began in the early 1800s, predominantly in the South. As people began to settle the wilderness, they moved far away from their churches, so in the summertime they set up camps and preachers traveled the circuit to bring organized religion to them. The longest continuously running camp meeting, which dates back to 1828, takes place at Salem Camp Ground, about an hour east of Atlanta. NPR's Kathy Lohr paid a visit and sent this report.
KATHY LOHR reporting:
One week during the summer families gather at a small campground off Salem Road. Their grandparents and great-grandparents met here by the same natural spring where icy-clear water flows up on this sticky Georgia afternoon. Judge Clarence Vaughn is 83 years old. He's been a camper here for about 70 years.
Judge CLARENCE VAUGHN (Camper): You had buckets. We had to carry buckets. Now let me tell you, bringing water from down there up here in buckets for cooking and for drinking and for bathing was really an undertaking. It was a job.
LOHR: Back then, Judge Vaughn says the campers had to supply themselves with everything. They gathered fresh vegetables that they'd grown on their farms. They'd take their livestock with them, too, so they'd have fresh meat and milk.
Judge VAUGHN: We would come out here from town. We'd tie the cow behind the wagon and get--coop full of chickens, bring those out here and tie them up in the back. Put them in the chicken coops. So it brings back a lot of memories. I've been out here a long time. I doubt there's anybody out here's that's been here longer than I have.
LOHR: The tents are really A-frame cabins. The oldest dating back to 1840. They are built in a semi-circle around a tabernacle that's almost as old. A few of the cabins have been remodeled and even air-conditioned. Other's are open with exposed beams, generally made from whatever wood the men could find. They have a central hallway and small bedrooms off of each side. Some still have wood shavings on the floor. Life-long tenter, Susan Atkinson(ph), says it's rustic.
Ms. SUSAN ATKINSON (Camper): The rooms are--actually, they're like barn stalls. There's just walls and, of course, the shaving floor. There's a bed. There's a piece of board on the floor and a coat-hanging rack above it. And, of course, the main thing is the fan in the window. This is the privacy you have. You don't have any privacy.
LOHR: Atkinson pulls back a curtain from the exposed rooms where there are no doors. Families spend a lot of time together this week. It's the closeness and the simplicity that lures them back year after year. Most grew up here and they want to share it with their own children.
(Soundbite of food frying)
LOHR: One of the biggest traditions is the old-fashioned Southern cooking. Jimmi Hicks-Forward is frying up country ham in a seasoned, black skillet.
Ms. JIMMI HICKS-FORWARD (Camper): Camp meeting is fried chicken, creamed corn, butter beans and then, of course, you've got to have banana pudding. Things that you just wouldn't dream of doing at home. We'll have country ham Christmas morning, and we have it at camp meeting. But otherwise, we don't have it at all.
LOHR: Forward is particular about how she trims and browns the ham. Then she lets the drippings sizzle a little longer to create her famous red-eye gravy.
Ms. HICKS-FORWARD: You have to put that much day-old coffee. I would say two tablespoons, and that's really what makes the red eye. And then when you eat the gravy, there'll be grease on top of the gravy. You have to dip down into the red-eye part and put that on your biscuit. Oh, my God, oh, make you kiss your grandma, moustache and all.
LOHR: Another tradition? The wide world of Salem sports where everyone from toddlers to teen-agers compete in events by age. Like the egg-and-spoon race, the Frisbee toss and the broad jump.
(Soundbite of children playing)
Unidentified Woman: And I mean, when I say go, jump as far as you can. Don't move your feet or I'm going to make you jump over. OK? On your mark, get set, go!
LOHR: Salem Camp Ground is a place where it seems time has stopped. It's a place where parents and grandparents say kids can be kids. Eleanor MacArthur-Hamlett(ph) has attended the camp for more than 50 years. Her grandmother came here as an infant. Now her grandchildren are finding out what camp meeting is all about.
Ms. ELEANOR MacARTHUR-HAMLETT: Our children can just play and run free. The only thing they--we say to them is, `You have to tell us if you're going to the playground, if you're going to go bike riding.' It's unlike anywhere else that I know of right now, because you don't feel safe letting your children even go out in your front yard. But here it's just a safeness and they love it that we bring the bikes. They hook them on the back end of the cars and we bring them all the way from Texas.
(Soundbite of bells ringing)
LOHR: But Salem is not just about the social gathering. The reason it exists and continues is a deeply spiritual and religious one. The camp was started by Methodists but is now interdenominational. A bell calls families to services three times a day under the tabernacle built of weathered, wooden timbers cut by hand.
(Soundbite of service under way)
LOHR: Fresh wooden shavings cover the ground here, too. The aroma lingers in the humid air. Children are encouraged to be part of the services. They rush to the front to sing a hymn.
(Soundbite of singing)
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Oh, yes, oh yes, oh yes, oh yes, there's something better than gold. For Jesus will wash you whiter than snow, there's something better than gold.
Unidentified Man #1: Good. Let's thank our boys and girls for...
Unidentified Man #2: We thank you for the fact that there are bicycles lying on the ground all around this tabernacle. Symbols of young people, of kids, who are coming to love this place and consequently to love you.
LOHR: Faith and fun are part of the camp meeting experience. It means that generations join for prayer at morning watch every day at 7:30.
Mr. SAM RAMSEY (Vice Chairman, Board of Trustees): Religion is at the core of it and that pulpit at the tabernacle is so central to why we are all here.
LOHR: Sam Ramsey is vice chairman of the board of trustees and a camper here for 66 years; his entire life.
Mr. RAMSEY: Even with my family tent down here, if we were just coming out here to keep that up because my great-great-grandfather built it, that wouldn't be enough reason for me to put in the time and effort to keep it going. I mean, I've got to be doing something on a more meaningful, larger scale than that. This place has reached out to the community for, you know, 177 years.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #3: Hey, Fred, here we go.
Unidentified Group: (Singing) There's a sweet, sweet spirit in this place and I know that it's the spirit of the Lord. There's a sweet expression...
LOHR: Salem campers invite the larger community to attend worship services and mid-morning Bible study classes. Eleanor Hamlett says for her, it's a spiritual revival.
Ms. MacARTHUR-HAMLETT: This is my renewal every year. Now, I mean, we go to church every Sunday. We're very involved in our church. But camp meeting gets me right down to where I'm coming from. And I say, `OK, this is just no frills, nothing, it's just me and God here.' And under that tabernacle there's no--it's sawdust, it's, you know--you're hot, you're sweaty in the middle of, you know, July and August in Georgia. And it's just a oneness. I think I find the oneness with God here that I don't find anywhere else.
LOHR: Many family members, including Susan Atkinson, talk about a deep sense of peace they feel at Salem that they can't seem to find anywhere else, whether it's under the tabernacle or out on the front porches.
(Soundbite of nature sounds)
Ms. ATKINSON: Come put your toes in the sawdust and, you know, have some tea and visit and feel the spirit and just kind of be in awe of it. Just kind of soak it in. Whatever you want to find here--peace, quiet, religion, friends, family, fun--it's here. It's not Times Square, but it's--something here for everybody if you really look.
LOHR: The campers say they gain strength from their past here at Salem Camp Ground in a 177-year-old tradition they plan to continue for one week a year every summer.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News.
HANSEN: You can hear more from the campers at our Web site, npr.org.
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