At Pleasant Grove Campground, one of Union County's oldest institutions, modernization is creeping in.
“The arbor,” a huge open-air shelter in the middle of the campground, underwent a complete renovation this year. Several new 1.5-story cabins, called “tents,” tower above smaller, older structures. Some have window air-conditioners and laminate floors that look like hardwoods. That's a far cry from old-style, open-air cabins with wood shavings on the floor.
Bob Winchester, a longtime camp meeting trustee, marvels that one newer cabin cost about $70,000. His family's tent cost less than $2,000.
Campgoers say in the past few years that attendance at the annual week-long camp meeting, which begins today, has grown noticeably. The annual meetings began in 1829.
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“In the last three or four years, it seems like there are more and more and more (people),” said Jerry Griffin, a camp meeting veteran for 25 years. “Parents who came here when they were young, as they've grown older they're coming to appreciate what it represents.”
The draw of family, tradition and “old-time religion” is strong at the Methodist-affiliated campground, which sits on 40 acres. Generations of families have attended. Meetings include daily worship, children's programs, and plenty of time to reunite with family and friends.
This year's camp meeting opens at 11 a.m. today with a worship service and closes in a week with “Big Sunday,” which will draw more than 2,000.
A wedding's coming
Johnsie Hernig had already moved into her family's tent last Thursday, along with her husband, daughter and two granddaughters. She remembers camp meetings as a little girl, when tents had no electricity or indoor plumbing. Water was fetched from a nearby spring.
Many attendees still like the smell of wood shavings and the feel of actually “camping” at camp meeting.
Hernig pointed out a rope swing where children played. This week, she said, children will line up for a turn.
Those are the children who will keep this 179-year tradition going.
One proof will come Aug. 2 with a notable wedding. That's when Winchester's grandson, 25-year-old Matthew Winchester, marries Shannon McLean, 23, under the arbor.
She's the granddaughter of longtime Pleasant Grove organizer Thomas McLean, who died in 2007. He had served camp meetings for 28 years in roles ranging from greeter to choral leader.
The Winchesters also have a long history as campground trustees. Lynn Winchester, Matthew Winchester's mother, said her family and the McLeans have been friends at the campground for years.
Lynn and her husband, Gregg Winchester, decided to start dating during a camp meeting. So did Matt and Shannon, who will help out this week at camp meeting.
“It's kind of passing the torch down to the next generation,” Lynn Winchester said. “It gives you hope that there will be many more camp meetings.”
Tents in high demand
Camp meeting romances that turn into marriages and children are part of the reason recent camp meetings are bustling and modern cabins are springing up.
As families grow, tent space becomes tight, creating what Bob Winchester calls “overflow.” Some families would like to spread into multiple tents, but acquiring another one is no easy task.
Tents can be passed down only through families or through transfer of ownership with the approval of the board of trustees, Winchester said.
The only sure way for an outsider to get a tent is to marry into a family that has one. Winchester keeps a list of more than 30 families who would like a tent when one comes available. That may happen once or twice a year, when an owner dies and the descendants aren't interested.
Recently, some families who acquired a tent have torn down the old one and rebuilt. Winchester said the trustees don't mind, but must first approve new structures.
New cabins must keep the traditional A-frame design, and can't be two stories. Some newer cabins have compromised with 1.5 stories, giving the tent a loft for extra space.
The trustees also require that new cabins be at least three feet from adjacent cabins, so sunlight can reach in. Older cabins are so tightly packed that lack of light has created mold problems, Winchester said.
Public can attend events
It may not be easy to find a place to sleep at camp meeting, but all daytime events are open to the public.
Winchester takes great care in choosing each day's pastor, selecting people “who I think can deliver,” he said. This year's guest speakers include Emily Shore, a Duke student intern at Union-Pleasant Grove United Methodist; the Reverend Sidney Huggins, a retired pastor; and the Reverend Jeff Bost of Westview ARP Church in Mount Holly.
Huggins will lead morning worship at 11 a.m. for Big Sunday, Jully 27.
Some say that even amid the business of camp meeting, Pleasant Grove Campground still provides a retreat.
“There is just such a quiet serenity to this place,” said Jerry Griffin.