Old Methodist Campground marks 144th year

The Rev. Scott Larsen of Mineral Wells United Methodist Church in Olive Branch draws as he delivers a homily. By tradition, one preacher delivers sermons for each of the twice-daily services during Campground Meeting Week. (Chad Mills)

The Rev. Scott Larsen of Mineral Wells United Methodist Church in Olive Branch draws as he delivers a homily. By tradition, one preacher delivers sermons for each of the twice-daily services during Campground Meeting Week. (Chad Mills)

By Errol Castens

Daily Journal

When the yearly “Campground Meeting” time rolls around, some people have almost a biological urge to be in the circle of unpretentious shelters that surround the even more rustic tabernacle.

Many of those who were in attendance last week have ties to the place and its traditions that go back beyond their earliest memories.

“It’s a combination of revival, summer camp and family reunion,” said Anna Holland of Walls, who has attended the nearly week-long event each of her 50 years. “There’s so much tradition. It’s so cool to think about grandparents who’ve gone on before and then bring up children in that environment and watch them love the Lord and learn good things.”

Ruth Ann Locke of Houston represents the third generation of her family to be Campgrounders, with two latter generations also present.

“I was brought here from an infant on, and I came to know Jesus here and became a Christian here. It’s always been a special place to me,” Locke said.

Campground Meeting began, as best anyone can tell, in 1870. Timed to coincide with “lay-by” – the final crop cultivation before the fall harvest – it was a chance for area families to concentrate on their faith for a few weeks.

Some 30 children participated in Monday's children's church session during morning worship. Longtime campground meeting members say attendance of all ages has increased markedly in recent years. (Chad Mills)

Some 30 children participated in Monday’s children’s church session during morning worship. Longtime campground meeting members say attendance of all ages has increased markedly in recent years. (Chad Mills)

“Up until the early to mid-1990s – when the school year started backing up – it was always held in early August,” said Curtis McLarty, 34, who is one of dozens of Campgrounders bearing that family name. “Some of the older generations remember bringing wagons with the chicken coop and the old milk cow tied behind, even carrying cast iron stoves. Anything they needed to live for a week, they brought.”

The first tabernacle was built in 1870, with the present one following in 1890 after the original structure caught fire.

“They brought a portable sawmill up here and cut the lumber for it and built it,” McLarty said.

Although the soaring roof of the open-air structure has been sheet metal for decades, its former wood-shingle roof is still visible on the underside, as are scorch marks on some of the horizontal beams from the coal-oil or kerosene lanterns used generations ago. Though power came to the secluded site in the 1940s, the first electric lights in the tabernacle ran off the battery of a tractor.

These days, most of the tents have air conditioners, though adults spend a lot of time visiting on their porches, and kids and teens fill their spare time with softball, a giant Twister board painted on the grass, volleyball and a host of other activities.

“It’s loosely organized,” said Jack Adams, who’s attended all of his 75 years but one. “We’ve got a recreation committee that moves things along with things , but the volleyball kind of organizes itself. They have a water balloon fight on Thursday afternoon, and then Friday night the losing teams get pie in the eye – a pieplate full of whipped cream. Of course, the winners have to get it, too, so they don’t feel left out.”

McLarty estimated that 150 people stay in the 20-something cabins and campers on the grounds and attend twice-daily services at 11 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Local residents who work through the week add to the numbers for nighttime worship.

After the call to worship was sounded – kids take turns blowing on an ancient cowhorn that’s been passed down for generations – Monday morning’s service opened with prayer and a four-part rendition of “In the Sweet By and By.” The Rev. Scott Larsen, pastor of Mineral Wells United Methodist Church, is preaching all week.

“You hear, ‘There’s only one way to God,’” he said. “There’s really no way to God, but God has made a way to us. Through Jesus and the cross, God builds a bridge to us … a bridge from now to the future.”

Larsen’s morning benediction reflected both a general blessing and a grace over the noon meal: “Go in peace. Eat well.”

Jack Adams said twice-daily worship might try a few people’s endurance of the wood-slat pews, but even that schedule is a compromise over former traditions.

“I remember when they had a ‘sunrise service’ – really around 7:30 – and an 11 o’clock service, a 3 o’clock prayer meeting and the night service,” he said. “But even as a young person, it was meaningful.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is that children can run freely within the Campground, with their parents as confident of their security as they would have been 60 years ago.

The only rule to maintain that safety is remaining within the perimeter of cabins, where protective eyes watch from porches and windows.

That rule has given rise to the title of a documentary about the Old Methodist Campground, which was shown at the 7:30 service on July 31. Crafted by an Oregon filmmaker with family ties to the Campground, it will reflect both that rule for children and a hope for the tradition’s continuing: “Stay in the Circle.”

errol.castens@journalinc.com