The history of the Campmeeting
This year’s Salem Campmeeting, spanning July 8 to 15, will be the 183rd gathering of the faithful at the grounds off Salem Road for a time of spiritual renewal, revival and camaraderie.
With that many years of operation comes a unique history, and the families who have attended have experienced both changes and continuities.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, the first campmeeting occurred in 1786 at Cattle Creek in South Carolina’s Low Country.
The first Salem Campmeeting was in 1828, about 40 years later. Many families, including the Ramseys, Ogletrees and Elliotts, have been in attendance each year since, except, as salemcampmeeting.com reads, “the years of the War Between the States” when the meetings were not held.
“My family, then the Cunninghams, was at the first campmeeting,” said Covington resident Sam Ramsey, chairman on the Salem Camp Ground Board of Trustees. “I am the sixth generation to come to the campmeetings
and the fourth generation on the Board of Trustees.”
According to information found on the institution’s website, typical campers at the first meeting would travel to Salem by wagon, along with chickens, horses and mules. They’d live in their wagons during the meets.
In the mornings the campers were awakened by a trumpeter and began their day, which consisted of four church services. Though the number of services has decreased, the trumpeter tradition continues.
“He comes all the way from Texas to wake us up every morning,” Ramsey said.
Services were held around a bonfire and attendees sat on logs surrounding the speaker. This changed in 1854 when the tabernacle was built for speakers. It still serves as a meeting place.
Wagons became semi-permanent shan- ties around 1840. The shanties have since progressed into cottages, referred to as “tents” by the campmeeting attendees. The average tent today features small bedrooms and bathrooms, just enough kitchen space to cook some traditional Southern meals and a large living area where the family can meet to discuss its faith.
“Our tent was built in 1840 and it’s still standing today,” Ramsey said.
While some tents have been updated to include air conditioning and finished floors, others con- tinue the old traditions started by the first campers, including windows without glass and floors covered in wood shavings — both to protect the feet from the ground and keep the tent smelling fresh.
“We’ve had to go in and do a little bracing, but otherwise our tent is just like it was in 1840,” Ramsey explained.
Camp families are there for a week of spiritual enlightenment, salvation and revival, but there are other activities, too.
afternoons the young people have all kinds of activities to do,” Ramsey said. “They swim, make T-shirts, play ball and use the Ramsey pavilion and playground on their off time. They also enjoy going down to the spring and stopping it up, too.”
Although the grounds have never been a part of the church, the campmeeting was a Methodist institution for its first 100 years. It is now interdenominational. This year’s preachers include Methodist Don Martin of Alpharetta and Baptist Brian Dunks of Waco, Texas.
Despite the rich, deeprooted history of the campmeetings, newcomers should not be afraid to come be a part of the spiritual celebration.
“Some people think it might be hard to get into something with a history like this, but I didn’t have any problems — although it may have helped that I had been going to campmeetings before, too,” joked Reba Ogletree, who had her first date with her husband, Ansley, at the Salem Campmeeting.
The rich history of the Salem Campmeeting has been well preserved in the 183 years since its inception. Sam Ramsey, bottom, has had ancestors at each gathering since the first meeting in 1828.