Salem’s ‘tents’ are steeped in history, tradition
As families arrived at Salem Camp Ground Friday, setting up and cleaning their tents for this year’s annual meeting, they knew that they were following, quite literally, in the footsteps of previous generations.
Ann Milton, 69, and her husband, Ken Milton, 76, have been coming to the Salem Camp Meeting for decades. And for Ann, attending the annual meeting of the faithful is the continuation of a family legacy that dates back to the late 1880s.
As family history tells it, Ann’s great-grandmother Jenny Elliot-Jenkins was the first to come to the Salem Camp Meeting in 1888, traveling in a covered wagon. Ann said her great-grandmother
Jenny came to meeting through the years with her family and husband, Ann’s great-grandfather, Gordon Jenkins.
The tradition continued with Ann’s grandmother bringing her family, and then on to Ann’s mother, Martha McArthur, bringing her family. Ann attended her first camp meeting in 1944 as an infant, and she has been coming to Salem ever since, she said.
Ann’s father, Chaplin Luther McArthur, was in the military, which meant her family moved from place to place as he was reassigned.
She said she attended four high schools growing up. However, even when the family was stationed in places as far away as California, they made their way to the Salem Camp Meeting.
“My family always came and stayed at the tent during the Salem Camp Meeting… the tent was like security because we moved around,” Ann said. “Salem remained the same.” Ann said her grandmother bought a deed for their “tent” — a cabin where families stay during meeting — in the 1930s from a church that used it as a youth tent; her grandmother later deeded the tent to her.
Ever since, the Jenkins tent has been filled with memories each year as relatives come together for a week of fellowship and worship.
In the Jenkins tent, one of more than 20 that surround Salem’s historic tabernacle, walls are marked with the heights of the family’s children from over the years, pictures of family members who attended the annual meeting line the hallways, and wooden stairs lead to upstairs and downstairs rooms filled with beds where family members rest their heads after services and activities.
The family tradition of tenting at Salem continues today. Ann said her son Leigh Milton, 47, and daughter-in-law Tonya Milton, 46, have always made an effort to come each year with their daughters, Shelby, 19, and Natalie, 16.
Leigh has been coming to meetings since 1966 and Tonya said she has been coming since 1987, which was on a date with Leigh after only dating for about a month.
Tonya said both of their daughters were baptized under the tabernacle and explained that her children are the sixth generation of tenters in their family.
“To me, it means giving my children a piece of family history,” she said. “You get to see people you haven’t seen within the last year and to be with family. It’s their legacy.”
The Jenkins tent is one of the areas where youth activities are held during the camp meeting.
Ann said outside of their tent is where families gather to play softball, and Tonya said she helps youths tie-dye T-shirts, which she has been doing for the past 15 years.
However, before all the family-oriented activities take place, like many other tenters at Salem, the family has to prepare.
“It takes about three days to open up a tent … getting all the beds together, cleaning and making sure everything in the house is OK,” Tonya said. “It’s very rustic.”
Ann explained that tent owners must consistently stay in their tents. If a tenter misses three years in a row, his or her tent is forfeited to the Salem Camp Ground.
In addition, tenters pay for the maintenance of their tents during the week of meeting, and each tenter gets a utility bill at the end of the camp meeting.
Though getting everything together may seem like a chore, the family is delighted to have a piece of tangible history to enjoy each summer.
Ann, who sat outside looking at her grandmother and great-grandmothers’ rocking chairs on their porch, said people who are in the tents now were children when she was a young girl. She recalled her childhood.
“I would sit on the porch as a teenager… it always gave me the feeling like I had a home.”
The Jenkins tent has been a family gathering site at Salem Camp Meeting for generations.
Ann Milton in her grandmothers’ rocking chair with her granddaughter Shelby Milton on the left and daughter-inlaw Tonya Milton on the right.
Several twin-sized beds line the upstairs wooden floors of The Jenkins tent.
Ann Milton points out her great-grandmother in a family photo. (Inset) Young Ann (front row, third person from the left) with her family attending a Salem Camp Meeting in the late 1940s.