I can remember at an early age driving by the Holbrook Campground off of Georgia 20 in Cherokee County where my ancestral roots run deep. The place always intrigued me especially during "meeting time." Large crowds, wooden cabins, singing, shouting, saving through the Lord's grace were all things to experience at Holbrook. The campground dated to 1839, but it wasn't the earliest or the only camp meeting location in Georgia.
Shoulderbone Creek in Hancock County gets the honor of the first camp meeting spot in Georgia in 1803. There were many others all over the state.
We even had a well-known camp meeting site in old Campbell County, now Douglas County, known as Salt Springs Campground. Today, all that's left is a cemetery which is on private property, but still, a very historic piece of ground, and once it played an important role in the spiritual life for many who lived in the surrounding area.
The Find-a-Grave entry for the cemetery explains it is one of the earliest in the county, and was associated with the Methodist faith dating back to the 1830s. There are a hundred or more graves and many are marked with simple fieldstones.
Early descriptions of the campground at Salt Springs describe beautiful grounds, a large number of tents that were comfortable and boarded, a new and spacious arbor, and there were always mentions of great crowds from the surrounding counties.
Some folks traveled a great distance to the campground. In a letter to the editor of the "Brunswick Advertiser" dated 1879 someone relates what it was like to travel to an upcountry camp meeting at the Salt Springs grounds, mentioning the geological features of the surrounding area where they travelled over granite rock for miles, and how they suspected the granite had to be outcroppings of Stone Mountain. They further mentioned Sweetwater Creek saying it "flowed through her craggy gorges, and loved her rugged base."
Camp meetings were festive occasions celebrated annually when crops were laid by or harvested usually in September and October. The meetings lasted at least five days and featured revival-style preaching day and night with a large number of pastors in attendance. There were also plenty of prayer meetings, hymn singing, baptisms and even weddings. In September 1881, a romantic marriage took place near Powder Springs because of a chance meeting at the Salt Springs camp meeting. Reverend E.H. McWhorter of Wilsonville, located in today's Fairplay District of Douglas County, and his daughter, Ellen attended the camp meeting where she met Callaway Meadors on a Sunday, and they were married the next day!
One feature of early camp meetings was the "anxious bench" where repentant sinners were invited to sit in front of everyone there until they converted. Some stories of camp meetings include participants laughing out loud, barking like dogs, falling down as if dead and experiencing something called "the jerks."
Ernest Angley had nothing on these folks regarding a flamboyant religious experience.
It is said some of the tents, which often were slapped together wooden structures, had all the comforts of home. Alfred Austell, the Atlanta businessman and the namesake for the town of Austell, often attended the meeting at Salt Springs when he lived in Campbell County. Austell installed a large kerosene lamp that could be raised and lowered by a pulley to give light to what was described as his "large and well-arranged tent."
Sometimes folks took advantage of the social opportunities and got up to more than just exercising their faith. In 1872, two lively youths named Kidd and Self, selected a camp meeting at Salt Springs to settle a fight. The exhibition resulted in Self being nicked with a knife under the breast bone. I also found numerous accounts of people being arrested for disturbing public worship during meeting time due to a prevalence of peach brandy.
I'm still a bit uncertain as to when the camp meetings at Salt Springs ceased, but the property was owned at one time by Ruth Blair, one of the founders of the Atlanta Historical Society as well as one of the pioneers of the Georgia Archives, and state historian who inherited the property from her father, early pioneer settler Columbus Blair. She was also great-granddaughter of Samuel G. Mozley, an important figure in Douglas and Cobb County history.
Lisa Cooper writes the amazing stories of Douglas County each Sunday. You can find her new book "Every Now and Then: The Amazing Stories of Douglas County" online at Amazon, print and Kindle versions. Locally, her books can be found at the Douglas County Museum of History and Art, The Farmer's Table and Lithia Springs Pharmacy.