July 17, 2010 9:12:00 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Sawdust floors cushion a spry energy emitted as Ann Youngblood Taylor pads up and down the breezeway of a rustic, shotgun-style cabin at Tabernacle Campground. Two strong grandsons, Bradley, 26, and Anderson, 23, follow in her wake, waiting to see what else Grandmother needs help with to get the family enclave ready for the big week. The annual camp meeting will be July 24 to Aug. 1, and there are yearly chores to be done.
For 51 weeks of the year, the wooded oasis adjacent to Tabernacle United Methodist Church, out Highway 50 and Tabernacle Road, near the Alabama line, is populated by squirrels. They scurry in tall trees keeping vigil over a rise known as the "hill of the Lord" and the peaceful church cemetery close by. But for one week every summer since 1828, the Tabernacle faithful take up residence.
They don''t arrive in wagons or on horseback anymore, leading mules loaded down with cooking utensils or live chickens. Nowadays, they come in cars, trucks and even a few motorhomes. They won''t sleep in actual tents in 2010, but the permanent bare-bones cabins erected around the central open-air worship pavilion called the Brush Arbor are still referred to as "tents" by the informed -- a habit, as well as an homage to the past.
Living on the grounds
Many attending camp meeting events will come and go. But Taylor represents one of several families who have made staying on the grounds a multi-generational tradition of worship, play and reunion.
"I think of all the wonderful times spent here growing up; that was just the most wonderful time," the energetic 77-year-old reminisces. "You know, as a child and as a teenager, it was just something we always liked looking forward to, like Christmas!"
She, Bradley and Anderson, who all currently reside in Tuscaloosa, Ala., have made an advance trip to eradicate spider webs, wash down shelves, uncover beds, clean the stove and four refrigerators and ready the "porch."
Never missed a one
Born in Pickens County, "just about three miles from the campground," Taylor hasn''t missed a camp meeting in her lifetime.
"I was born in December 1932, and I came that August," she says proudly, conducting a tour of the tent that will sleep up to 14 family members. Floral cloth curtains serve as doors for the six bedrooms. Insulated wiring intertwines overhead and across walls, fueling bare light bulbs (a huge advance on the candles and oil lamps of long ago) and -- almost more importantly -- about 10 fans capable of saving sanity in a hot, Mississippi summer.
This tent is the 1963 version, re-built by Taylor''s father, Anderson Youngblood, and her uncle, Morris Spruill, after a devastating fire.
Drawing back the cloth doorway into the "master bedroom," Taylor explains the relative splendor of an actual level wooden plank floor in this particular room. "My mother, Ruby Spruill, didn''t want to walk on the sawdust after her balance wasn''t so good. ... She never missed a meeting either; she died when she was 81. We buried her the Saturday of camp meeting right here -- so she didn''t miss that one either."
A row of sturdy nails hammered at an angle into a wall board, about 2 feet from the floor, keeps shoes safe from most inquisitive eight-legged visitors. A large box fan mounted on the wall faces the mattress set up on scaffolding. Fresh linens, put on by Taylor that day, brighten each rough-hewn bedroom.
Basic food groups
The accommodations may be sans a few creature comforts for the week, but there''s nothing missing when it comes to hearty fare.
What keeps Anderson and Bradley coming back year after year? "Grandmother''s cooking, for one thing!" the boys affirm. The four basic food groups, one of them laughs, include chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, homemade biscuits and pot roast.
Most of the tents have a big, communal dining area. The Taylor "dining room" is a half-screened room across the back of the cabin. Friends are as likely to share the table as family members at any given meal.
A dusty glass mug hangs by a nail on a post in the kitchen.
"That''s my daddy''s mug," Taylor explains. "He passed away in 1972. That''s where he left it the last camp meeting before he died. It''ll never be taken down."
In between the three worship services daily in the Brush Arbor, the ball games, the watermelon-eating contests, the ice cream social and pot luck suppers, families convene on their front "porches."
"It''s kind of an outdoor community," Taylor acknowledged. "You go to your porch, you visit next door, or across the way. There''s a lot of people that are kin, I mean really and truly. I think there''s about five or six tents that have kin to the Youngbloods."
Many elements of Tabernacle''s storied camp meetings are rooted in its history. One of the most enduring traditions is the call of the conch shell to weekday services at 10:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Taylor has the honor of blowing the horn, as the shell is called.
"They used to blow a ram''s horn a long, long time ago," she remarked. The shell has been in her family as long as she can remember. She recalls her mother saying, in 1979, that it was reputed to be more than 100 years old.
"My mother blew it until she wasn''t able to. ... I value it very highly, to know that it was hers and now its mine. I just see it as a legacy to pass on."
However primitive the accommodations, for most, tent living at Tabernacle is life freed of distractions. An authentic place to reconnect with faith, family and even ancestors. "Roughing it" isn''t so rough, when accompanied by a clear chorus of crickets and undiluted starshine at night.
"I just pray every day that the grandkids will want to continue this," shares Taylor, "that it will stay in the family and be handed down and hopefully continue for another 100 years."
Editor''s note: Dr. Charles Dennis of Donalsonville, Ga., and Rev. Norman Ramsey of South Hill, Va., will be ministers for Tabernacle Camp Meeting July 24 through Aug. 1. The public is invited to all services, and to a Community Day covered dish lunch July 29 and an ice cream social that evening after the 7:30 p.m. service. For more information, visit www.tabernaclecampground.com.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.