Originally created 06/12/04

Families meet for fellowship, worship at 19th-century campground



For one week each year, the Fountain Campground in Warren County, Ga., is filled with children hunting crawfish in the creek and adults sitting around tents, swapping stories.

It is a summer ritual devoted tenters, such as Sheilah and Ronnie Johnson, of Thomson, appreciate more with each passing year.

"We hope the kids will continue the tradition," said Mrs. Johnson, whose sons, David, 21, and Daniel, 15, camp with their parents.

Fountain is more than a rustic retreat. In its center is an open-air tabernacle where ministers have preached revival, received repentant sinners and led congregations in gospel singing for generations.

Mr. Johnson's grandmother, Lilla Hartley, who died last year at age 101, went to Fountain as a child. Her family would pack up wagons for the week and take along cows, chickens and pigs they would cook at the site. It was a day's journey to cover the 20-25 miles from their Union Point home to the campground north of Camak.

"She remembered walking down to the creek to get water," said Mrs. Johnson, who first visited Fountain about 10 years ago.

Today, Georgia Highway 80 cuts through the campground's 126 acres, dividing it into tracts of 73 acres and 53 acres.

The tabernacle and about 25 wooden structures, called tents, stand on the larger parcel where other camp sites are available for rent. The smaller section has only "a couple of pick-path roads on it," Mrs. Johnson said.

After sharing a tent with another family for several years, the Johnsons built their own about four years ago and invited some longtime friends to share the tenter experience with them.

Tents stand on 28-by 40-foot sites. Some look more like stables than cabins. The tents get their name from their canvas predecessors used in the campground movement's beginning.

Camp meeting in the United States got its start around 1800. Its roots were in the quarterly Methodist conferences in the late 1700s. Preaching and communion services turned them into revivals, said the Rev. Jennifer Woodruff Tait, a Methodist librarian at Drew University in Madison, N.J.

By the time Fountain was built in 1822, there were hundreds of campgrounds in the United States, with revivals attracting hundreds, if not thousands of people for several weeks at a time. In midcentury, another wave of revival, the holiness movement, resulted in more meetings.

When someone wants to put up a new tent at Fountain, the trustees and the other tenters hold work parties to help.

"Basically, we like (the tents) to have the same general appearance. They have to have some sawdust flooring somewhere in them," Mrs. Johnson said.

The Johnson tent is divided into three suites with separate bedrooms and baths. It has kitchen and laundry facilities, but no air conditioning. Rooms have wooden floors except for the breezeway that runs down the middle. A sawdust path serves as its flooring.

Camp meeting opens annually with a barbecue chicken dinner, Fountain's main fund-raiser. The Johnsons helped prepare about 500 pounds of potato salad and about 250 pounds of chicken during the days leading up to the June 5 opening. The camp also holds a covered-dish dinner, a fish fry and an ice cream social during the meeting. Families in the Johnson tent take turns cooking for other meals.

Young people find there is plenty to do even without television, computers or XBox. They can shoot basketball, climb on the playground, explore the grounds or pull out a deck of cards, Chinese checkers, Monopoly or other games.

Last year, the Johnsons brought a stack of 45s and a record player and sang to everyone.

"Our tent winds up being the hangout with kids from all over the place," she said.

During the week, worship is held twice a day, with families going together to the tabernacle. In between, families can go at their own pace, visiting with relations and camp neighbors.

"We have the best fellowship because there are no distractions, no work issues or having to clean up like we do at home," Mrs. Johnson said. "It is really enjoyable."

Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or virginia.norton@augustachronicle.com.

CAMP MEETING

Where: Fountain Campground, Georgia Highway 80, Camak

What: The Rev. Ted Miller, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Warrenton, Ga., will preach at 10:30 a.m. today; the Rev. Pierce Norman, an evangelist and former pastor, will preach at 8 tonight and again at 11 a.m. Sunday; the camp meeting will close with a covered-dish luncheon at noon Sunday.