Then Sings My Soul

St. Paul Campground offers a step back in time



Jeff Amberg

Living, breathing history is an experience that cannot be ignored. It enlivens all the senses and creates the illusion of a time vortex. The historic

St. Paul Campground meeting — one of three age-old Methodist revivals in Dorchester County — is one such experience.

The 100-plus-acre revival campground is not far from I-26, past the quaint Harleyville main street and a short drive down a country road bordered with fields of cotton that mimic an early snowfall. Upon entering this 19th century-established worship and reunion site, a massive circle of 70 venerable, rough-hewn shanties amid acres of green space and a central open-air meeting house causes modern-day cares to dissipate.

Indeed, bygone times are certainly present to the 2,000 or so who mark the second week in October year after year as St. Paul Campground week. Not much has changed, except the mode of transportation. From the early 1900s when it opened until the mid-1900s, families primarily arrived by mule-drawn wagon. Back then, people stayed in actual tents or slept under the stars. Today, they drive to the site by car, and many sleep in the upgraded wooden “tents” that have been passed down through generations. However, for modern comfort, the majority of current attendees return to nearby homes or stay with local friends and families.

Around 1880, trustees of then-named Little Salem African Methodist Episcopal Church, which became St. Paul A.M.E. in 1903, had the foresight to purchase acreage for the purpose of a once-a-year, week-long spiritual celebration. The group paid $210 for 113 acres. They chose October as the time to celebrate the harvest coming in and to be thankful for God’s bounty and provisions. In 1998, the campground was listed in the National Register of Historic Places; a historic information marker now adorns the grounds.

“We are proud of our forefathers,” reads the St. Paul Campground history. “Shortly after the end of slavery, they made the sacrifices that enabled them to start this fine tradition of camp meeting.” Currently, the campground attracts fourth and even fifth generation attendees. “Tradition is what this place is all about” is an ongoing statement from the St. Paul committee.

The current day agenda for the week follows the original format with the open-air tabernacle as the focal point. On the second Sunday afternoon, music from at least 14 musical groups resonates throughout the campground, reaching listening ears of children playing in the surrounding fields, women and men perspiring over cast-iron wood stoves while cooking for the masses, and generations catching up on tent porches. Finely dressed men and women wander in and out of the meeting house to sing, clap, and offer up a few “amens.” They sit on simple hand-crafted pews lined up in rows on a thick sand floor. Some sport ornate hats. Eyes and hands are lifted upwards. Hexagonal paper fans affixed to wide wooden popsicle-like sticks temporarily wave away the humid heat; the fans sport names of St. Paul Campground’s board of trustees as well as a synopsis of the revival’s history.

Musical worship includes a women’s singing group that has been vocalizing since they were young girls. As a testimony to St. Paul’s longevity and family culture, a preschool daughter of one of the singers walks on the stage holding her doll, is given a microphone, and belts out lyrics.

Beginning Monday evening and continuing each evening of the week, more food, visiting, and worship music ensues. Then the masses settle in for zealous preaching by visiting pastors primarily from rural and Lowcountry areas of the state. Saturday from 3 to 5 p.m. is “Youth Hour” and a talent show or, as it is referred to, “Activities for all Ages.” More speakers wrap up Saturday evening, and everyone at St. Paul’s prepares for the culmination day the final Sunday, which is packed from morning until dusk with teaching, preaching, more food, and final fellowship before hugs and good-byes.

Besides the 70 “tents,” St. Paul’s has three stores within the circle. These are indistinguishable from the tents, but everyone who attends knows where they are. They offer cold drinks and basics that may have been forgotten when it comes time to prepare a meal.

Some of the tents are one story; many are two. Primarily they consist of unfinished wood floors or swept dirt floors. Roofs are typically tin. Most have no restrooms; plenty of port-a-potties are available. Windows are simple panes in frames or just a cut-out space with a small door and a latch.

Each tent family must follow the campground bylaws, which are reviewed every three years and revised if necessary. The only revenue taken in is the $100 annual fee per tent used to keep up the grounds. Preachers are paid a portion of the offerings, and musicians volunteer their time.

Herbert Gardner, the committee’s secretary for 18 years, is 58 years old and — along with a dozen brothers and sisters — has always attended St. Paul’s. This past summer, his 85-year-old mother, Molly Gardner, passed away. She was a beloved matriarch of the annual event as is her surviving twin, Polly. In No. 54, the Gardner Family tent, up to 70 congregate.

“I still help cook,” says Polly. “I ain’t missed a camp meeting in at least 50 years. It’s a week from home! I see people I haven’t seen for years. My parents came, and I even remember the wagons and mules instead of cars.”

The Gardner tent includes a spacious kitchen with a massive wood stove replete with pots and pans. Piping hot trays of macaroni and cheese fill the tent with enticing aromas. Shelves hold bulk containers of condiments and staples.

Herbert says his siblings begin meeting soon after the revival ends to start planning for the following year. They decide what to cook each night, what supplies they may need, how much it will all cost, and who will cook when. Each immediate family member contributes necessary funds for supplies, and they invite friends and extended family as guests to eat and enjoy fellowship.

“Each tent does it differently,” says Herbert, whose tour of the family tent reveals three beds upstairs and a sort of living room/dining room downstairs.

Seventy-three-year-old Lennerd Mack in Tent No. 43, one of the oldest tents, also remembers mules and wagons — and attests to “lots of good fellowship that’s been happening for many years around “the ol’ wood stove.” A nephew from Virginia attends annually, as do plenty of other family members residing nearby.

In this high-tech era, hordes of children at St. Paul from toddlers to teens (many minus their cell phones) still play games, talk, laugh, and even interact with adults. “Most youngsters want to be a part of it,” explains Herbert. “This is what they grew up knowing, and it’s just a part of who they are.”

On the second Sunday afternoon, a teenage boy, Joshua Cusack, sits alone on the front pew in a crisp white button-up, long-sleeved shirt with a bow tie, ironed khakis, and shined dress shoes. Zealously, he claps and raises his hand and belts out familiar songs, such as “Everybody Saw Me When I Fell.” He smiles energetically when a woman who introduces each musical group says, “I hope this is bringing joy to your soul. Come on down and enjoy yourself.”

Joshua’s mother, Nettie Cusack, a retired Dorchester County probate court judge, admits that she was not as keen on St. Paul as Joshua when she was a child. “It was just a place to meet annually to play with friends.” As she aged, she gained appreciation and taught her children to understand the cultural uniqueness of St. Paul.

Nettie is the granddaughter of Arabell and Jasper Bryant, who built one of the original still-standing tents, No. 10. The 1940s structure boasts a tiny pipe stove, a handmade corner pie safe, handmade bed frames, and a large wood stove in the makeshift kitchen that can accommodate 20 to 30 pots.

“I guess I’m following in my grandmother’s footsteps,” says Nettie. “She wanted us to attend every service at St. Paul, and she taught us how to cook on this stove.” Impressively, Nettie and others are able to cook baked goods as well as fry chicken on wood stoves. She professes that food always seems to taste better when prepared at the campground.

When Nettie became an adult and her grandparents realized she took the tradition of St. Paul seriously, they one day handed her the key to the tent and an apron. Without compromising her family’s long-standing tradition, Nettie decided to add some special touches to their tent. Even though the structure is as rustic as it gets, she decorated an interior room with slip-covered furnishings and ornate table settings. She never imagined the tent’s responsibility would fall to her who, as a teenager, was a somewhat reluctant participant.

“When we were younger, we didn’t have to — or want to — do anything but play and eat,” she says. “We were anxious to see friends every year. Now I appreciate it for more than that. I’m here to reunite with people, but also to get filled up spiritually.”

Chairman for 22 years, Alfred Calvin, 65, has been attending St. Paul annually all his life, as did his parents and grandparents. He also brought up his sons to attend St. Paul. “It’s so enjoyable to me. I love it.”

He says that children who move away often will schedule some of their vacation time to return for the week in October. He knows of at least one family now residing in New York who still annually makes the trip south. “It’s a time for church, but it’s also a time to reconnect,” he says.

Herbert points out that instead of diminishing, the campground is growing, with the younger generations wanting to add an outside second row of at least 20 more tents to accommodate additional families.

Alfred adds that he cannot imagine St. Paul Campground’s annual revival ever ending.  “I’ll do it as long as the Lord allows.” And he knows many others feel the same way.