HOLBROOK CAMPGROUND – It is a place that comes alive for just 10 days in July, but every year they come back to Holbrook Campground. It is a time of worship, a time of renewal of old family ties and acquaintances.
It is a time to “get right with God,” again. Not that most of the 700 to 800 people who come back for the annual camp meeting that necessarily stray far from the path of righteousness. But it is a time to reenergize one’s faith and reprioritize ones goals.
Most of all it is a time for family.
All of this goes on about a half-mile from my house, so I came to see them again, these Holbrook campers. Just about all can tell you their genealogy back to the first four families who started coming to the camp in 1838. Patsy Bennett is one of those. She stays in tent No. 31 at the campground.
Hers is a cinderblock affair with a poured concrete floor. They have electricity, running water and plumbing out there these days. But few if any have air conditioning in the cramped little cabins that will hold up to double-digits.
She told me how they are still called tents out of tradition when the first camp meetings were in tents. You see, it all started with Jessie C. Holbrook and how he shod a man’s mule (others say it was a horse, some things never get settled). Hard money was hard to come by in this part of Georgia in 1838. But land was cheap.
President Andrew Jackson had just escorted all of the Creek and Cherokee Indians out of Georgia and into Oklahoma (you know it as the Trail of Tears). The newly claimed territory had been carved up into 40-acre land lots and sold in a great lottery.
That is how the price for the shoeing of the equine quadruped came to either $2 or round 40 acres. The man didn’t have $2 to spare so the price was 40 acres. Brother Holbrook decided the 40 acres would make a fine tithe to the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church.
And since that time it has belonged to the church and used solely for camp meetings of the descendants of those who still come. Originally, there were at first four families, I think. But everyone is welcome. There are73 tents in a U-shape around the Holbrook Arbor – that is the open-air covered benches that seat around 300 I’m guessing. They call that the New Arbor, built in 1890 after the old one was struck by lightning and burned.
They have services at 8 a.m. 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. each day. Two or more ministers will carry the load. This year though it was only two but both were camp children – that is the Rev. Warren Lathem and the Rev. Mike Orr both came to Holbrook as children.
Now lest you think this time at Holbrook Camp is a bunch of dour folks who sit and act pious for 10 warm days and nights, let me put you straight. This is a family time in which as many as 10 or 15 will live in close quarters together for the fellowship, the tradition and the love of families.
It is a time of spiritual renewal, yes. But it is the chance to watch the children play, catch up on the family news and tell and retell all the family stories. In the old days long before cars, they would come to the campground in wagons. And they would stay in tents with sawdust on the ground. Later on, they began to build more permanent wooden structures, but the tradition was to keep calling them tents, and tents they are today.
“We still call them tents,” said Patsy Bennett. “There are a lot of traditions here. For instance, the first day [Friday], all the Bennetts gather to eat chicken and dumplings.”
How do the children take it? They love it, Patsy says.
“That is the biggest thing. The children really look forward to it every year. They play and ride bikes and have water balloon fights. I think that is why the come back as adults, they loved it so much as children.”
There is a great spirituality at the camp, too, she said.
“It’s just a special place.”
Michelle Bennett McKinney, Patsy’s daughter, recalled how they used to bring these huge blocks of ice, so that people could take their ice chests over to fill when there was no electricity and no refrigerators.
“And I remember I had to wear a dress and white gloves until I was 19,” Michelle said.
Her husband Wade McKinney said he was slow to warm up to camp meetings. He said even today they are chaos.
“It’s four families in one cabin [he meant tent]. And one bathroom,” he said.
But he comes for the kids because they love it. If they had to go somewhere instead of Holbrook he said the kids “would throw a fit.”
One of the big events is to say up late and catch frogs. The frogs don’t seem to mind too much and they benefit from a generous catch-and-release program. The ice cream social the last Friday night, which I attended, is a big hit with all ages.
Midge Holbrook Webb has seen five generations, from her grandparents to her grandchildren come to the camp meetings. In addition to the children enjoying it so, she likes the opportunity to reconnect with her extended family and friendships.
“I have friends I met as a child and that I still see,” Midge said. “I grew up coming here, my children grew up coming here and now my grandchildren come here.”
That’s the way of Holbrook camp.