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REX NELSON: Old-time religion

September has arrived, and it's ghostly at the Davidson Campground near the Southwest Arkansas community of Hollywood in Clark County. I'm with a group of historians and we're searching for the site of a Civil War skirmish that took place along Terre Noire Creek. The dozens of wooden cabins at the campground are empty, giving the place the look of an abandoned mining town.

I know better. I had been there in early August when hundreds of people filled the grounds for the 133rd annual Davidson Camp Meeting, one of this state's most historic gatherings. It was like stepping back in time. Children rode bikes and waded in the creek rather than staring at phones (cell-phone reception is bad in these woods). Adults gathered under a pavilion to listen to a Methodist minister named Carlton Cross from the Salem community in Saline County. People lined up at what's known as the commissary to buy ice cream. The ladies from the First Methodist Church in Arkadelphia brought dinner for a group of us. I sat down with the minister and devoured fried chicken, sliced tomatoes fresh from the garden, deviled eggs and more.

Austin Wingfield, who has been a State Farm Insurance agent in Arkadelphia for 60 years, greeted me that August afternoon. I've had my automobile insurance with him since I began to drive, meaning I've been a customer for 42 of those 60 years. We were joined by the local prosecuting attorney, Blake Batson, for a golf cart tour of the grounds.

Wingfield and Batson are the chairman and vice chairman respectively of the Davidson Campground board. Their families have been involved with the campground for decades. Batson's father, Dick, was my scoutmaster in the 1970s in Arkadelphia's Troop 24.

"Not everyone stays for the entire 10-day meeting," Wingfield said. "We have about 600 spend one or more nights. On the first Sunday, we have between 800 and 1,000 people out here."

Many of the cabins lack air conditioning. The oldest is almost 80 years old. The Batson family cabin is 54 years old.

"The first campers stayed in tents," Batson said. "We still refer to cabin owners as tentholders. Cabins are inherited and passed down from one generation to the next."

There are almost 100 wooden cabins along with 28 commodes and 22 showers. Recreational vehicles are allowed. The location was chosen, according to Wingfield, because of the clear creek and natural springs in the area.

"The crops were not yet ready for harvest," Wingfield said. "So people could get away from the farm and come out here. Services first were held under a brush arbor. It burned and was replaced by a wooden structure, which also burned. Our current structure was built in 1910."

The person selected to preach must prepare 21 sermons. Services are held daily at 11 a.m. and 7:45 p.m. There's a special singing each day beginning at 6:45 p.m. The campground bears the name of the site's donor, Jerry Davidson. The first worship pavilion was built by W.B. Pullen and his wife. The Pullen Camp was the name of a well-known hunting camp in the area, which hosted an annual gathering for squirrel season when I was growing up. Lighting initially was provided by pine knots that were set on fire atop towers at each of the four corners. That later gave way to oil lamps and then to electric generators.

An 1888 story in the Southern Standard at Arkadelphia described the camp this way: "Mr J.J. Davidson donated five acres of land to be used exclusively for a Methodist campground, and anyone has a privilege of building a tent on the grounds. It was named Davidson's Camp Ground as a compliment to the generous donor, Uncle Jerry Davidson. It is a beautiful place for a campground, situated in a lovely grove of trees and surrounded by 15 to 20 mineral springs consisting of sulfur, iron and calybeate."

Campers once obtained their drinking water from a spring 50 yards from the worship pavilion. The spring still produces cool water. An electric pump was installed at the spring in the 1950s. In the 1960s, wells were dug.

The largest of the yearly gatherings was believed to have been the 1925 camp meeting when an estimated 8,000 people showed up on a Sunday to hear W.G. Hogg from Texas preach. The only time the camp meeting was called off was in 1905 when Terre Noire Creek overflowed its banks and inundated the campground.

The camp-meeting movement began in Kentucky in the early 1800s. Those first meetings had some of the same features as the current meeting at Davidson--family camps, nightly services, bathing in creeks. The camp-meeting tradition in Arkansas dates back to 1821, 15 years before Arkansas became a state. That's when a meeting was held near the community of Cadron in central Arkansas.

Documents at the Old State House describe camp meetings this way: "A camp meeting is a one- or two-week period of preaching, testimony, bible study and fellowship. ... The whole family comes and camps out. ... As camp meetings continued year after year at the same place, there would be a frame tabernacle and family cabins. Camp meetings also became famous for music and food--lots of food."

"My family has been coming out here my entire life," Wingfield said. "We now have 21 acres. It started as a Methodist meeting, but we now consider it nondenominational. We have Baptist preachers who have cabins. There was a baptism in the creek just this morning."

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 09/13/2017

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