301-926-2256 [email protected]

Once again, we acknowledge with appreciation the research of Robinson & Associates in preparation of the Updated and Expanded Washington Grove Historic District Nomination. Their research forms the basis of this month’s overview of shelter at camp meetings.

The earliest permanent building constructed at many campgrounds was a tabernacle. These were typically large, open, timber-frame pavilions located in a clearing at the center of camp to shelter both the pulpit and seating area. While the roof provided shade and shelter from the rain, its open sides offered natural ventilation, unrestricted sightlines, and clear transmission of the speaker’s voice. Wesleyan Grove, founded on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in 1836, had a canvas tabernacle until 1879, when it was replaced with a permanent iron structure that could seat thousands under its three-tiered roof. The tabernacle as a building form eliminated the distinction between interior and exterior space, recognizing the campground as divine space and encouraging man’s communion with nature.

Canvas tents provided the earliest and simplest form of shelter at camp meetings. They were inexpensive, easy to transport, and quick to set up and take down. Simple frame structures clad with weatherboard, known as “board tents,” were also used for temporary accommodation. Indian Fields, an active Methodist campground in Dorchester County, South Carolina, still features a ring of ninety-nine board tents around a central tabernacle. They are two-story, front-gable structures with simple, shed-roof porches and minimal window and door openings. However some leaders, such as Reverend B. W. Gorham, author of a camp meeting manual published in 1854, objected to the use of board tents, calling them “shanties,” and recommended cloth tents. Gorham described the construction of a 12-foot-wide tent with a 9-foot ridgepole that provided enough space for a family of six to eight. For society tents, he recommended a tent measuring 20 by 30 feet.

Most tents were modest constructions, reinforcing the idea of primitive simplicity. Sometimes tents were embellished – fly tarps with scalloped and sometimes embroidered front edges and tent walls hung with flags, bunting, and decorations fashioned out of tree branches or other vegetation. Often the tents were built on low, wood platforms to separate the tent floor from the damp earth. At Wesleyan Grove, some families erected wood-sided tents with canvas tops – a shelter form that bridged the gap between all-canvas tents and frame cottages.

When the canvas walls of individual tents were raised or pulled aside, interior spaces became semi-public, encouraging socialization. A print depicting the Sing Sing Camp Meeting in New York in 1838 illustrates this aspect of camp life and anticipates the proliferation of front porches as tents were replaced with cottages. The owners of tents that adjoined the assembly area or tabernacle could simply open their tent to participate in religious meetings and other revival activities. Tent walls could also be manipulated to regulate sun, shade, and the circulation of air.

Beginning in the 1840s, when the religious fervor that characterized the Second Great Awakening began to diminish, the camp meeting movement fell into a period of relative dormancy that lasted through the Civil War. Starting in the mid-1860s, however, scores of camp meeting sites were established in the East and the Midwest. This period of camp meeting development is known as the Religious Resort Period, because it parallels the resort/excursion phenomenon that extended from the Civil War to World War I, when middle-class city dwellers eager to escape urban conditions retreated to lake, ocean, and mountain destinations made accessible by new forms of transportation. The summer resort phenomenon had its origins in, and was advanced by, the development of American suburbs in the nineteenth century.

Given that they were often organized in locations that offered clean sources of water, fresh air, crisp breezes, and generally salubrious conditions, Methodist camp meetings were promoted as religious alternatives to secular summer resort communities in the years after the Civil War. The seaside resort of Ocean Grove, New Jersey, founded as a Methodist camp meeting in 1869, epitomized the trend. One hundred miles to the south of Ocean Grove was the South Jersey Camp Meeting Association (established in 1875), which was located on a stop of the Cape May and Millville Railroad. Camps such as Ocean Grove and South Jersey attracted cottage owners, cottage and tent renters, and hotel guests, as well as daily excursionists. The popularity of religious resorts is reflected in newspaper coverage of the period.

At the Methodist campgrounds that transitioned into summer resorts, tents, which were comfortable for temporary revivals but impractical for longer periods, were often quickly replaced with cottages. Although inherently distinct from tents due to their permanency and building material, camp meeting cottages carried over many of the key characteristics of the earlier form – the peaked shape, large front openings, uninsulated walls, and economical use of interior space. The Gothic Revival in architecture and the writings and works of landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing and architect Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892) had a profound impact on the design of camp cottages. The religious symbolism of Gothic Revival architecture made it ideally suited for the spiritual nature of Methodist camp meetings, and Carpenter Gothic-style cottages formed a logical step in the transition from tents to permanent buildings.

Typically, camp meeting cottages were built on existing tent lots, which placed restraints on the dimensions of the building footprint. Most cottages were equipped with front porches that simulated tent awnings, extended interior space into the public realm, and provided an area for socialization. Front-gable roofs evoked tent forms and created an additional half story that allowed for extra light and ventilation to the interior, and, in some cases, provided space for a sleeping loft. Cottages could be utilitarian or fanciful, depending on the period in which they were built, local traditions, and the socio-economic standing of the owner.

While at some campgrounds special sections of the site were set aside for cottages and platted with larger lots, it would not have been unusual for new cottages to stand side by side with their canvas neighbors. Some camp meetings, such as Ocean Grove, have retained their tent tradition. Approximately 100 family tents surround the auditorium there. Each consists of a canvas-covered porch, a tented living/sleeping area, and a frame structure at the rear with a kitchen/dining area and bathroom. The canvas is stored in the frame section over the winter.

Thanks to Sara M. Bettencourt, descendent of early Washington Grove camp meeting participants, we have visual evidence of a canvas structure erected adjacent to a simple cottage in the “Tent Department” (the Circle and its radiating avenues). The inscription on the back of the donated photograph reads “Taken Sat 21 Aug 1886 at Noon.” Follow the link to see the photograph. Washington Grove Jackson Family and Unidentified Others – 1886 (pastperfectonline.com)

Translate »