The Washington Grove campground was located southwest of Emory Grove, a Methodist camp meeting established by African Americans. Although the exact date of the first Emory Grove camp meeting is unknown, it is believed to have begun informally in the 1860s by area slaves who gathered together in a local grove. The Emory Grove revival attracted participants from across Maryland as well as surrounding states. When the railroad opened in 1873, Emory Grove participants could travel to the camp meeting by train, disembarking at the Washington Grove station.
The first camp meeting at Washington Grove began on August 13, 1873 and lasted for ten days. Although the weather was poor, with days of torrential rain, the event was declared a success. On a plateau of high ground within a clearing in the woods was the preacher’s stand and rows of wood benches. Initially, the tents at Washington Grove were arranged in a grid pattern, with their entrances facing the preacher’s stand and assembly area. This arrangement has its origins in early nineteenth-century campgrounds, which were typically laid out along one of three plans – rectangular, circular, or open horseshoe.
By the second camp meeting in 1874, the initial rectangular grid plan had been altered to accommodate an octagonal central gathering space. An article in the Evening Star newspaper from July 6, 1874, described an excursion to Washington Grove in advance of the ten-day camp meeting, “Numbers who are contemplating a sojourn in the grove…inspected the newly arranged grounds, and endeavored to locate their proposed homes in the woods. The stakes show that the inner court has been changed in shape from a square to an octagon, with radiating avenues entering upon it from four opposite directions.” Eventually the octagon evolved into a circle, and the camp meeting took on a wheel plan featuring a central gathering space, the “Sacred Circle,” surrounded by tent sites and radiating paths, also lined with tent lots. The radial paths were designated First Avenue through Sixth Avenue.
As previously noted, this arrangement was a derivative of the radial concentric plan most notably used at the Wesleyan Grove camp meeting on Martha’s Vineyard. Washington Grove historian Philip K. Edwards postulates that the rectangular plan may have evolved into a wheel form due to the weather, writing that, “There must have [been] much moving about of boundaries as tents were placed where they were practical instead of in neat rows.” The site’s topography may have also influenced the spatial configuration of the grounds. The founders of Washington Grove placed the preacher’s stand and assembly area at a high point within the property (roughly 522 feet or 159 meters above sea level), and the principal pedestrian route into the grounds followed along the crest of a ridgeline. Because the ridgeline curved slightly east around the assembly area, the wheel plan may have been a more natural fit for the shape of the land.
A flyer distributed by the Washington Grove Camp Meeting Association in advance of the first camp meeting indicates that three sizes of canvas tents were available for rent in 1873 – 10 by 12 feet, 12 by 16 feet, and 14 by 20 feet. These tents came with a fly and were erected on wood platforms. Participants could also provide their own tent but were charged a fee to rent a lot. According to Edwards, lots measured 15 by 20 feet or 15 by 30 feet. An article in the Evening Star from August 13, 1873, reported that tents were “mostly about 14 feet square,” perhaps indicating that most attendees furnished their own tents rather than renting them from the association. In addition to the tents used by individual families and by church groups, open air tents were used to shelter “boarding saloons” that provided meals for campers and for daily excursionists. Market stands sold straw, furniture, perishables, and other goods.
In September 1873, one month after the official opening of the camp meeting, the Star reported that “the railroad had erected a station house at the grounds.” (While nineteenth century newspaper articles refer to this building as both a station house and as a depot, the term depot will be used to describe the original building, which was a large frame structure with a gable roof that sheltered an open waiting area and enclosed storage space. The term station will be used to refer to the enclosed structure built across from the depot in 1906.) In 1877, the preacher’s stand and assembly space were replaced with a permanent pavilion known as the tabernacle. Typical of the form, it was open on all sides, and heavy timber posts and beams supported a wide hipped roof. Bracing at the top of the posts resembled tree branches. A description of the tabernacle written in 1879 gives its dimensions as 48 by 70 feet. (Robinson’s entire report may be accessed at Historic Context Report Town of Washington Grove (PDF)).