For the past 98 years, Esther Wood has looked forward to the arrival of summer. To her, summer means camp meeting, and camp meeting means new clothes and old friends.
"As a little girl, I couldn't wait for school to be out so we could get our clothes ready to go," Wood said. "I was always ready. I didn't ever say 'I don't feel like it.'"
Wood has been attending camp meeting faithfully at White Oak Campground at the western edge of Columbia County since she was 8 months old. She has missed only three summers since 1909 because of illness.
The first White Oak services were held 215 years ago, several miles west of its current location, according to the White Oak program book. The present site on Old White Oak Road was selected in 1872.
During the early camp meetings and on into the early 1900s, people came by horseback or horse-drawn wagons and ox-drawn carts bringing enough supplies for two to three weeks of spiritual revival. Except for people who lived nearby, everyone camped in tents, wagons or just out in the open on the grounds.
"Tents" were actually wooden sheds with no doors, windows or floors. Shutters were used to cover window openings, and straw was used to cover the dirt floor. Wood's parents, Lycurgus and Mamie Reese, built their tent in 1909 and made their annual trips with their seven children.
Wood remembers her father bringing wheat straw, mattresses and linens, water buckets and dippers because there was no running water, and kerosene lamps because there was no electricity at the camp.
In addition to bringing the living necessities, Reese brought the cooking necessities - an old wood range, pots and pans, home-grown vegetables, fruits and all the staples for food preparation, including the chicken coop full of fryers, and the cow for milk. Refriger-ation consisted of a hole in the ground with a block of ice wrapped in a burlap bag and placed in sawdust.
"Everything in the world tastes better over there," Wood said. "We used to say even a piece of shoe leather with salt and pepper and butter on it would taste good at camp meeting."
The Reese children would join many others in making their rounds to each tent during meal time to sample what was being served.
"I fell in love with the campground because every year I saw so many boys and girls my age there," Wood said.
Although playing with friends was high on her priority list, Wood said her parents kept her and her siblings in the right frame of mind. Her mother gave them strict instructions that when the bell rang, they had to go to church and they must not talk during the service.
"And Daddy always said, 'We came to camp meeting to go to church, not to socialize,'" Wood said, imitating the tone of voice used by her father.
Water pipes, electricity and indoor toilets became available for each tent in the 1950s. Tent owners also began to add wooden floors and screened porches with swings and rocking chairs. By then, Wood was attending camp meeting with her husband, Tom, and their two children.
Because their old tent began to lean dangerously, Wood's husband, her son, Tommy, and son-in-law, Jerry Wright, tore the structure down in 1968 and rebuilt it using as much of the old timber as possible. The children each have their own tent now, along with other members from the Reese family. In this year's camp meeting, which begins today and runs through Friday, four generations of Wood's family will be staying in their tents and enjoying the rustic traditions. Wright said there's nothing like camp meeting preaching and singing.
"It's the kind of place, if you ever go one time, you'll always want to go back every time," Wood said. "Every time I go, I get so many hugs that my neck gets sore."
Summer camp meeting 2007 at White Oak Camp Ground will be today through Friday, with services at 11 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. daily. The featured speaker for the morning services is the Rev. Gary Dean, the Augusta United Methodist district superintendent, and for the evening services is the Rev. Sonny Mason, the senior pastor of Riverside United Methodist in Macon. Special music at each service will be provided by various area churches.
Campground youth activities for ages 5 to 16 are being conducted by the Harlem Division of the Family Y, and include nature walks, games, crafts, sports, swimming and participation in daily services.
The White Oak Campground is at the Columbia/McDuffie county line on White Oak Road, off Wrightsboro Road.
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