Chocowinity tradition marks 100th anniversary

Published 4:55 pm Sunday, August 17, 2008

By Staff
Piney Grove Camp Meeting begins annual services
Lifestyles &Features Editor
CHOCOWINITY — A Beaufort County tradition observed by generations marks its 100th anniversary today.
The Piney Grove Camp Meeting, hosted by Hodges Chapel Pentecostal Holiness Church, begins eight days of services this evening. Services will be held at 6:30 p.m. Sunday and Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The services will continue nightly through next Sunday.
The foundation for the camp meeting was laid in 1908 when S.C. Hodges donated a parcel of land for the gathering. The first camp meeting was organized the following year by the Rev. A.H. Butler, and the tradition was born.
Church member Judy McRoy has compiled a history of the Piney Grove Camp Meeting and she’ll share information and old photos with those in attendance this year.
When plans were drawn up to build a meeting place for the outdoor services, the congregation decided on a structure measuring 60 by 70 feet, with a ceiling height of just over 11 feet in the center. It is interesting to note that the ceiling height around the outside of the building varies as much as a foot in places.
For years, the camp meeting tabernacle was a simple structure with a roof and open sides; while the openness assured those in attendance of fresh breezes, there was also the problem of gnats and mosquitoes. But the congregation was sheltered from inclement weather by canvas sides that could be put into place for protection from the rain.
In the beginning, anyone at the worship services sat on plain wooden benches placed around the sawdust-covered floor. According to McRoy’s research, local men recall that, as young boys, they would sift through the sawdust after services in search of dropped coins. Later, a cement floor was poured and the benches were replaced with folding chairs.
Over time, the congregation gradually made renovations to the camp meeting tabernacle. Concrete block sides were built and windows and doors installed in the early 1950s.
McRoy shares a humorous story, also from the 1950s. It seems Ormond Williams and Warren McRoy were given the job of painting the structure’s metal roof. Lonnie McRoy, Warren’s father, loaned them his car so they could drive to Washington to buy paint at Harris Hardware. As boys do, they enjoyed driving the car so much they bought only a gallon or two of paint at a time so they could make the trip to town more often.
In 1965, the congregation and the mosquitoes were at last separated when window screens were put in place, but air conditioning didn’t arrive until 2005. Previously, the building had been fitted with exhaust fan and ceiling fans, but those old standbys — funeral home fans — were still valued by those attending services. New foyers and doors were constructed by William Henry Mayo in 1980.
In 1991, the congregation — with thoughts of holding future camp meetings in more modern surroundings — investigated the cost of constructing a new, metal frame building. That idea quickly died when it was learned the venture came with a $100,000 price tag, and the Piney Grove Camp Meeting stuck to its time-honored roots.
In the “good old days,” attending camp meeting was a vacation for some. Small camps, or cottages, were built on the grounds for those who traveled a distance to join in the services, which at the time were held over a 10-day period.
The memories of that time are priceless. Although the camps were indeed primitive — none had running water or bathrooms and most were without electricity — the campers enjoyed the opportunity for fellowship. As McRoy learned, music from guitars, banjos and harmonicas filled the air between services and meals were shared picnic-style.
During that era, the camp meeting offered a restaurant-style service that provided breakfast, lunch and dinner at reasonable cost. Church women volunteered to do the cooking, with down home, stick to your ribs meals being the mainstay of the menu.
Two women are singled out for their tireless contributions to keeping the restaurant up and running over the years. One of them, Anise Mae Tripp, was known as a laid-back individual who planned the menus.
Tripp is the subject of a humorous side note to the history of the camp meeting. She had her own alarm system — an old-fashioned cow bell — that was rung by one of the youngest children in attendance. The youngsters would rush forward to be the one chosen to be the day’s “ringer,” and they would walk under the towering pine trees signaling that the food was ready.
The other restaurant “angel,” Ruby Mills McRoy, took on the task of getting groceries and produce donated by local residents; she also lined up workers and helped keep everything — and everyone, apparently — on schedule.
With the number of campers on the decline, the restaurant was discontinued after the 1996 camp meeting. Local youth opened what is called the “Canteen,” which provides hot dogs, sandwiches, cold drinks and homemade desserts.
In McRoy’s extensive research, she learned more about the individuals who helped make camp meeting a memorable experience over the years. For instance, the Rev. J. Doner Lee, who served at the camp meeting for 21 years from 1965 until 1986, was well known for his whistling ability. He’d begin softly, accompanying the pianist, but by the time the song finished, his whistling filled the tabernacle.
In 1987, according to McRoy, the Rev. Farron Oliver stunned the congregation when he quoted a long list of genealogies of the Bible from memory — never once stumbling on the pronunciation of the complicated, tongue-twisting names.
Time has brought change to the Piney Grove Camp Meeting, but its mission of sharing the gospel has remained the same.
How to get there: When traveling west from Chocowinity along N.C. Highway 33 toward Grimesland, turn left onto Carrow Road at Wayside Presbyterian Church. The Piney Grove Camp Meeting is straight ahead, near Hodges Chapel Pentecostal Holiness Church and Grand Old Gospel.