A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Every August, they come, young and old, from near and far, for two weeks of Christian worship and front-porch fellowship. Their destination: Rock Spring Campground, 26 miles up the road

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Every August, they come, young and old, from near and far, for two weeks of Christian worship and front-porch fellowship. Their destination: Rock Spring Campground, 26 miles up the road

We’ve Come This Far By Faith

Every August, they come, young and old, from near and far, for two weeks of Christian worship and front-porch fellowship. Their destination: Rock Spring Campground, 26 miles up the road from Charlotte in the Lincoln County community of Denver. It’s the oldest continuing camp meeting in North Carolina and, some say, in the country. Each person in this vast cast of characters has a story to tell about their passion for this 50-acre plot that’s been drawing people since 1830, when a group of Methodists paid $90 for the land and named it after the spring that supplied water for them and their animals.

On the front porch of Tent 131, Pinkie Taylor shows off an old family photo. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

Among the storytellers: Pinkie Taylor. She attended her first camp meeting here in 1940, when she was 6 weeks old. In the 83 years since then, Taylor, who grew up on a cotton farm nearby, has returned each year but one — in 1948, when a polio scare canceled the event. “When I was a kid coming up, camp meeting was all we had to look forward to,” she says. “Mama and Daddy always called it our vacation.”

Now, it’s like a home — and a church — away from home. In 2014, Taylor’s granddaughter Cortney got married at The Arbor, the open-air tabernacle that sits at the center of the campground.

Perhaps the most arresting sight at Rock Spring, though, are the rows of unpainted, weather-beaten wooden cabins that still house Taylor and the other pilgrims during their annual sojourn. From a distance, the cabins suggest a stark, 19th-century frontier settlement. But up close, these old-timey “tents” — successors to the actual canvas and brush tents in which many of the attendees’ ancestors once stayed — are lovingly decorated with family pictures, framed Bible passages, porch swings, and rocking chairs that get a workout during visits with friends.

In order to retain Rock Spring’s rustic look, all of the structures remain unpainted. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

Taylor now lives only a five-minute drive from Rock Spring, but she still spends the entire two weeks of camp meeting in Tent 131. It’s in the same spot as the one that her father, Joe, bought for $50 before she was born. When a fire in the 1970s destroyed it, Taylor and her family rebuilt. Now, she’s added Bible-inspired signs to the front porch that read, “Love always,” “Listen,” and “Forgive and Forget.” And she spends much of her time during camp meeting catching up with her Rock Spring neighbors while sitting in the same rocking chair that her mother, Ruth, favored at past gatherings. “Everybody tells me I look just like her,” Taylor says.

None of the more than 250 tents at Rock Spring have air-conditioning. But instead of driving or walking back home on those hot summer nights to sleep in her cooled-down house, Taylor stays put, relying on five fans that she’s installed in her tent. “Well, camp meeting ain’t at my home,” she explains. “I need to be where the action is.”

• • •

She’s got that right: Rock Spring comes alive every August. During “Little Week” — the partial week prior to the main activities — and “Big Week,” folks staying on these hallowed grounds make new memories with old friends, hold family reunions, cheer on a kids’ parade, and ponder daily sermons. They spend lazy afternoons recalling the highlights of past camp meetings: the homemade ice cream, the water fights, the Methodist hymnals, and the precious time spent with parents and grandparents who’ve since gone on to their heavenly reward.

Rock Spring isn’t the only camp meeting in Lincoln County. There’s also Tucker’s Grove, founded by formerly enslaved people in 1874. It’s still mostly African American. And Rock Spring is still mostly white, although guest Black preachers and Black choirs have been part of some of the services at The Arbor. Both Rock Spring and Tucker’s Grove are on the National Register of Historic Places, and both prize the generations that came before.

Jay Sigmon enlists some of Rock Spring’s kids to help him ring the bell for worship services; leads worship; and hands out treats to happy campers like Taft Ferrell. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

“There’s no other place where I can walk the same paths that my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, and my great-great-grandfather walked,” says 63-year-old Jay Sigmon, who may be the hardest-working man at Rock Spring during camp meeting. He rings the bell for worship services and leads about 100 children in prayer before rewarding them with fistfuls of Dubble Bubble gum. He chauffeurs elderly folks around the site in a golf cart and sings his camp meeting ballad during Sunday gatherings. He even serves on the campground’s 10-member board of trustees.

Butch Ross, who chairs that board, also wears several hats: For starters, he leads Sunday school at The Arbor, where he always asks the Lord “for a special blessing on this place.” The 65-year-old Ross, who coaches the state-champion wrestling team at West Lincoln High School, can trace his family’s Rock Spring connections back to the 19th century, too. His great-grandfather Warren “Pa” Beaty was born in 1865 — and was introduced to camp meeting that same year.

Then there’s 77-year-old Terry Brotherton, Rock Spring’s unofficial historian. He’s compiled two books about the campground and, like Sigmon, Ross, and Taylor, is a lifelong attendee. “I think it gets in your blood as a child,” Brotherton says. “And every year is a reunion, a homecoming.”

• • •

Those who attend camp meeting nowadays don’t show up in covered wagons or bring cows and chickens with them as many did nearly 200 years ago. Back then, it was a place for evangelistic services that drew many people who lived far away from churches. They’d travel for days to sleep in tents just for the opportunity to gather for prayer, sing hymns, and hear preaching by circuit-riding clergy. The wooden tents have added a few modern touches since then. They may not have air-conditioning, but they do have bathrooms and refrigerators. Some of the older camp-meeting regulars remember a time of late-night sprints to an outhouse and trucks delivering big blocks of ice.

The Rev. Billy Towery preaches to the faithful. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

Still, much of the campground’s appeal is its old-time look, its ambience, and its traditions that remain anchored in a simpler, less hectic past, when early August was a time for cotton farmers in Lincoln County to relax between planting and harvesting.

“We now live in a fast-paced world,” says the Rev. Billy Towery, a United Methodist minister who’s led the preaching at Rock Spring since 2019. “We have more technology than ever to connect people. Yet we seem to be more isolated because of our busy schedules. Camp meeting brings people together where, for two weeks, they visit with each other.” He pauses. “And we come together for worship, where we can sense the presence of the Lord.”

• • •

At the heart of the campground is The Arbor, which was built in 1832, making it as old as some cathedrals. Looking around the unadorned worship space, it’s easy to imagine those original yeoman farmers here in the 1800s, bowing their heads in prayer or being gripped by the Spirit at the moment of conversion. The Arbor has no walls, but there’s a tin roof, rough wooden columns, an old rugged cross hanging above the pulpit, and a floor covered with straw. Besides the weddings held here every summer, there are funerals, too, where a bit of straw is traditionally placed inside the caskets.

The piney pews, supplied with stacks of traditional Methodist hymnals, can seat 1,000 people. But at the start of Big Week, twice that many worshippers sit just outside the tent’s perimeters in lounge chairs and on blankets, echoing ancestors who sang what some call “the national anthem of camp meeting”: Love lifted me! Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, Love lifted me!

During Big Week, the grassy area around The Arbor fills with lounge chairs and blankets. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

The wooden tents that line the campground’s lanes are owned by families that typically pass them down from one generation to the next. The structures are rarely sold, but when they are, they can fetch as much as $60,000. Their rough exteriors and modest dimensions have led some passersby to mistake them for horse sheds — an observation that some at Rock Spring share with a chuckle. Ellis McIntosh, a retired Denver truck driver who got engaged to his wife, Linda, outside one of the tents in 1968, says that the first time the couple brought guests to camp meeting, the reaction was classic: “They said, ‘I see where the livestock stays. Where do the people stay?’”

Most of the tent owners appear to cherish their abodes, enhancing their porches with flowers, swings, a sandbox in one case, and signs that welcome or tickle the funny bone. “Sleeping porch,” one reads. “God, family and sweet tea,” another declares, begging to be read with a Southern accent. At Tent 149, owned by Jay Sigmon’s family, the front porch swing is outfitted with the cushy seat from a 1949 Nash car. “My dad made this,” Sigmon says. Inside his tent, he dines at a picnic table. In a poem he wrote about camp meeting, Sigmon rhapsodizes about his favorite part of tent life: “a slow rain on a tin roof when sleep comes a-calling.”

Chad Cannon, a newcomer to camp meeting, arrived last year with his fiancée, veteran camper Monica Little Montanari. They tied the knot in January, and Chad says that he’s now a Rock Spring lifer. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

Rock Spring historian Brotherton has turned Tent 107 into a museum, its walls lined with photos from camp meetings going back to 1910. In one, somebody’s great-grandfather is “doing the rusty,” a form of buck dancing to fiddle-based music. And hanging from the ceiling are bucolic relics from the early decades: a horse collar, a lantern, a corn sheller, a cast-iron skillet. “I get a lot of traffic in here,” Brotherton says. “It all brings back a lot of memories.”

Brotherton is the go-to source for a tutorial on camp-meeting vocabulary. Like “calaboose” (the name of the jail when the campground had its own police force) or using “tent” as a verb — as in, “Will you be tenting at camp meeting this year?”

On the front porch of Tent 131, Pinkie Taylor and her friends are laughing and shaking their heads at memories of past camp meetings. Back when mischievous kids would hurl rocks onto the roofs of tents in the wee hours. “That would drive poor Mama crazy. She’d be off in her nightgown, hollering at them,” Taylor remembers. “Daddy would tell her: ‘If you just lie down and be quiet, they’ll leave you alone.’”

• • •

It’s family time in Tent 127. Butch Ross and his extended brood are inside dining on fried chicken, country green beans, and homemade apple crisp. Grandchildren Katie Willis and Chance Norman, both 21 and both from Lincolnton, discuss what has become an increasing focus among the trustees in recent years: The future of camp meeting. Specifically: Will young people continue to show up at a time when there are so many distractions?

Willis, a student at Appalachian State University, is a definite yes. “It’s very important,” she says. “I grew up here, and I want my [future] kids to grow up here.” Norman isn’t sure whether he’ll stay the whole two weeks when he gets older. “I like getting away from the technology,” he says. “But there aren’t many people my age here.”

For Ross, feelings about camp meeting run deep. He tells the story of his father, Gene, who, after a lifetime of attending camp meeting, was diagnosed with cancer in 2011. By the following year, they both knew that he had little time left. Gene asked his son to take him on what Ross calls “his last ride.” Their first stop in Ross’s red Chevrolet truck was the family farm, with its pasture of 75 beef cattle. Then, his father wanted to go by Bob’s Superette, a Lincoln County general store owned by a friend.

The final stop: Rock Spring Campground.

Ross steered his truck near The Arbor. His father, too ill to get out and walk up to the familiar place of worship, just silently gazed on it.

Twenty minutes passed.

“This is it,” his father said. “Take me home.”

A week later, Gene Ross died.

“Never came back out of the house,” his son says. “He went to the big camp meeting.”

Rock Spring Camp Meeting
6831 Campground Road
Denver, NC 28037

This story was published on Jul 25, 2023

Tim Funk

Tim Funk is an award-winning reporter who covered religion, politics, and other beats at The Charlotte Observer for 35 years.