Studio Forsyth: Celebrating 180 years of gathering at Holbrook Campground
Driving just across the Cherokee County line on Holbrook Campground Road, some Forsyth County residents may have wondered about the row of old-timey cabins fronting the roadway.
Turns out, there’s a lot of history there.
“For over 180 years, people have been gathering here together to worship the Lord,” said Betty Nation, 80, who has attended the Holbrook Camp Meeting her whole life.
Since 1839, each summer the Holbrook Campgrounds transforms from what appears to be a ghost town to a vibrant community gathering of campers, many of whom have been coming as long as they can remember.
“Every year, we have 10-day meetings where we have preaching every day two times a day and we’ll have ministers from Baptist churches and Methodists churches. This is a Methodist campground,” said Rev. Mike Orr, who has come to the meetings since he was a child and now leads a church in Florida. “A lot of families come together for a great time of worship and celebration.”
The history of the campground goes back to 1839, when Jesse Holbrook donated 40 acres of land — which he reportedly earned in exchange for showing a horse — to the local Melodist Conference to be used for the campground.
The focal point of the campground is an arbor – a covered meeting area – surrounded by 74 cabins – called tents by the campers.
Nation, who was born less than a mile from the campground, said her family can be traced back to the Holbrooks and has memories of both her grandparents and grandchildren coming to the meetings.
“My grandmother sat on the second row and I sat on her knee as a baby,” she said. “I have nine grandchildren, and they’ve all grew up at the campground, and my children have always come to the campground. It’s a special place to me, and it’s an honor and a privilege to be part of the Holbrook’s family, which my grandmother loved dearly.”
The campground has two services each day, along with other activities like prayer services, singing and skits. That means lots of time for fun and fellowship.
“It’s emotional for me,” Orr said. “Sometimes, I have a hard time holding back tears. Just seeing family and friends I haven’t seen in a long time, it’s just so special.”
Between the services, the sounds of campers playing horseshoes and children laughing and playing can be heard throughout out the camp.
There’s also a great deal of time for fellowship between the campers, including a lot of time for food. Homemade ice cream is especially popular.
“We get disconnected from the busyness of life,” Orr said. “We get back to a simpler time and we get to focus on the Lord, which is the most important one in our lives.”
Like Nation and Orr, many of the adults at the camp said they had been coming since they were children and have now brought their own children and grandchildren.
“It’s just a peaceful, a great place to be,” said Dwight Smithwick, who said he had been coming for about 70 years. “All the holiness and the spirit, everybody’s so friendly and down to earth. It’s just like the old times. It’s a great place to be.”
“[My favorite part is] probably being able to talk to everyone, the fellowship that we all share together,” said Smithwick’s grandson Cameron Holloway, 20. “It’s really nice being able to come together.”
The campground is also home to a vibrant youth group of middle and high school students. While some stay with family at the campground, others stay in the camp’s youth building, complete with billiards, ping pong and home-cooked meals.
“I think they learn how to handle situations a little bit better,” said Alexandria Melnikoff, youth director. “We try to come up with a theme every year. This year the theme is ‘boulder’… That allows us to help them talk through any situations that they’ve had throughout the past year – we see them every single year once a year – and hopefully to better prepare them as they go about growing up and going to college and helping with family dynamics and growing in their faith.”
Nation said embracing the youth is one of the most important parts of the camp meeting and was “what will keep it going for another 180 years.”
“I’ve had some people here every year that had never been,” she said. “It’s a reflection of days gone by that have not changed in many ways, because we still have the … love for our upbringing and our heritage and for each other here. There is much love on the campground, and it’s something children today in our society are missing.”