Perhaps one of the most historic sites in Cherokee County is Holbrook Campground near the Free Home community.

There an old wooden arbor stands on sacred ground shaded by a grove of mature oak trees far removed from everyday life.

Dormant for much of the year, the site in northeast Cherokee County comes to life each summer as hundreds of worshippers make the journey to Holbrook Campground for 10 days of preaching, singing, and fellowship.

This tradition has been going on almost since Cherokee County was formed.

The first camp meeting there was held in 1838, when it is believed that members from several area churches came together to hold an outdoor revival. By 1839 Jesse Holbrook had donated 40 acres to the Methodist Conference for a permanent home for the annual worship time.

I often think about what Cherokee County was like at that time. We were the frontier. Those who were coming in to settle the area were arriving along the Federal Highway, traveling down from the northern states and looking for land to claim.

Many had received land lots in a state lottery or because of their service in the American Revolution. My ancestors were among those who pushed into Georgia as it opened for settlement.

The year that camp meeting began was also the tragic time of the Native Cherokee removal from these lands.

That is perhaps the darkest chapter of our history, when in 1838 the federal government built removal forts, including Fort Buffington, tore the native American Indians from their homes, and marched them on what would become known as the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma for resettlement.

All along the frontier revivals, camp meetings, were held each summer. The idea of gathering for spiritual renewal was popular with rural Georgians. As well as a time for spiritual renewal, camp meetings were also gathering grounds where families and friends could reunite.

Back then most of the settlers lived in isolation and their lives were demanding and difficult. The hard north Georgia clay was not easy to cultivate. Trading sites were few and far between. Canton was a growing town, but many farmers still lived lonely lives in rural outposts.

Camp meetings became festive affairs celebrated annually at a time when the crops had been harvested, and it provided a change from the rigorous labor of farm life.

As times changed over the years, many camp meetings in Cherokee County and Georgia ceased to meet each year. But somehow Holbrook Campground survived. That is a true blessing for our community.

I was fortunate as a young girl to go to camp meeting many summers with my dear friend Jeannie Lathem Adams to stay in her family tent, one of the small wooden cabins that encircle the arbor.

By the time I first attended Holbrook Camp Meeting in the 1960s more than 130 years after the campground was founded, the majority of the cabins, or tents as they are continued to be called, had been replaced.

But still, many of the traditions still remained. Those going up to “tent” would carry large stores of food, and prepare lavish Southern meals of fried chicken, fresh vegetables, macaroni and cheese, an array of pies and cakes, and plenty of sweet, iced tea to cool off on hot summer afternoons.

Those were some of the happiest experiences of my life, and I have many fond memories of those times. I loved traveling back in time at the campground, where we would sleep in feather beds, in rooms that had sawdust on the floor.

Days were spent playing with other children whose families annually came to camp meeting, and I made lifelong friendships with my Free Home friends, Gary Smithwick, Anita and Randy Smith, and Warren “Wally” Lathem, among others.

We would gather on porches to talk and while away the long afternoons or listen to the grown-ups talk as we sat in a variety of rocking chairs crowded together.

And of course there was plenty of old-time religion to be had.

Going back in time in my memory, those days at camp meeting are so special. Life stretched out before us for what seemed like forever. And yet, our focus was on each day, each new experience of friendship and fellowship.

Camp meeting was a big part of coming of age in the community in those days. And I know it still is. This year Warren’s son, Jared Lathem followed in his father’s footsteps to be one of the preachers bringing the message.

Cancer took my friend Jeannie many years ago and I don’t get to camp meeting like I once did.

And yet each year at camp meeting time, I think about the influence she had on my life, and I give thanks for those sweet memories of summertime revival.

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Rebecca Johnston is a lifelong Cherokee County resident and former managing editor of The Cherokee Tribune.

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