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December 9, 2002

Shore steps 'back in time' at Salem Camp

By Elizabeth Kurylo

On the last Sunday in July, as the late morning sun baked the dry grass at the Salem Camp Ground in Covington, Bradd Shore approached the tabernacle and took a seat in a pew up front. He accepted a hymnal that came his way, and stood to sing “American the Beautiful” and “Leaning” with the congregation. But when the faithful began to worship, Shore picked up his Nikon and began taking photos.

Shore wasn’t looking for salvation. He was at Salem to document “Big Sunday” and other rituals that make up Salem Camp Meeting, an annual homecoming of mainly Methodist families who trace their roots to two semi-rural counties 40 miles east of Atlanta. Part religious revival, part family reunion, Salem Camp Meeting offers Shore a unique opportunity to study family culture and memories for the MARIAL (Myth and Ritual in American Life) Center, which he directs.

This was his third year at Salem, one of the South’s oldest camp meetings. Since 1828, families have gathered in the heat of a late Georgia summer for a week of sermons, communal prayer and Bible study in a context of “down-home cooking.” This time, Shore brought five students to help do fieldwork. In eight days, they recorded 80 hours of film and 50 audiotapes of family histories, each about 90 minutes long.

“I went out there two years ago for a visit,” Shore said. “I was a little bit nervous. I walked in. I didn’t know anybody. I was just looking around. And within 10 minutes they had me sitting in a rocking chair and they were telling me stories.”

This year, Shore and his students immersed themselves at Salem, staying in two cottages on site. Shore plans to produce a documentary film and a book on Salem. (His working paper on Salem is online at www.emory. edu/college/MARIAL/)

Salem “campers” originally slept in tents or under their wagons. Wealthier families built rough shanties with dirt floors and slept on wooden frames covered with straw. Today, campers refer to the 27 cottages as “tents.” Many people recall their childhoods at Salem, playing the same games their grandchildren play today.

To Shore, Salem is “a theater of family memory”—a place where, one week each year, families come together to focus on generational and spiritual connections. Each cottage has its own history and is filled with family photos, many of them black and white portraits of ancestors who first walked through the sawdust and experienced the heat of the campground. Some walls have become impromptu growth charts, with marks indicating children’s height through the years.

Shore was struck by Salem’s fusion of family and spiritual ties. Some families are drawn primarily by religious convictions. For others, “it’s all about family,” Shore said. For most, it’s both. Regardless of why they come, Salem has a powerful effect on regulars, in part because it is “an attempt to restore a mythic image of past family life.”

Rituals abound at Salem. The women cook family meals in the small, stiflingly hot kitchen at the back of the cottage. Fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, and creamed corn are staples here. Fresh tomatoes and homemade ice cream also grace the tables.

Gender roles are traditional, even though many of the women who come to Salem have full-time jobs the rest of the year. Shore noted that, though many of the women use vacation time to attend Salem, many of the men go to work during the day and come to Salem in the evening.

Shore was intrigued by the layout of the campground, noting that it was important to the rhythms and routines of the place. For instance, a softball field bumps up against a busy highway near the grounds, and informal games usually take place in the late afternoons.

Although it might be safer to move the playing field away from the dangerous road, it has never seriously been considered because the field’s location allows campers to watch games from their porches, a key part of Salem’s traditions.

The late afternoon heat drives people outside to the porch. Here they gaze across the field watching their grandchildren round the bases. When they’re not playing ball, kids ride their bikes and scooters across the field. Occasionally they stop in the shade of a stately oak to swing from a rope that dangles from a thick limb.

For Shore, these rituals underpin strong family identity. He sees three kinds of family at Salem: the spiritual family, which congregates during services at the tabernacle; the Salem community, which gathers primarily on the front porches of the cottages to visit and swap stories; and the local family or “clan” that inhabits the private space inside each cottage.

Often in an interview, Shore’s simple question elicits a lengthy response that winds back through the family tree, to the first ancestor who attended camp meeting or the one who built the family cottage.

“We want to find out what role camp meeting plays in the lives of these middle-class working families,” Shore said. He believes the humidity and general discomfort of Salem are part of what makes it work. The environment feeds the nostalgic longing for the old days.

“People have said to me that Salem is the hottest place in the world other than hell,” he said. “But that’s what sets off this place from the rest of the world; it is a uniquely potent sensory palate. The smells, the heat, the feelings of discomfort, all these things allow campers to connect generations. They eat the kind of food their ancestors ate after plowing the fields.”

This article first appeared in the MARIAL Center newsletter and is reprinted with permission.