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The Wilton Camp Meeting

By Curtis Frymoyer

Transcribed by Elizabeth Casillas, February 4, 2016

     One of the most exciting occasions of early Wilton history was camp meeting week. This event took place on the attractive grounds 3 ½ miles southwest of town. Great crowds of people converged on this spot in late summer to attend the religious services. The campground was divided into lots which could be rented for the duration of the meeting. Families could bring their own shelter or a tent could be rented with the lot. There was an eating tent for meals and some groceries were available for those who did their own cooking. The event drew people from all parts of eastern Iowa. The railroad gave special rates for camp meeting travelers and there was a special horsedrawn hack which met all trains at Wilton and carried . . .

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Picture – Camp Meeting Grounds South of Wilton – Courtesy of Curtis Frymoyer
This shows the tents used by families for camping during the week of religious services on the camp grounds. The roof of the tabernacle can be seen among the trees from the center to the right.

. . . passengers to the grounds. There was also a daily hack from Muscatine.

     The camp meeting was sponsored by the Methodist churches of the surrounding area, but it was attended by people of all religious faiths. Services were held three times a day. The best speakers among the ministers of the district filled the pulpit. In later years a special evangelist was secured along with a music director and organist. In the early years a collection was taken to pay expenses, but as the crowds increased a small fee was charged at the gate. At first the meetings were held in a circus type tent. In later years a wooden tabernacle with open sides was built.

     The grounds were jointly owned with the German Methodists, although the services were held separately. In the Wilton Review of Aug. 17, 1882, is the following notice - - “The German Camp Meeting will commence Aug. 24th at 8 o’clock P.M. on the old campground 3 miles southwest of this place. All German speaking people are cordially invited to attend and take part in the meetings. Collections will be taken on Sunday for the running expenses of the campground, Rev. W. E. Baumgarten, pastor.”

     Vivid descriptions of the camp meetings may be found in the pages of the Wilton Review from year to year. On Aug. 15, 1878, the editor reports-- “The attendance Sunday was probably the largest gathering every witnessed in this place or vicinity. The number present was estimated at from 4,000 to 6,000 people and about 800 teams by actual count. In the morning the roads leading to the grounds were filled with teams like a vast procession and it was with difficulty that a person could go the other way, one man coming from there to town had to drive one mile by the side of the road. This vast crowd assembled and got away without any accident or confusion and the meeting was characterized by quiet and good order. Twenty-seven tents were used by parties from here, the country and from a distance.

     “The Association. . . proposes to erect a substantial dining hall, enlarge the grounds by adding five or ten acres to them and by digging wells. The sanitary conditions of the grounds is excellent . . .All who tented there during the week speak of the benefits to health of the grounds, air and surroundings. A sulphur well on the grounds is supposed to contain medicinal water of no mean consequence.

     “The following officers were chosen for the ensuing year: President, J.F. Burnside, Blue Grass; Vice Pres., Rev. U. B. Smith, Wilton; Secretary, Dr. A. A. Cooling, Wilton; Treasurer, Frank Bacon, Wilton; board of Trustees: A. Long, Center Grove, T. R. . . .

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Picture – Methodist Sunday School Class –Circa 1893 – Courtesy of William Nelson
Back row, left to right: John Osmers, Marshall Butterfield, Ashton T. Nelson, Edw. B. Mark, Sam Wise’s nephew, Paul Friedricksen, Al Boot.
Front row: Frank Eveland, John Rowe, Dr. W. A. Cooling, Hulda McMurray Smith (Teacher), (in front of her) Marcus Nelson, Frank Walker, J. Elsworth Park.

. . . Cessna and Fred Van Lew, Blue Grass; Daniel Lake, North Prairie; W. H. Raub, Sweetland Center; S. H. Wise, Wilton; A. F. Demorest, Muscatine; Benj. Barr, Davenport and Peter Bigelow, Moscow.”

     On Aug. 5, 1880, the officers of the association advertised their plans for the coming meetings.

     “The Muscatine District Camp Meeting Association will hold its 5th annual meeting on their grounds, 3 miles southwest of Wilton, commencing on Friday, Aug. 13th , 1880 and holding 1 week.

     “A boarding Tent, under the supervison of W. J. Breckon will be kept for the accommodation of all wishing to board. Rates of boarding will be 25 cents per meal or $--per week. A tent will also be furnished for those wishing sleeping accommodations. All persons expecting to occupy the sleeping tent will please come provided with bedding.

     “Ministers will be accommodated with beds in the preachers’ tent. Good straw for tents and hay and grain for horses will be provided on the grounds at reasonable rates.

     “Conveyance can be had from the depot at Wilton to the grounds at 15 cents per passenger.

     “A supply of fresh meat, bread and vegetables will be brought to the grounds each morning. Persons not owning lots who expect to tent during the meeting will be charged $1.00 for rent.

     “All the religious services will be under the supervision of Rev. I. A. Braderick, Presiding Elder of this district and Rev. U. B. Smith, Wilton charge as alternate.”

     On Aug. 18, 1881, J. W. Stewart made the following report in the Wilton Review:

     “Mr. Editor: The camp meeting is progressing famously, notwithstanding the dry weather. There was an increase in the. . .

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Picture – Methodist Church 1893-1902 – Courtesy of N.N.C.
This building burnt on Sunday morning, Jan. 12, 1902.

. . . number of tents, 28 besides the tabernacle and boarding tents. The boarding tent was a success in the grub line; it flowed all day without abatement; the same persons put in charge next year will show good sense on the part of the directors. The crowd on Sunday was about 3/4s of what it was last year. At noon there were about 3,500 people and 750 teams on the grounds. We are a remarkable buggy people, at least 2/5s of those coming from the east were single seated and of 512 conveyances that came from the east not more than 25 were wagon; family carriages and buggies were the rule. The crowd was orderly and quiet; they evidently owned a bible and took the papers; the homely women all staid home or else the crop has failed; the gutter snipes and vermin that so often infest large crowds found other victims, or forgot the day; the dust was not so bad on the grounds as it was last year; in short the men who could not enjoy religion on the campground this year would grumble because the apples on the tree of life were not blackberries. . .

     “The meeting has been a pleasant one, the people quiet, the preaching good the singing fair. . . The canvas boarding tent was a success all through; the coffee, bread and meat was good and plenty; the waiters had eyes and were using them. In fact, the whole affair was spondangalus and a credit to the managers. J. W. Stewart.”

     The Shuger family was one of the many from Wilton which tented on. . .

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. . . the grounds during the camp meeting. Sarah Shuger wrote in her diary Aug. 11, 1890—“at eight o’clock we were ready to start for the campground. Arrived here safely and I am settled for a week’s camping.” The entry for Aug. 21, 1890 was—“Came home this morning (from camp meeting). Had a pleasant time although it rained considerable.” Four years later on Aug. 24 she left the following account in her diary—“Camp meeting closed at noon today with a march ‘round the tabernacle singing ‘We’re Marching to Zion’, then forming a circle, joining hands and singing, ‘Blest be the Tie.’ This closed one of the pleasantest camp meetings I ever attended. During the meeting we were favored with the presence of Dr. Stafford, Bro. Schriener and girls, Bro. and sister Aura Smith and a number of other friends. Bro. Shawhon’s preaching was helpful throughout. . .We had the privilege of hearing Dr. Craven, a returned missionary—also had the privilege of seeing and getting somewhat acquainted with Miss Eliker, a young woman going out this fall as a Missionary. It did my soul good to see her. God bless the young people as they take up this work.

     “Epworth League day was most grand and encouraging, from the early 6 o’clock prayer meeting until the close was a feasts of good things. I missed Father Lake—missed his testimony, always so glad and cheerful , so helpful. I learned he was not able to come this year. Perhaps he will soon join the saints above. It matters little how long or how short our stay—only that we are ready to go.”

     It was the custom for young men to take their girlfriends to the evening sessions of the camp meetings as shown by these entries in the diary of Rosa Armentrout in 1877. “Aug.13—I just returned from camp meeting. Jakie and Annie had made up last night, so he took a team and Marshall a buggy and we went to camp meeting tonight. We did not stay there very long, but the ride was delightful . . .The campground was splendid, such a very large tent was the one they spoke in. There were a great many small tents, but it being night we could not see much.”

     “Aug. 19 – Marshall. . . wants me to go to German camp meeting with him next Sunday night, providing the weather is fit. That will be splendid.”

     “Aug. 24 – I just returned from German Camp Meeting. Marshall had his colts tonight. We had a gay time, just Jakie and Annie and Marshall and I . . .We had lots of fun tonight and it is not so very late.” (Editor’s note: These young people lived 2 miles north of Wilton so their round trip to the camp meeting and return was about 11 miles.”

     One young man from Pedee, Cedar County, was determined to attend camp meeting. On Aug 3, 1882, he wrote in his column for the Wilton Review, “We propose to go to camp meeting if the entire corn crop fails and a good bit of Methodism is no doubt a blessing even upon the present generation.”

     Most people attended camp meeting for religious reasons. There was a rowdy element, however, which had other ideas. In 1879, the fifth year of the camp meeting association, the expenses include $3.00 for police. The next year six policemen were hired for the Sunday sessions. In the “Early Settlement of Moscow and Vicinity” it is stated that “Emmanuel was a little tough. He had a wonderful capacity for braying, and a mule or donkey had no show when he was about. On . . .

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. . . camp meeting occasions and other religious gatherings he would get out among the horses and put in his best licks and keep those who had horses tied out hunting for the loose mule during the entire session.”

     On Aug. 19, 1880, the Wilton Review reported “A horse belonging to J. Schmeir of Moscow was taken from the campgrounds last Sunday evening and has not been heard from since. Some sardine cut loose the cow friend Breckon had there the same night. The coffee went without cream next morning.”

     The origin of camp meetings is not clear. They may have evolved from the quarterly meetings held by the early Methodist circuit riders. The circuits were very large and when the members attended a general meeting they were often several days’ journey from home. The meetings might last for several days and the members would camp in the woods. When these meetings were used to attract and convert new members the camp meeting as we know it may have been born.

     It is curious that an institution which had such an influence on the growth of the church should be almost ignored in the official church records. Camp meeting is not included in the index of the reports of the Methodist general conference. The only mention of camp meeting is found in the obituaries of ministers who had been converted at such meetings. However, camp meetings were often sponsored by the church districts with the district superintendent in charge and local camp meeting associations were frequently affiliated with state and national camp meeting societies.

     The “Wilton” Camp Meeting Association was organized in 1874 and Blue Grass and was sponsored by the M.E. churches of Wilton, Muscatine, Davenport, Sweetland Center and Blue Grass. The first officers were J. Burnside, president; Benj. Barr, vice-president; F. F. Bacon, secretary; Thomas Cessna, treasurer. Trustees were A. Davidson, Muscatine; Wm. Perken, Muscatine; Alex Reid, Sweetland; Hiram Price, Davenport; Wm. Cook, Davenport; F. F. Bacon, Wilton; Thomas Venard, Blue Grass. The camp meeting was held on the grounds belonging to Mr. Burnside at Blue Grass.

     It seems that the meetings were held at Blue Grass for 3 years. In 1877, a move was made to the grounds southwest of Wilton. Meetings were held there until 1906, which is the last one recorded in the account book. In 1914 the property was sold at auction.

     Camp meeting was a colorful part of the 19th century society and it is difficult to explain its disappearance. In the later years the camp meeting suffered from declining attendance and insufficient funds. It was essentially a religious occasion, but it also included elements of picnic and entertainment. The tent Chautauqua and the silent movies furnished competing entertainment. Revival services in the churches could meet the religious needs of the community with less effort and cost. Probably camp meeting had outlived its usefulness, but it will be remembered as an important part of our religious history.

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    Remember when, as a small girl or boy, you were taken to Dr. Smith’s dental office to have your teeth examined and Dr. Smith promised you a big peppermint or wintergreen pattie if you didn’t cry?

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