This Week in Texas Methodist History--July 30
By the late 19th century the simple camp meetings that had done so much to implant Methodism in Texas had become institutionalized and much more elaborate than the early meetings in a scenic rural setting. Camp ground associations owned property and made improvements. They hired professional revivalists who often earned as much in two weeks as the station preacher earned in six months. They promoted their camp meetings through paid advertisements and solicited total community support instead of relying on church members. The Chappell Hill Bellville Camp Ground Association was typical.
In 1885 the Rev. J. P. Childers, in his capacity as mission secretary of the Brenham District, organized a camp meeting in northern Austin County. The site was significant. It was on property once owned by Robert Alexander who had died only a few years earlier. It was also near the site of the 1834 and 1835 camp meetings that had resulted in the call for missionaries to the Republic of Texas. The 1885 camp meeting resulted in a call for another one the following year. At the conclusion of the 1886 meeting a group of attendees organized to purchase twelve acres as a permanent camp site they called Childers Camp Ground. An addition fourteen acres was soon purchased.
The enterrpise prospered. The first building was a 60' by 60' tabernacle that replaced a canvas tent. That was soon surrounded by 29 rough wooden camp houses with shingle roofs called tents. A 2500 gallon elevated water tank soon followed as well as 1500 of piping that took water to each tent's individual hydrant. A gasoline pump replaced the windmill that filled the water tank and gasoline lanterns on poles replaced the campfires.
The largest structure was two story hotel complete with dining hall. A livery stable and showers completed the physical plant. For two weeks every summer the camp ground would be turned into a small city of 2,000 souls. There was regular transportation from nearby railroad stations. The rough edges of revivalism had been smoothed by time. Instead of nonstop hellfire and brimstone preaching, there were only two sermons per day. The rest of the schedule was filled with recreational and educational opportunities. In a concession to the area's large German population, preaching was conducted in that language as well. A Vigilant Committee patrolled the grounds to expel undesireable characters.
It is hard to say why such a large enterprise fizzled so quickly. After years of successful operation the Association members met in May 1917 for a final picnic on the grounds. They then sold the property and it reverted to agricultural use except for one more service. In 1986 the Rev. John Birkelbach led his congregation from Bellville UMC to the camp ground for one more service in commeration of the Texas Sesquicentennial. Once again the old camp ground heard the strains of revival hymns.