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Scrub and sump holes mark its site today, but a century ago the cacophony of a typical nineteenth century camp meeting reverberated through­out the valley each August at Mountain Grove. Between 1872 and 1901 thousands of people came each summer to this idyllic spot in western Luzerne County for recreation and religion offered by the Danville District of the Central Pennsylvania Conference of the Methodist Church. Al­though Mountain Grove is a local chapter in the national story of Methodism, the camp meeting’s creation, vibrant years and collapse all mirrored specific conditions and atti­tudes typical of the dynamic life of small towns of Pennsyl­vania during the late nine­teenth century.

Following the Civil War, rural areas and villages in Pennsylvania invited the camp meeting. Farmers and vil­lagers alike required a renewal of evangelical faith following a misunderstood and vicious war made sadder and more perplexing by the assassina­tion of Pres. Abraham Lincoln. Post-war corruption added still another tragic dimension. Religion’s revitalization in the 1870s offered plain folks a way to live in times which troubled them deeply; the camp meet­ing provided a seasonal forum for the vigorous expression
of their faith.

Social and recreational needs quickly paralleled religious requirements. They did not, however, always comple­ment faith. Because current problems, even if troubling, posed no immediate mortal danger, nineteenth century Americans believed they had earned, by their persever­ance and patience, the oppor­tunity for structured periods of rest away from home and daily toil. “Getting away” be­came popular in Pennsyl­vania, as well as in the rest of the country, by the onset of the 1870s. The return of peacetime prosperity and the expansion of transportation systems provided the moder­ately affluent and middle income groups the opportunity to enjoy wholesome and constructive recreation. Travel to distant points became easier, faster, certainly much less of a burden on the family budget and, in short order, a signet of middle class standing. Self­-contained vacation communi­ties and spas attracted only the most affluent and fashionable.

During the 1870s and 1880s the camp meeting became most popular. Its strictly regu­lated combination of play and piety, within the invisible perimeters of common tenets of faith and social circum­stances, and at moderate cost, drew unknown numbers to the summer revivals of soul and body. In Columbia County and the nearby region, with a population of less than 40,000 in 1880, at least six and, at times, ten camp meetings convened each summer during the eighties. While atten­dance is impossible to accu­rately gauge, upwards of 8,000 came to vacation at camp meeting. The camp meeting at Mountain Grove consistently drew the largest crowds.

The presiding elder of the Danville District reported on the opening of Mountain Grove that the managers intended “to make it, perhaps, the best adapted and most attractive resort of its kind in all of our Conference terri­tory.” For years the Confer­ence had been urging camp meetings and individual churches and circuits initially conducted them. But they failed to satisfy the ambition of the Conference. Conse­quently, between the summer of 1871 and the spring of 1872, five lay and four pastoral leaders in the district agreed to establish and support a permanent meeting at Moun­tain Grove.

The site was selected for its central location within the district, easy access by rail­road, and its pleasant, bucolic setting which made the camp meeting “one of the most delightful resorts in Pennsyl­vania,” according to a Blooms­burg newspaper editor. Nor were there man-made dis­tractions. The village of Mountain Grove, once known as Wolfton, counted a popu­lation of but sixty-five resi­dents in 1880. Surely no other place in the district could have been more conducive in 1872 to an August regenera­tion of faith and relaxation of the body than Mountain Grove.

Once having made its deci­sion to establish the meeting, an organizing committee formally resolved the for­mation of the Mountain Grove Camp Meeting Association, a joint-stock company whose major shareholders included prominent church mem­bers, businessmen, politi­cians and industrialists of the district’s major communities. The association hurried to clear land and erect perma­nent structures in time for the opening of the grounds on August 14, 1872. In less than two months, it completed and furnished seventy crude, rather small wooden cottages called “tents,” each housing four families. A roofed plat­form with benches under the trees served as the auditorium. Boarding facilities became available the following year at prices of seven dollars for the entire term of the meeting, or one dollar a day or fifty cents a meal. Outdoor fireplaces encouraged picnics and the association set aside rental space for those who desired to camp out.

By the 1874 season, the association increased the num­ber of tents to nearly two hundred, erected a boarding house with sleeping quarters above the dining hall, and built a “pleasant and com­modious tabernacle” opposite the auditorium. The next year about twenty-five hun­dred people camped at Moun­tain Grove and enjoyed “a very pleasant time.” During the 1876 meeting, the faithful again crowded the grounds, giving the association the satisfaction of saving many souls while turning a handsome profit. Meetings continued to be good business through­out the 1880s. In 1881 the management dedicated all prof­its to improvements and the construction of a new, more ornate tabernacle. Later in the decade the association en­larged the boarding house, repaired and repainted build­ings, replaced water pipes, and constructed a real show­piece on the grounds, the Main Office.

In addition to its attractive facilities and its popularity as a Christian resort, Moun­tain Grove during the 1880s became a local institution for a number of reasons. It ably maintained order and well served the separate condi­tions of religious service and relaxation. When the Con­ference ordered the Sunday closing of all district camp­grounds to persons seeking to enter or leave, effective in 1879, many managers resisted the order. But the Mountain Grove Camp Meeting Asso­ciation “at much expense enclosed their grounds and closed their gates on the Lord’s day.” Each year through 1888 the gates remained locked on the Sabbath. Only Mountain Grove held a meeting in the district in 1883 since it alone complied with the order.

The association complied with the Sunday closing for several reasons, only one being a genuine concurrence with Conference sentiment. The presence of the presiding elder on the board of managers, sometimes as its president, had had a powerful influence on policy. There was another, self-serving reason: the ban on Sunday traffic did not hurt attendance. The convenience of the railroad and its willingness to improve services to Mountain Grove made it easy for patrons to reach the grounds at any time prior to the closing; they could leave early Monday, if they chose, in time to return home by mid­day at the latest. In fact, both the obedience of manage­ment – as well as the success of the meeting – lay deeply rooted in the social standing of influential families who came year after year and found advantage in a Sunday closing. Unlike other area camp meetings, which primar­ily attracted farmers, work­ingmen and shopkeepers from the immediate vicinity, the Mountain Grove meeting ap­pealed to many prominent middle class families who, by their community stature, made the meeting as respectable as it was relaxing and spiri­tually refreshing. Others followed them to Mountain Grove because the meeting was an estimable place to vacation and a status indica­tor. Indeed, many who at­tended were not even Metho­dists.

Bloomsburg newspapers reported more on the camp meeting in the 1880s than news­papers in other communities. from these sources it is possible to surmise the meet­ing’s social composition by analyzing the influential group of citizens whose presence made it a prestigious affair. Twenty-five families from Bloomsburg tented at Mountain Grove not fewer than three consecutive years. These fami­lies in the 1880s ranked high among community leaders in business, politics and pro­fessions. All but one family had achieved a financial position in the upper twenty percent in individual total taxable assets. Newspapers repeatedly mentioned their social com­ings and goings. The 1887 His­tory of Columbia and Montour Counties contains biographi­cal information about eleven of them. Their attendance at Mountain Grove reiterated the idea for their contem­poraries that the camp meeting offered the best in religion, recreation and responsibility.

While social considerations influenced many, religious activities were, nonetheless, the pulse of the camp meeting and the primary justification for enjoying a vacation of restful sociability. Drawing on the unpaid services of min­isters in the district, the asso­ciation provided a continuous program of events. On Wednesday evening a bell beckoned worshippers to the auditorium for a welcoming sermon. From Thursday through Saturday, and from Monday through Wed­nesday, the schedule in­cluded prayers at 8:30 A.M. and 6:30 P.M.; sermons at 10:30 A.M., 3:30P.M., and 7:30P.M.; and a children’s service immediately after the midday dinner. On Sunday morning an “experience meeting” began the day, followed by services at 10:30 A.M. and 1:30 P.M. In the afternoon, a distinguished visitor addressed the assembly, and following supper a featured guest minister delivered what one observer recorded in 1881 as an “old-time sermon in which we were all de­lighted.” On the last day, a final exhortation closed the meeting, after which all joined hands, formed a line and paraded around the auditorium singing “Marching to Zion.”

By the mid-1880s additional religious attractions ap­peared. Chautauqua Day was instituted in 1885. By the end of the decade the association opened its grounds for as many as five days prior to meet­ing for activities, including a temperance day, missionary day, Epworth League day and Sunday School day.

Despite the addition of special days, ample well-main­tained facilities, distin­guished clerical and lay speak­ers, easy access by railroad, a splendid location and consistently good weather, and regardless of the reopening of the gates on Sunday in 1889, attendance fell sharply dur­ing the 1890s. The association faced the decline of the camp meeting and throughout the decade attempted to ward off its ultimate collapse. It advertised extensively, particularly encouraging relaxa­tion, and promoted Mountain Grove more as a resort than a religious experience. Only twice after 1891 did news­paper announcements specifically mention spiritual ac­tivities and the once-lauded “eminent divines” speaking at the auditorium. In neither instance did they contain much detail. Strangers in the area, reading this advertisement in 1898, might well err in their expectations of a visit to the campgrounds: “Don’t miss the Mountain Grove meeting. The grove is beautiful. The water is pure and crystal clear, air cool, scenery fine – an attractive mountain resort.”

Association policies on the grounds complemented the secular thrust of the advertis­ing. Mountain Grove’s board of managers opened the gates in advance of the meeting for private outings of various sorts. By the middle of the decade guests brought their own furniture and housewares, rented tents at group rate, and vacationed as if they were at a lakeside spa. The railroad constructed a spur from the depot onto the grounds, announced it would ship baggage free and offered round-trip fares at reduced rates. Management maintained the fences and gates, locking the latter each evening in order to provide guests with privacy-a practice common at exclusive resorts of the period. The association purchased a piano-organ and offered nightly musical programs. Concessionaires pro­liferated both on and off the grounds. Earlier efforts to pre­serve “the holy quiet” gave way to promenades and laugh­ter on Sundays, while secular events at the tabernacle con­sistently drew larger audiences than religious services in the auditorium.

But providing Mountain Grove with a more secular appeal failed to recapture the popularity of the meeting. At­tendance and profits both tumbled. Fences repaired earlier went neglected at the end. Many tents remained unrented. The railroad curtailed service. The gates hung unevenly, their limpness symbolic.

The board of managers mounted a special effort in 1900 to reverse the decline. It cleaned the grounds, con­structed a new building and launched an ambitious news­paper campaign with the optimistic prediction that “great interest has been aroused in the meeting this year and it is expected that there will be a large attendance.” However, advertising did not work as hoped, a fact rec­ognized even before the 1900 meeting actually convened. Tn a last minute change of strategy, the association re­turned to its familiar emphasis on rest and recreation. Offi­cials announced that the associ­ation had “materially improved” the grounds and many Bloomsburg families, with names provided, had voiced their intent to come. “Every­thing,” a spokesman claimed, “that can be done is done for the comfort and convenience of tenters and visitors.” But everything failed. The asso­ciation once again lost money.

The camp meeting at Moun­tain Grove, and elsewhere in a growing urban and indus­trial America, had lost favor with its constituency. The anxieties of the post-Civil War years had gradually dis­solved. Patriotism and in­dustrialism seemed to provide the final answers to a na­tion’s needs, and to partake of both appeared to be the highest expression of faith. By the Gay Nineties, middle America looked beyond the church and camp meeting to the flag and factory for con­fidence. Prosperity swept the nation and the region dur­ing the nineties and, despite the depression of 1893, Blooms­burg and other communities in the district expanded rapidly. Citizens easily dreamed of reaching important niches in contemporary life. In this milieu, luxurious resorts multiplied and flourished, becoming more affordable and easier to reach, attracting a prospering middle class seek­ing both rest and status as it paused in the midst of its ex­ertions. Bloomsburg resi­dents who once attended the camp meeting now enjoyed inexpensive vacations at the seashore or distant lakes, or gathered with friends in pri­vate camps bearing such honest names as Camp Idyl, Camp Idleness and Hobo Cozy. The presiding elder of the district remarked in 1891 that the meeting “was not so well attended as in other years, when cheap excursions to Ocean Grove and other seaside and mountain resorts, which are now opened up, were unknown.”

Consequently, the social composition of meeting-goers changed markedly by the outset of the 1890s. Of the twenty-five prominent Blooms­burg families who were once loyal to the camp meeting, only one continued to regularly sojourn at Mountain Grove. Instead, the local families who once merited attention in the press represented a de­cidedly less prestigious and monied segment. Among them were more employees than employers and a consid­erable number of unchaper­oned single men and women. For every one who tented at the meeting, nearly a dozen only “Sundayed” or visited briefly. They came to relax, play, court, enjoy the entertain­ment – in short, to have the best vacation that moderate cir­cumstances allowed.

Faced with the loss of its earlier patrons and the urgent need to protect both its investment and the reputation of the district, the associa­tion redirected policies and actions toward the new clien­tele. But all efforts during the nineties to find an attrac­tive and profitable blend of piety and recreation failed mis­erably. The people who at­tended the camp meeting lacked the necessary financial and social resources to keep it sol­vent, and by 1900 the man­agement openly offered merely a low cost resort with a Methodist atmosphere. But it still could not stem the irreversible decline. 1t had no other prudent option than to close the grounds.

A meeting in 1901 passed quietly, with scarcely a prior announcement and no report following the last march. In 1902 the association sold the land to a local farmer and the buildings and furniture to area residents. By the end of that year only the boardwalk from the depot to the gates remained, already deteriorating as scrub growth broke through the pine planks. The camp meeting, much like many other Vic­torian era religious and social institutions – the prolific drama and reading clubs, sew­ing circles, bible associa­tions – inevitably disappeared, a phenomenon in its own right. And, although it was tucked away in the still, remote mountainside of Luzerne County, the Mountain Grove Camp Meeting and its inevitable decline reflected the changing aspirations and dreams of an emerging industrial America.

 

For Further Reading

Annual Circular of the Mountain Grove Camp Meeting Association. Privately printed, 1873.

Annual Minutes of the Central Pennsylvania Conference, March, 1873. Philadelphia: Pri­vately printed, 1873.

Baffle, J.H., ed. History of Columbia and Montour Coun­ties, Pennsylvania. Chicago: A. Warner, 1887.

Johnson, Charles A. The Frontier Camp Meeting. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1955.

Patterson, Richard S., ed. Patterson Grove Centennial, 1868-1968. Privately printed, 1968.

Storaska, Marion. Pioneer Sugar­loaf Valley. Mountain Grove: Privately printed, 1970.

Schotter, H. W. The Growth and Development of the Penn­sylvania Railroad Company. Philadelphia: Allen, Lime and Scott, 1927.

 

Craig A. Newton received his Ph.D. from Western Reserve Uni­versity and has been a professor at Bloomsburg State Uni­versity since 1966. He is the author and editor of more than a dozen articles and extended essays on local history, including “Columbia County is Diversity” which appeared in the summer 1983 issue of Pennsylvania Heritage. With James R. Sperry, he co­authored a monograph entitled A Quiet Boomtown: Jamison City, Pa., 1889-1912.