Balls Creek Campmeeting is tradition, way of life and memories

Campmeeting in August is a way of life in Catawba County. Matter of fact, it’s been that way for the past 156 year,when the first campmeeting was held.
In August 1853, Rev. H. H. Durant and Rev. Lewis Scarborough held religious services at the sight of the current Balls Creek Campground, under a brush arbor that first year. Folks traveled to campmeeting along dusty roads in covered wagons, and either lived in their wagons for the duration or erected canvas tents. Ten or so families built permanent wooden structures, or “tents,“ to stay in for the 1853 services.
Under guidance of Methodists in the community, the campmeeting and campground at Balls Creek were established in that year.
Campmeeting is always held in August because, as folks say, the crops are in, and it’s time to rest a spell.
However, for several weeks or more, there’s little rest as tents are opened, cleaned, repaired, remodeled and made ready for the annual two weeks of campmeeting.
Marian Abernathy, of Maiden, spends evenings and weekends readying the family’s tent.
“Once campmeeting begins, you can no longer work on your tent,” Abernathy said.
When Abernathy and her husband, Gerald, open Tent 43 (named by Gerald “after the greatest race car driver ever — Richard Petty”), the first step is to blow out all the dust that collected during the year. Dust and grime accumulates easily in rough hewn wooden walls and floors.
“Then, we take a water hose and clean the entire tent,” she laughed.
Campmeeting has been a part of Marian Abernathy’s life.
“I went every year with my aunt and uncle, Clarence and Eva Jones,” Abernathy said. “My daddy, Tom Shuford, went to campmeeting in a covered wagon.”
Twenty-one years ago, Abernathy inherited her aunt and uncle’s tent, which is just about the only way to obtain a tent. Very few are sold, but instead are passed from generation to generation.
Abernathy knows of a tent for sale now for $65,000. And, as the saying goes, “location, location, location.” The better the location, the higher the value, especially if it’s on the main road.
And, when it’s not campmeeting, and the campground and 300 tents are quiet and deserted, folks who pass by that don’t know about campmeeting don’t understand why it hasn’t been demolished.
“They don’t understand — you have to love campmeeting to enjoy it, and that’s the truth,” Abernathy said. “Because if campmeeting isn’t in your blood, you won't [enjoy campmeeting]. If you don't like lizards, ants, dust and heat but love ice cream and paddle ball and swinging, then you’ll love it.”
Years ago, someone told Abernathy that tents look like something cows live in. Abernathy took the comment lightly and in good fun.
Apparently, her friends and family also found the comment amusing, to they began to “gift” Abernathy with, well, cows.
“Everybody gives me a cow — our tent is full of cows,” Abernathy said with a twinkle in her eye. “I collect cows and keep them in the tent, not at our home.”
During campmeeting, friends, on their walk around the circle, stop by to visit the Abernathys and see the cows.
Swinging and walking the circle are two favorite pastimes duriung campmeeting.
For Abernathy, it’s a special time to greet old friends and make new friends.
“I love campmeeting,” she said. “I see people once a year that don't live close to us, and we make new friends each year.”
Matter of fact, the Abernathys and 27 friends meet twice during the year — at a spring fling and for a Christmas party.
Abernathy, 66, has kept a scrapbook from the last 12 years, and has many memories of early campmeetings.
“In the 1950s, everybody wore dresses —no shorts and no pants,“ she said. “Everyone wore high heels and their finest and frilliest in order to look their best. Now, it’s shorts and flip flops.
“I guess times have to change,” she added with a smile.
Although times do change, much of campmeeting remains the same as it always was: singing and preaching every night.
The days pass by at a slower pace during campmeeting, as the sultry days of summer issue the call to take it easy, relax and do very little.
Activities are much the same as those first campmeetings, and while the campgrounds retain their historic flavor, a certain amount of “modernization” is OK.
There is electricity and running water, but there are no TVs and no phones. Well, except for cell phones now.
“It’s nice to go to a place with no TV,” Abernathy said. “It takes you to a good place.”
The Shack is still there — a large, wooden sit-down restaurant that sells supplies, hot dogs and burgers. The line is long at the ice cream window.
“Part of the Shack is the Toy Store, which sells inexpensive toys for the children, such as the old-fashion paddle balls,” Abernathy said.
The Jail is still standing, and years ago, if someone got out of hand, they were put in the jail until the police picked them up.
“We have an 11 p.m. curfew, and when it rings everyone must go to their tents,” Abernathy said. “You have to be quiet, and visitors know it’s time to leave.”
And of course, more than a social gathering, campmeeting offers a time for friends and family to worship and sing together, as area church pastors continue to lead evening services.
“I enjoy the singing every night and a different preacher every night — campmeeting will never lose its meaning,” Abernathy said. “It’s a good place for family and friends, and if you come one time, you’ll come back, that’s for sure.”
The last day of campmeeting, “Big Sunday,” is special.
After services, all the families meet at their tent.
“We have a big spread of good food and fun after church,” Abernathy said. “Everyone loves it.”
After Aug. 22, the tents are cleared out, cleaned up and locked down until next year’s campmeeting. Abernathy, who serves as one of the trustees for Balls Creek Campground, said the trustees will meet soon after campmeeting and then four times during the year to plan for the campmeeting — a special way of life for many folks.
Campmeeting, an important part of Catawba County’s culture, remains an annual tradition for those who attend.
“It’s always good food, family and friends,” Abernathy repeated. “Children grew up playing together there. It’s a special place.”