About five miles south of Gray on Tennessee Highway 75 lies the site of the historic Sulphur Springs Camp Meeting which began around 1820, although the first meeting may have occurred as early as 1815. It is quite possible that Bishop Francis Asbury attended the camp meeting at Sulphur Springs because Asbury’s journal states that he attended a camp meeting revival close to Jonesborough but did not refer to this camp meeting by name. The camp meeting is believed to have been an extension of the “Great Revival,” which began in Virginia in 1798. The first accounts of the meeting indicate that the first services were held under a brush arbor.
Camp meetings were being held all over the Holston Conference of the Methodist Church by 1824. At the Sulphur Springs site, a two to three-week period was set aside toward the latter part of the summer for the camp meeting. People came from as far as 100 miles away in horse-drawn buggies and wagons equipped with the essential provisions for a two to three-week stay. Some brought a coop of chickens and freshly baked pies. Others brought livestock on the hoof, which were butchered upon arrival or as needed at the camp meeting site because there was no way to keep meat fresh. A huge communal pot, set upon racks above hot coals, was used to cook the meat. Everyone shared provisions and food. Horses were hitched under the shady oak trees beside Little Limestone Creek. The land where the current cemetery is located was used as pasture for the livestock.
In 1842 the temporary brush arbor was abandoned, and a new open-air building was erected to provide shelter to those attending the services. The Reverend William Milburn, one of the founders of Sulphur Springs Methodist Church, probably selected the site for the first camp shed. Payne Squibb, whose great-great grandchildren and their families still reside in the community and attend Sulphur Springs United Methodist Church, donated the land for the church and the camp meeting shed. The current structure was built on the first shed’s original site in 1900, using some of the hand-hewn beams from the first camp shed. The shed is a one-story, open-air structure with gables on a hipped roof. It is rectangular in shape and measures approximately seventy-four by sixty-five feet. The shed, supported by hewn and pegged timber truss work, consists of a stage area for clergy and choirs, unfinished plank pews, and a packed earth floor covered by fresh sawdust. In recent years, the sawdust has been replaced by chat to minimize the threat of termites. The original roof was replaced with standing metal, and electricity replaced the kerosene lamps around 1930.
Camps, built and owned by families who lived too far away for a daily commute or by families who wished to participate fully in the camp experience, lined the perimeter of the campground. These camps contained a kitchen and shelf-like bunks to accommodate all the women or men. Sleeping crosswise in the straw-filled bunks, persons could share a bed with five or six others. Some camps even had sleeping lofts accessible by ladders. Families often arrived early to bring supplies and set up housekeeping. One camp was designed as the “Preachers’ Camp,” and oftentimes eligible females vied for the honor of readying up the preachers’ beds. Some of the clergy elected to find lodging in neighborhood homes.
Around 1918, R. A. N. Walker built a dormitory for students at Sulphur Springs School, which also served as a boarding house during camp meeting services. It also served as the place for food preparation for thousands of people who attended the services. Cooper John Keys, manager of the dormitory during camp meeting, would bring 1,000 pounds of beef and butcher over 200 chickens every two weeks to feed the people attending the meeting. The food at the dormitory was supplemented by food brought by families in the neighborhood or cooked at the camps.
The first water supply was a hand-dug well that served the grounds until 1903. At that time Sulphur Springs Cemetery was opened above the well, and people were reluctant to drink water that had flowed under graves. George Price hauled water in wooden barrels to the campgrounds using an ox-drawn wagon. In 1910, a line was run from Carder Spring to two adjoining concrete tanks. Ice covered with sawdust was brought from Jonesborough and placed in a small holding tank between the two larger ones. After the sawdust was washed off, the ice was placed in the water filling the two larger tanks. Each tank had several spigots, and everyone drank from the same dipper.
Toilet facilities consisted of a pitless outhouse for the women, and the gentlemen were forced to retire to nearby fields to answer nature’s call.
A ram’s horn would summon all to the 9:00 a. m. service, the first of three services held daily. The largest crowds attended the Sunday services, and for many years Sunday was also the day of the Lovefeast. During the Lovefeast, people would give their personal testimonies as bread and water were passed.
Later the tone of the event began to change as candy, snack, and watermelon wagons began to appear on the grounds. However, one strict observance was followed –no goods were sold on Sunday. A picket fence was built around the campground during the 1920s and ‘30s, much to the dismay of many persons who attended the meetings. A fee of ten cents was charged to defray the expenses of the campground and to provide funds for transporting the visiting preachers to the meetings.
In 1976 Congressman James Quillen had Sulphur Springs Campground entered into the National Register of Historic Places. A stone marker was placed in front of the camp shed to commemorate this event. In 1999 the campground was designated as United Methodist Historic Site Number 361, and information appears in the United Methodist Archives in New Jersey.
Sulphur Springs Camp Meeting is one of the few remaining camp meetings in this area. It is a historic spot filled with folklore and memories of a cherished gathering place for God’s people throughout the early years of this community as well as today. The Johnson City District of United Methodist Churches still conducts a district-wide revival meeting at the campground site each year beginning on the first Sunday in August and continuing nightly through the following Wednesday.