Willimantic Camp Meeting Association – Circa 1860
The Willimantic Camp Meeting Association has joined the Home Tour for the 2nd time. An architectural treasure of one hundred private homes, four buildings will be open to the public. They include the Tabernacle, Barrows Cottage, the Ladies Improvement Society, and the Historical Building.
The Willimantic Camp Meeting Association, incorporated by the State of Connecticut, is an interdenominational Evangelical Association. The constitutional purpose is to maintain a camp meeting summer assembly with programs for Christian spiritual growth.
In the early 1800s, Methodists sought a place remote from neighbors where they could fully express their religious fervor. It was felt that once a year these groups should join together for a week of encampment and evangelism. The Willimantic Camp Meeting Association was established for just such a purpose. Early records indicate as many as 8,000 to 10,000 people attended. Through the Civil and World wars, the Hurricane of 1938, the Chestnut Blight, and the Great Depression, the Association has survived to become, it is said, “The oldest such campground in continuous operation in the United States.”
The Tabernacle was originally the “Preacher’s Stand,” until it was destroyed by the hurricane of 1938. We invite you to visit the site and contemplate the story of the original Tabernacle on your “hand-out” page. The first meeting was held on September 3, 1860. Folks came from near and far, by train, trolley, horseback and horse and buggy; hauling clothing, bedding, tents, and needed provisions up the hill. Along the way, they would be enticed by the many “hawkers” who lined Route 32 from the Garden on the Bridge to the entrance, trying to sell their wares. Yet, the center of Camp Meeting life and worship since the beginning has always been the Tabernacle. It remains at the very heart of all who live here.
As time went on, thankfully, the tabernacle morphed into a covered building with benches for the listeners. Since the meetings were an event to the larger community (and by the way, they still are) they often drew people from the town, occasionally even some rowdy “less desirable” characters. If these rowdy folks acted up, they were escorted by the “Campground Police” to a holding area beneath the Preacher’s Stand where they would hear the sermon the next morning in hopes they would give up “the demon rum” for a walk with Jesus. A visit to the Historical Building includes an exhibit of the police badges and billy clubs.
Worship services are held in this venerable outdoor building each Sunday from the beginning of July through Labor Day. The “Big Week” as it is often called, is always the last week in July and includes morning and evening services along with Vacation Bible School.
The Barrows Cottage
The Barrows Cottage is the oldest cottage on the grounds. Donated by its owner, Nettie Barrow, in the early 1900s, it was to be used primarily as a place of comfort to the guest preachers and others in ministry during Camp Meeting week. It is still used for this purpose today, yet it is also rented out from May through October for those who would like to spend some time here on “God’s Holy Hill” as resident Anita Murphy’s grandmother, Pearl Johnson, dubbed it.
The cottage has several special features, among them its board-and-batten siding and gable bracing which are typical of the Carpenter Gothic style, as are the pendants that hang like icicles from the eves.
The Haven aka “Ladies Improvement Society”
The Haven, known after 1907 as the “Ladies Improvement Society,” included men and women. The women developed and executed ideas, funding various good causes, and the men paid the bills. As women’s liberation came along, with the right to vote and to make financial decisions, the Ladies Improvement Society was pretty much managed totally by women, although they still raised money through donations as well as through various fundraisers such as the now annual Victorian Bazaar held on the last Saturday of June every year.
When the building was constructed, it was with the idea of providing a wide open space with no wooden supports to obstruct the view as meetings and sing-alongs were conducted there. Socials would have been held here, no doubt including such activities as the “cake walk” which was similar to musical chairs, only a cake was awarded to the winner.
To accomplish the task of providing a large open room in a building as wide as this one, a very unusual construction technique was used. The floorboards are almost three times thicker than the usual floor boards. They are 4 inches thick and 6 inches wide and have two tongues on one side and two grooves on the other. These kinds of planks are used today in cathedral ceilings in churches where the ceiling is also the roof. Then to support this very heavy ceiling, steel rods were fastened through very large blocks in the peak of the roof down through this ceiling and fastened with a large nut and washer in the middle of the ceiling. Since the peak of a roof is the strongest point, this has provided an excellent support for the ceiling to make a large spacious room. The focus of the main room is the divided grand staircase where brides often posed for their wedding pictures.
The Historical Building
At the top of Church circle sits another Campground treasure, originally known as the Putnam Church House and built in the late 1800s. This is where young folks came to experience Camp Meeting. On some of the walls their names and remarks remain from their stay here so very long ago. When it fell into disrepair and was slated to be torn down by the Board of Trustees, Pearl Johnson, wife of Reverend Charles Johnson, immediately set about to halt its demolition stating the need for a place on these grounds to document the campground’s history. Winning the trustees over, she gathered a repository of records and Camp Meeting memorabilia.
Visitors will enjoy seeing some of the many wonderful vintage items donated over the years. These include:
- Baby dresses and baby shoes
- A wedding dress with hoop
- A communion set
- A lantern that would have been among several that hung on the trees for the evening services…and to illuminate the walkways to the outhouses.
- The door from the old bakery oven
- Preacher’s clothing
Victoria House began humbly as “Mother Browne’s Cottage” in 1948. Daughter Charlotte often accompanied her family to these grounds as a young woman. Later Charlotte, an Exxon Valdez executive, married Dr. Al Mayers. The newlyweds loved traveling the world and became involved in the World Council of Churches and Boston University School of Theology.
Mother Brown’s cottage was soon thereafter remodeled to fulfill the couple’s vision of a small retreat center which would provide a gathering place for rural churches and pastors as well as sending out interns to these rural churches from Boston University School of Theology to help build up their churches. Boston University also supplied several renowned speakers. Bible studies, prayer meetings, forums, other meetings, and Christmas parties were among the several outreach efforts of Victoria House.
In 1983, Charlotte and Al Browne-Mayers formed the Beacon Trust which was comprised of Boston University School of Theology, The Willimantic Camp Meeting Association and The United Methodist Conference. This union led to many years of service to the extended community. Victoria House was gifted to The Willimantic Camp Meeting Association in January 2003, and has continued the vision and purpose initiated by the Browne-Mayers. This tour is truly an unforgettable trip back to the Victorian age.