There are degrees of rural in Kentucky. My own experience, though it felt isolated at times (growing up on a farm does curb one’s teenage exploits), barely fulfills the definition as I see it in other areas of the Commonwealth. Despite the marked nuances of what rural means, certain themes defined the rural Kentucky lifestyle historically – chief among them the church. And in some instances, the camp meeting. On my first trip to Crittenden County, Kentucky, a few years ago, I delighted in my “discovery” of two historic camp meeting grounds in the rural Western Kentucky county. The largest, Hurricane Camp, is located near Tolu, about 10 miles northwest of the county seat of Marion.
The term “camp meeting” was completely unknown to me. A week at Presbyterian church camp as a child had not revealed this staple of Kentucky religious life to me. The family of my great-great-grandmother, Bettie Gano Rogers Prewitt, was intimately involved in Cane Ridge Church in Bourbon County, one of the symbols of the Great Revival that swept over the western part of the country in the early 19th century.
The camp meeting grounds I explored in Crittenden County arise from these open air revivals of the Second Awakening Movement. But Hurricane Camp, located in northern Crittenden County near the town of Tolu, bears little resemblance to the quiet church and cemetery of Cane Ridge.
Hurricane Camp, organized in 1888-99, is still going strong in the 21st century. Though the week-long camp meeting tradition dates to the late-19th century, Hurricane Church was established in 1843. Like the meeting shed, the church at Hurricane Camp is a replacement, built around 1931. A fire in 1919 destroyed the second church building.
I don’t know the exact origins of the name of Hurricane, but an early resident settled that name on the creek near the site of the future meeting grounds. A post office called Hurricane was established in 1867; the post office was later moved to Tolu and renamed.
The meeting grounds are extensive, with rolling hills sheltering a variety of buildings and a cemetery. A very large shed, built much like its 19th century predecessor, accommodates attendees on simple wooden benches.
Ringing around the shed and church are frame and concrete block cabins (for camp attendees), a dining hall and a large cemetery.
Local historian Brenda Underdown has extensively researched the past camp meetings at Hurricane, and the impact of the annual meeting on the lives of residents is evident. “The yearly event was the highlight of many people’s social lives, just about the only social lives they had. Here they could recall old friendships made in years past, the ladies could visit and catch up on all the past and present news in their lives. Many courtships were made here and several marriages were the results of these meetings.” Her blog recounts camp meetings past and present, and is a fascinating glimpse into Crittenden County history.
Camp meetings aren’t unique to Kentucky – they are a property type once widespread across the south – but like many fragments of rural life, I imagine there are many sites of which nothing remains visible. Scattered research has been conducted, but I don’t know of any statewide effort to identify, document, and capture the story of Kentucky’s camp meeting grounds. Despite my late introduction to the camp meeting ground, I find it an enthralling aspect of rural life, and an important thread of dispersed Kentucky communities. There is another extant meeting ground in Crittenden County, though not as large as Hurricane – but I will save that story for another time.