RIDGEVILLE — Tradition is at the heart of the Cypress Campground, and tradition just might have kept it from burning to the ground Tuesday morning.
A "tent" owner, on his way to work in the late night, did what the campground families have done for generations when they go by. He drove the circle of 53 wooden-cabin tents checking on the remote, two-century-old site they call holy ground — the cabins, the open-air tabernacle in the field at the center, the church whose heritage dates to the Colonial days of Methodist circuit rider Francis Asbury.
He did it because another tradition at Cypress and the other four Lowcountry campgrounds — fire and vandalism — is darker and more sinister.
That campground member's emergency call roused 11 rural fire departments quickly enough that the fire, hot enough to melt the plastic hooks holding welcoming branches on the church door across the way and soaring high enough to scorch pine trees taller than the steeple, was confined to six cabins, five of which were ruined and one damaged.
By daylight the destroyed cabins were no more than embers and chars, "a sickening mess" in the words of one member. But the campground as a whole kept its unshakable sense of peace, its field full of yellow wildflowers.
That presence has drawn the faithful to Cypress Campground for Camp Meeting since at least 1794, the earliest known record of the Lowcountry gatherings.
Camp Meeting is the rural region's distinctive heritage, weeklong retreats among rural congregation families who have known each other since the first churches opened their doors as log cabins. The meetings began as an autumn religious revival for farm families coming in their wagons after the harvest, to "camp" for the week in the primitive, dirt floored, wood- stove cabins.
Preaching remains its centerpiece, morning and night in the open-air tabernacle in the field. Even in the seasons between meetings, when the grounds are quiet, "people like to come out to the tabernacle, sit and pray and meditate. Because it is holy ground. It's a place you can really feel the presence of God," said Cypress trustee Lynn Hoover.
Today, as in old times, the week is also a festive indulgence of homespun cooking, amid a reunion of kith and kin separated by the miles. It says a lot of what you need to know about Camp Meeting that it's always been and still is a place of courtship.
"It's an opportunity for a religious revival. It's also an opportunity to visit friends and family on an occasion other than a funeral. People come from far off to see everybody at once," said Hoover, who met her husband at Camp Meeting.
The wooden cabins are little more than tinder, lined up stick to stick, and so susceptible to fire that families at Cypress and the other four campgrounds — Indian Field, St. Paul, Shady Grove and Cattle Creek — can't get insurance. They're so isolated in the countryside that help comes from volunteer firefighters who must be called out.
"Fire is always in the back of our minds," Hoover said. Tents burned at Cypress in 1988, 1989 and at least two other times in her lifetime. In 1962 a fire destroyed tents a week before Camp Meeting. The revival was put off a week until they could hastily be replaced, and held during Halloween with families dressing in period costumes and trick-or-treating from tent to tent.
The other trouble is vandalism — shattered windows, spray-painted walls, broken locks and broken-into cabins. Ironically, at Cypress a lot of that damage is done to the cabins that face the church sanctuary door, because they are farthest from the road and partially hidden by the church. Those are the cabins that burned Tuesday. Firefighters said they suspect arson.
An arson fire at Indian Field in St. George in 1995 destroyed a row of tents. A fire at St. Paul in Harleyville the next year destroyed two tents and damaged a third.
On Tuesday, Bill Welch toed the ruins of his family tent at Cypress, where only the wood stove and a few blackened shards of dishes and cups remained.
"It's the second time in my life it's been burned. It's been vandalized a couple of times," he said, hands in his pockets, staring down at the ground. He told his elderly grandmother about the damage but wouldn't let her come look. She was too upset. "It's been in the family so long. She remembers granddad rebuilt it (after the last fire). She's done a lot of work out here."
In the ruin of the next cabin over, Edna Hill pulled an iron griddle and cooking pots from the cinders. Her family owns a cabin not damaged by the fire. "It's not so much the cabins (burning). It's the memories. It's like a death," she said. "You've got old people coming out here you don't know if they'll make it the next time."
She pointed out the curious pan-like lid of a cooking pot. Her grandmother showed her how to put hot coals on it, to cook cornbread so it's browned on both sides. Just like in old times.
"I'd hate to go to the Pearly Gates behind him," said church neighbor Charles Bragg, about the idea that someone might have set the fire. "I've got enough explaining to do on my own." He offered Welch his hand and his phone number, told him to call if he needed help rebuilding.
"If Camp Meeting don't touch your heart, nothing will," Bragg told him. "Grace of God, you've got to rebuild."