RIDGEVILLE — Families arrived soon after the fire engines Friday to survey the damage at Cypress Campground in the wake of the second suspicious fire at the historical site in as many months.
Some had attended annual revivals at the nine ruined cabins or "tents" going back generations. All the early-morning fire left were brick chimneys, metal furnaces and the occasional blackened post poking up from an ashen footprint. Warped tin from the roofs lay on the ground, still crinkling from the heat, as a smell like a spent campfire wafted from the ground.
Near the middle of the row of burned buildings was the tent that Peggy Myers' father built. If she could save one thing, Myers said, it would be a table that seated 18 where the family used to gather until the wee hours of the morning.
"Other than that, they were material things," Myers said, "but there were a lot of memories around that table."
Families like hers would come to the primitive accommodations, with no running water or electricity, for Camp Meeting every October. The week-long retreats began as an autumn religious revival for farm families who arrived by wagon. They spent the week camping in dirt-floored, wood-stove cabins, which they called "tents" because they had evolved from the original canvas shelters used by their forebears.
More recently, the meet has given families a wholesome, faith-filled escape, a chance to spend time together over hearty old-fashioned meals.
The campground's 53 tents curve around an open-air tabernacle and the Cypress United Methodist Church. The site has been in use since 1794, when Methodist missionary Francis Asbury arrived on horseback to preach to surrounding communities.
The campground has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978 and still has two 150-year-old build-ings, said Mattie Lee Browning, the site's resident historian whose late husband was descended from the original participants. Structures destroyed in recent fires weren't as old.
Firefighters initially went to Indian Field in St. George around 2:30 a.m. Friday, because a caller misidentified the site.
As they approached the correct spot between U.S. Highway 78 and Interstate 26, Engineer Mike Smith of the Ridgeville Volunteer Fire Department noticed flames shooting to the nearby treetops.
Fire Chief Herbert Cummings said it took members of a dozen rural fire departments in Berkeley and Dorchester counties a couple of hours to put out the flames.
An April 29 fire at the campground destroyed five cabins and damaged a sixth. Friday's fire started in almost the exact spot where the earlier one ended — the 14th tent in a row of 26. A cinder-block wall helped firefighters stop it from spreading beyond tent 22.
Though Dorchester County sheriff's investigators weren't ready to label it arson, many of the families were. At least two pledged $5,000 each in reward money for information leading to an arrest and conviction.
C.S. Carter, who owned the building where the fire started, was one of those who offered a reward from his own pocket. Carter said the previous fire caused minor damage to his tent.
Lynn Hoover, one of the campground's five trustees, said there was an existing $2,100 reward through Crime Stoppers for information about the first fire.
"The first time we thought it could just be an accident," Hoover said. "I'm praying for the person who's doing it."
Sheriff's 1st Sgt. Michael Miller only would say that the fires were "suspicious." The one in April left such extensive damage that investigators were unable to say whether an accelerant was used, Miller said, and the new investigation was just getting under way.
Tents burned at Cypress in 1988, 1989 and at least two other times during the past half-century.
There are four similar campgrounds in the region, some of which also have suffered from fires: Indian Field, St. Paul, Shady Grove and Cattle Creek. An arson fire at Indian Field in 1995 destroyed a row of tents and a fire at St. Paul in Harleyville the next year destroyed two tents and damaged a third.
Families own various tents at Cypress and they refer to the buildings by surnames: the Hughes tent, the Hill tent, the Carter tent and so on.
Myers, who longed for the 18-person table, said her family's tent had burned previously in the 1980s.
Her father, Warren Hughes, rebuilt it with five upstairs rooms — one for each of his children, including her. He numbered the rooms one to five, and let his children draw lots from a bowl to decide which one they got.
Now, her father is 90 and her mother is 86. Myers had been to their house that morning: "I just went and told them about it."
Reach Noah Haglund at 937-5550 or firstname.lastname@example.org.