Inside the Hartselle Camp Meeting: Hartselle man researches history of Alabama’s longest running camp meeting
By Catherine Godbey
For the Enquirer
After two years and more than 1,000 hours of research at the Library of Congress, Morgan County Archives, Duke University, Asbury University and in newspaper archives, Jimmy Yarbrough compiled a book dedicated to the longest running camp meeting in Alabama — the Hartselle Camp Meeting.
“When I started this, we knew so little and I wanted to get a complete history of our camp,” Yarbrough, a retired teacher and member of the Hartselle Camp Meeting board, said. “The more I’ve learned about camp, the more I love camp and the more respect I have for it.”
On Sunday, 124th annual Hartselle Camp Meeting began. The weeklong camp meeting will continue through Friday with daily services at 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m.
“The Hartselle Camp Meeting is such a special place. I didn’t want its history to be lost forever. That’s why I devoted most of the past two years to finding all I could about the camp,” Yarbrough said. “And, really, I have had a lot of fun doing it. I love history and all the interesting facts you can find.”
Yarbrough’s “A History of the Hartselle Camp Meeting,” which he completed this year, spans more than 125 years and includes information about how the land for the camp meeting was acquired, the history behind “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” — the camp song — the food — fried chicken was the favorite — and a list of all of the evangelists. Prior to Yarbrough’s research, the list of evangelists at the Hartselle Camp Meeting dated back to the 1970s.
In the book, Yarbrough profiles the camp’s early evangelists, including Professor C.P. Gossett, a former circus clown; Rev. J.B. Kendall, a former barkeep; Rev. E.A. Ferguson, a former railroad engineer; and Uncle Bud Robinson, who, at the time of his conversion, had a pistol in one pocket and a deck of cards in the other.
In the book, Yarbrough included Robinson’s daily prayer, “Lord, give me a backbone as big as a sawlog and ribs like sleepers under the church floor. Put iron shoes on me and galvanized breeches, and hang a wagon-load of determination in the gable end of my soul. And help me to sign the contract to fight the devil as long as I have a vision, and bite him as long as I have a tooth, and then gum him till I die.”
“Some of these guys, you look at their background and you would never think they would be evangelists. It just goes to show you God can use anybody,” Yarbrough said. “We had some of the cream of the crop of evangelists in those early years.
The early camp evangelists also included Rev. L.L. Pickett, who ran for vice president of the United States; Hamp Sewell, who wrote the music for the hymns “There is Room in His Heart for You” and “Sweeter as the Days Go By;” Rev. H.C. Morrison, the two-time president of Asbury College; Lelia Owen Stratton, who held revivals in every major city in the South; and John Lakin Brasher, who spoke at the first 11 camp meetings. Brasher returned to speak to the Hartselle Camp Meeting in 1968 at the age of 100.
“He spoke for an hour and said, ‘I probably won’t be back.’ Well, the next year he was back,” Yarbrough said.
Brasher’s grandson, Larry Brasher, professor emeritus at Birmingham-Southern and author of “The Sanctified South,” described Yarbrough’s work as, “The most complete camp meeting history of any camp in the United States.”
Another notable name in the camp’s history is Ben Huckabee, who founded the Hartselle Camp Meeting. Huckabee, who was born in Basham’s Gap in Morgan County in 1860, started leading tent meetings in north Alabama, including in Hartselle, Cullman and at the gates of the L&N Railyard in Decatur in 1895.
To secure land for the Hartselle Camp Meeting, Huckabee turned to prominent businessman Banks Bradley, who bought eight acres for $45.
“According to the story everyone tells, Bradley gave the land to the camp. What actually happened is he sold the land to representatives for the camp for $350. He made a nice little profit. He was definitely a businessman,” Yarbrough said.
Construction of the tabernacle began in February 1900 and was complete in July 1900, a month before the first camp meeting. Worshippers at the 124th annual Hartselle Camp Meeting will gather beneath the wooden rafters held aloft by cedar posts cut and peeled by homesteaders 124 years ago.
“At the first camp meeting, Brasher said he slept in a tent. He said that between the katydids and the trains, he didn’t get much sleep at all,” said the 75-year-old Yarbrough, who traveled to Duke University to read Brasher’s papers. “My mother remembered coming to camp meetings as a child and sleeping under their wagon.”
According to Yarbrough’s research, the early camp meetings attracted around 1,000 people. While the camp saw success, the meeting also experienced hardships.
“In 1933, during the Great Depression, the camp had no money. It looked like there would be no camp that year, but the Rev. Johnny Manasco of the Nazarene Church agreed to preach. In 1936, the camp was briefly canceled due to polio, but was held at a later date because the polio outbreak had waned,” Yarbrough said.
Rob Cain, president of the Hartselle Camp Meeting, has credited the longevity of the camp to the basics of Christianity.
“The gospel is ageless and the message is constant. It’s a message of God’s love for the lost and God’s love for the world. That message has been preached faithfully for the last century and a quarter,” Cain said.
Yarbrough started attending the Hartselle Camp Meeting in the early 1980s thanks to Margaret Puckett, who died last month. Puckett served as youth counselor and as the kitchen director at camp for 16 years.
“Every time I would bring Mrs. Puckett tomatoes and green beans, she would say, ‘Jimmy, why don’t you come to camp meeting?’ I finally did. I loved it. I liked the atmosphere and the preaching. We have had some very good evangelists,” Yarbrough said.
The evangelists for the 2023 Hartselle Camp Meeting are Rev. Barry Dunn of First Methodist Church in Hartselle and Rev. Bobby Ray Halbrooks of Falkville Methodist Church.
The 124th annual Hartselle Camp Meeting returned Sunday and runs through Friday night at 7 p.m. with Cain preaching the final sermon at 7 p.m.