Just up the road a piece from Gray Station, Tennessee, is the Sulphur Springs community. Sulphur Springs, in Washington County, is where my mother went to school—she graduated top of her class from Sulphur Springs High School in 1961. Sulphur Springs is now a K-8 school, and area high school students attend nearby Daniel Boone High School, which is where my oldest sister went.
In addition to going to school there, Mom would visit Sulphur Springs on Friday nights with Grandmother Hale, who would drive them there from their farm in Gray. Her Uncle Ivan, my grandmother’s brother, and Aunt Oria had a store in Sulphur Springs. “If we had any eggs leftover, we’d take them and sell them—and they would buy them,” she said. “And mom visited with Uncle Ivan and Aunt Oria in the store, and I went back where they lived and visited with Carolyn and Gerald, their daughter and son. We would buy a few things, not many.”
By the time I came around, Uncle Ivan and Aunt Oria lived in Johnson City near the university—but I always enjoyed hearing about the little store they used to run in Sulphur Springs.
Granddaddy visited Sulphur Springs also. “Dad took his Ford tractors, truck and car and lawnmowers, etc., to Nelson’s Garage in Sulphur Springs for repairs,” Mom said. “Two brothers named Waldo and Hansel owned and operated Nelson’s Garage. It was located down the hill and across the road from Sulphur Springs High School.”
I grew up in Sullivan County, about 20-30 minutes away, but we visited the area from time to time when I was growing up, and my siblings sometimes played ball there in the summer. When I think of Sulphur Springs, one particular area comes to mind—the Methodist church, the cemetery, the camp meeting shed and the school. These are all just a hop, skip or jump from each other.
A big reason we visited Sulphur Springs was for Decoration Day at the Methodist church. Decoration Day is a day—typically held around Memorial Day—set aside for the decorating of graves as well as special worship services and dinner on the grounds. If you have ancestors buried at a particular church’s cemetery, then it would be common for you to make sure that your loved ones’ graves are properly decorated with flowers, to attend that church’s Decoration Day services and to stay for a potluck lunch or dinner. My great grandparents, Orgel Ralph and Addie Mae Shanks Keys, are buried at the cemetery by Sulphur Springs United Methodist Church, and so we would attend Decoration there, as would several other relatives on my mother’s side of the family. After services, we would enjoy eating and then we were free to run around and play outside while my mother visited with family and friends. Of course, we also would visit the cemetery to see the beautiful flowers, and Mom would tell us not to step on the graves—but I was confused as to exactly where it was safe to step. Now, many years later, the cemetery is where more of our loved ones—those who used to attend Decoration there, too—are resting in peace. It is a lovely resting place for my Aunt Edith, for Uncle Ivan and Aunt Oria and their son Gerald, my mom’s first cousin.
By the cemetery stands the shed for camp meetings, which have been held in Sulphur Springs consecutively for some 200 years. The historical sign there reads: “The Methodist church has conducted camp meetings here since 1820. Camp meetings are religious revivals at which participants eat and sleep on site. The first shed at Sulphur Springs Camp Meeting Grounds was erected in 1842. A new shed, 74 feet by 45 feet, was built in 1900, using hand-hewn logs taken from the original structure. Those who traveled long distances to attend the gatherings here, usually held in later summer, spent two to three weeks in brush arbors during the early periods and in cabins during later years.”
While I don’t have any memory of ever attending camp meeting at Sulphur Springs, I do remember playing around the shed area as well as hearing family members talk about the annual services. In fact, my Aunt Edith Keys, my grandmother’s sister, was a regular attendee for more than 80 years. I have an August 2000 Johnson City Press article featuring Aunt Edith for her 81 consecutive years of attending the event. That year, she was presented with the Supporter of the Year award during the final evening of fellowship.
The Rev. Betty Furches, who officiated at Aunt Edith’s funeral in 2012, is quoted in the article: “She has been coming to camp meeting for 81 years. The first time she came, she was an infant in arms. She remembers her family coming from Blackley Creek in a Model T. She remembers the modernization of the shed. She remembers those who have come and gone. She has never missed a camp meeting in all the years of her life.”
Aunt Edith is also quoted in the story: “This is pretty embarrassing because I didn’t know this was coming up. But I sure do appreciate it. And, as you know, I sure have enjoyed coming to this camp meeting for a long, long time.
I’m not sure when exactly Aunt Edith’s declining health prohibited her from attending camp meeting at Sulphur Springs, but I recently came across an e-mail from Mom from August of 2005. In it, she mentioned that she had talked to Aunt Edith and cousin Carolyn, who had been visiting from Indiana, and they both had been attending camp meeting that month.
Aunt Edith’s final resting place is by her parents and just across from the camp meeting site—so her attendance continues, all these years later, at the historical Sulphur Springs United Methodist Church’s camp meetings. I hope to attend one day, too.