Monday, July 12, 2010

Remembering Summertime Old Time Gospel Meetings

[Photograph: A singing school at the Mt. Zion Methodist Church, Robertson County, Tenn.]
J. Mark Lowe
Robertson County Historical Society

Growing up in Robertson County, some of my best stories are about attending Gospel Meetings or as some groups call a Revival Meeting. These were almost always in the mid-Summer after crops were growing, but before the busy harvest season. Hosted by local churches, these meetings typically brought in a visiting evangelist for a week-long event.
These events almost always began with a great food event. Although you don’t hear this phrase as often these days, the concept of dinner on the grounds is still a part of summer church gatherings. When I was a young man, these dinners were often held under the shade trees of some church member’s yard. Remember, we didn’t have air-conditioned homes or churches in those days.
Mr. John Sory and Maxine Inman Stroud hosted many of these picnics for the church of Christ in Cedar Hill. At that time, they lived on Garrett Road between Springfield and Cedar Hill. Their frame house set on a small hill with lots of trees in the front yard. The Stroud children, Faye, John, Tom, Sandra, Ken and Jim, helped everyone unload their food. Two large wagons covered with tablecloths became laden with some of the best food ever made. After the traditional blessing by the visiting preacher, the crowd would grow quiet while plates were heaped with favorite recipes and traditional foods. Almost everyone had a garden then, so the fresh tomatoes, squash casseroles, green beans, garden peas, and sliced cucumbers were homegrown and freshly picked.
Henry W. ‘Bill’ Baggett would choose his favorite dish, usually a dessert, and declare it ‘larrupin good.’ Of course, everyone who hadn’t tasted his choice, had to come back for their own judgment. There are some great restaurants in Robertson county and surrounds, but most of my favorite foods are directly related to these ‘dinners on the grounds’ Miss Lucille’s pickles, Miss Janie Ruth’s rolls and chocolate pies, Miss Ann’s roast beef and potatoes, Miss Rebecca’s ‘fatback’ and my Mama’s cherry cobbler have formed my taste buds. The ladies would often share and receive recipes for a new entree or family favorite.
After enjoying this bountiful feast, the crowd would settle down for conversation and the young folks would wander away to play. With six Stroud children as hosts, the young people at their home were well entertained. I still remember the year when I rode a bicycle around the yard at the Strouds. My usual gang of friends were there: Billy Corbin, Ken Stroud, Jim Stroud, Gail Carter [Jenkins], Steve Carter. Although my brothers had bicycles, their bikes were too large for me to ride. Ken showed me how to pedal and keep my balance. The group balanced the bicycle as I took my first tentative ride. I rode around the back of the house and began to build up some speed. As I approached the side of the house, the yard ran down to the driveway which sloped even further toward the road. Feeling very confident, I peddled away from my protectors and headed towards the driveway. Once I had committed to that direction, I realized that the cars were parked so closely that I wouldn’t be able to navigate this wobbly two-wheeled device between the cars.
In spite of my wonderful tutelage by Ken and the gang, they had failed to show me one important action. I did not know how to stop the bicycle. Rolling ever faster down the driveway, I realized that my stop would probably be sudden and hard. Deciding whose car I would hit was flashing through my mind, but choices like that would require more dexterity than this young boy could muster. Splat! I stopped in the middle of someone’s green Oldsmobile. No visible damage to either the car, bicycle or me, although my bruises did not appear until later. My entourage decided we should probably restrict our riding to the back and side yards.
We wandered back towards the adults when we heard a discussion about keeping in shape. Our young minister, Frank Bunner, challenged another of the men to a push-up contest. Willie Carter was the other challenger. Willie suggested they do inverted push-ups with their feet up the side of a tree. Mr. Carter then demonstrated and did several push-ups basically while standing on his head. The two men laughed and the younger Bunner told Mr. Carter that he believed he could still wrestle him down. I believe there might be old home movies of the Bunner-Carter wrestling match. The two men grappled and tussled while laughing and encouraging the other. There was no doubt that Willie Carter would be the winner. I remember some mention of the wrestling match during the sermon that night, but don’t recall the details, except Jacob and the angel.

Usually after all had played awhile, a group would pull out some songbooks and an impromptu acapella singing would erupt. Gathering around with our parents and their friends was often a highlight of the day. E.W. ‘Dutch’ Armstrong was the prominent bass. His brother, Doug Armstrong, would often take the lead, while everyone else joined the singing. The Armstrong boys had learned to sing back in Stewart county in one of the traveling singing schools. Using shaped notes, they often would share techniques for reading music with our group. Although the harmony was beautiful, all were invited to participate, whether they could carry a tune or not.
This wonderful event finally ended when someone suggested they needed to go feed the cows or milk before church time. Family, friends and visitors were warmly greeted as they parted this wonderful fellowship.
More on these memories later. Keep telling those stories

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