Woodward on his "Hallowed Ground" series
When I returned to my home state in 2000 from having completed an in-depth documentary that told the story of the Brunswick stew tradition in Brunswick County, Virginia - where they claim that Brunswick stew originated, and have historical markers on every road and highway entering the County that say "Brunswick County - The Original Home of Brunswick Stew" - I began partnering with McKissick Museum and its Folklife Center at U.S.C. to produce documentaries about Southern culture and South Carolina folk heritage traditions that had gone undocumented, many which were "endangered species" of a sort because the attitude of the State was "New South", and much effort was being spent towards economic development at the unseen neglect of deeply rooted folk heritage traditions that had grown fragile due to lack of visibility and lack of promotion. Elders who were the "keepers" of these traditions, in many cases, had no one to follow in their roles, no "sons" or "daughters" of the traditions to pass their knowledge on to.
I immediately discovered two such traditions in my first year back in South Carolina: - the first, five historically rich primitive Methodist camp meeting traditions (three Anglo- and two African- American) in the SC Low Country that dated back as early as 1786, and have been meeting - each one week out of the year - without interruption since their respective foundings; the second, Carolina hash, originally a communal stew prepared and stirred in a lengthy process in black iron pots and made from the lesser parts of the hog given to plantation slave cooks for making a protein-rich and appetizing meal served over rice for the slave populations working the plantations.
I first learned about the existence of the camp meetings from a fraternity brother living in SC whom I got in touch with to renew our friendship. When he learned that I was making folklife documentaries that had to do with folk heritage foodways - and learned what folklife was all about - he asked if I had ever run across a stew called 'Puddin' Pot. I never had, and asked him what it was. He laughed and said it would be hard to explain and it would be best if I could see it being cooked by the Whetzel brothers on the first day of the annual Indian Field Camp Meeting which would be coming up soon the third week in October. That rang a bell, and jogged my memory. I recalled from somewhere in the fog of my past during the time when my 1980 documentary, ITS GRITS was being shown all over the South being invited to show the film at the World Grits Festival in St. George, SC. I stayed in the home of the school superintendent and at dinner the night before the screening was asked if I minded getting up before dawn the next morning. They had something they wanted to show me.
I was awakened at 5:30, departed with the wife of the superintendent after being handed a mug of coffee and she drove us through a dense morning fog that laid low to the ground, hanging under the branches of the long-leaf pine trees as we turned down a dirt road into a thick pine forest. "We're going to come to a clearing and I want you to tell me what you think you see," my driver said. As the trees parted the dense fog made it impossible to see what was in the clearing. As we drove closer I began seeing the peaks of some kind of architectonic structures that loomed darkly in the fog shrouded clearing. "Indian reservation?", I queried. "Looks like the peaks of huge tents. A lot of huge tents." She said, "Well, you are right to call them tents." She then pulled the SUV through an opening in between two of the structures and drove into the center of a large field of mowed grass. As the fog began to lift I slowly realized that we were in an expanse surrounded on eight sides by what I soon learned were 98 wooden, two-storied cabins that appeared to adjoin each other that the owners and members of Indian Field Camp Meeting called "tents" and stayed in during the week. "This is where we come together once a year during cam'meetin' time where we feast, fellowship and worship all together - about 3000 folks return to St. George each year back to their roots to celebrate cam'meetin'." So the return to the Indian Field camp meeting in 2000 had brought to mind one of the most bizarre and surreal moments I had ever experienced.
I arrived at the camp ground that first day of camp meeting the third week in September and immediately was led to the back of one of the "tents" where the brothers Whetzel had already set the fire under the black iron pot and were washing down what appeared to be hog parts - ears, tongues, snouts, hearts, livers, lytes, and other innards. Before I reached the tent I began shooting these Puddin' Pot stewmasters through the entire process of the five hour cooking of the concoction and its serving to about 75 invited guests. It was like a time warp. I might as well have been shooting in 1900, or 1800 - the year this camp meeting tradition was begun.
In between takes I learned that the camp meeting was celebrating its Bicentennial, and that the entire week would be filled with historical re-enactments, old timey activities that used to take place like cane carvings and costume parades, and that these and other events occurring during the week would not occur again for another hundred years. I also learned that a 92 year old African American "horn blower" who had blown the antique horn at Indian Field for fifty years would be blowing the first call to worship at 10 a.m. that morning. The horn blowing ritual had been used over the years to call folks from their tents three times a day to the open air Tabernacle worship services occurring each day at the very center of the camp meeting green. When I first heard the horn sounding I broke away from shooting the Puddin' Pot stew and took off with my camera to capture the horn blower. The old colored man named Shel Johnson was a character. I shot a spontaneous interview with him and learned that he also blew the horn for his people's own camp meeting at the nearby Shady Grove camp ground which was held two weeks after the camp meeting there at Indian Field. Shel invited me to come to his camp meeting and said he would put me in touch with the pastor who headed up the services there. Then as the people began arriving at the Tabernacle and heard us talking they joined in the conversation, where I then learned that there were three more camp meetings - two, one called Cypress and another called Cattle Creek, were for white folks from a different part of the community, and the other was for black folks and was called Saint Paul's. I would eventually find my way to these other camp meetings and document the story of their traditions.
When I learned all this I knew I was in the midst of a set of historic folk heritage events that needed documentation, so I phoned the director of the McKissick Museum, Lynn Robertson, and explained that I had found myself in the midst of a historical moment in time at the Indian Field Camp Meeting, and asked whether the Folklife Resource Center was interested in working with me to stay and document the entire Bicentennial week at Indian Field. I emphasized being able to document daily historical events that probably would not occur again until the Tricentennial Celebration of the camp meeting. She agreed, and I asked if she could order a drop shipment of DVCAM videotapes via UPS and have them sent to arrive in two days at the St. George Methodist Church which helped coordinate this event. This was done, and it enabled me to shoot in my spontaneous style a magnificent array of events mixed with fabulous interviews and stories recalling memories of camp meetings gone by as well as many invitations to join families in their tents at mealtime and during the "socializing", and the mixture of historical activities, as well as the opportunity to shoot in the kitchens at the backs of the tents and capture the story of the cultural tradition of African American cooks cooking three meals a day of Southern soul food for the families in each tent. These cooks were constantly busy cooking over huge wood stoves and managing the meals in league with the women of the families who, together with the camp cooks, planned every meal for the seven days of camp meeting - a ritual of such magnitude that it was amazing to see how well organized and timely the whole process turned out to be.
I shot the activity in the back of the tents, the meal servings in the dining rooms of the tents, the social interaction encouraged by the open porches and lawn chairs arranged in front of each tent - all positioned to be looking out onto the camp ground and facing the tabernacle, where the evening "promenade" - people walking around the camp ground in a huge, fluidly moving circle - would take place. Everyone "catching up" on the family doings for that year, young people promenading out back on the dirt road encircling the tents, and adults swapping stories. I learned more about the four other camp meetings that were on camp grounds that were all a "stones throw" away and attended by folks spread all around this part of upper Dorchester County.
Eventually, over a period of two years, I completed shooting the stories of all five camp meetings with the help of four grants. But it took another two years for me to edit these five camp meetings into a full set of documentaries, as I had to work this in with all the other folklife documentaries that seem to emerge, one seemingly directly out of another. In editing these traditions and realizing that each existed unto itself, with little cross-over from one to another, I began to see the importance of putting these different documentaries together in one set of DVD's so that the members of one camp meeting could observe the similarities and differences from one tradition to another. I also realized that most people outside of Dorchester County had no knowledge that these rich camp meeting traditions even existed, and thus had no way to appreciate and value them as a part of the bounty of South Carolina's folk heritage traditions. However, I decided that my main audience needed to be the members of the camp meetings themselves. I decided that I would create a set of documentaries and call the set "Hallowed Ground" containing two DVD's consisting of a mix of two African American and one Anglo American camp meeting on one disc, and two Anglo-American traditions on the second disk. The reasoning behind this had to do with the fact that most of the families attending the white camp meetings had never - and it seemed would never - attend the camp meetings of the black members of the community. I thought that this somehow was a leftover of the powerful and seemingly intractable influence of the old plantation culture that somehow hung over these two cultural groups. And I wanted to make sure that members of both the Afro American and Anglo American camp meetings would have their camp meeting documentaries juxtaposed together in one viewing package, so they could easily observe what I observed - how strongly each faith tradition shared similarities to the other - being more alike than different - and how all the other elements of camp meeting - from the foodways culture, the social interaction culture, the strong family bonding culture, the worship culture, and most important, shared concerns by the adult culture of each camp meeting about the pull of American popular culture on the youth, causing a persistent loss of interest in maintaining these traditions over time. Finally, I was pleased to have been able to successfully market "Hallowed Ground" to the respective camp meeting boards of trustees for distribution to their attendees, so that those most vested in their own traditions might gain a larger appreciation and perspective on the greater folk heritage tradition of which they were all a part.