A cloud of white, powdery dust floats over from where a group of men stand crowded beneath a shelter of trees.
It’s nearly 2 p.m. on Saturday and the men are busy mixing up several gallons of whitewash, made from water and 20 bags of hydrated lime, in a large container.
A power-generated mixer makes sure the lime is distributed evenly. The men then dispense the paper mache-like paste into buckets, and workers brush the homemade whitewash a few feet high along the bottoms of trees within Lumpkin Campground.
The process takes around two hours, with a representative or two from each of the 51 tents in the campground chipping in to spread the fresh, white paint.
Using brooms with stiff bristles, fathers and grandfathers take their children and grandchildren alongside them and instruct them on how to carry out the tradition.
“Don’t go too high now,” Aaron Tallant tells his toddler grandson Carson, who has just stabbed at a tree with a broom as twice as long as he is. The paint makes a mark above the line the grandfather made around the base of the tree, where he is working to cover up last year’s faded wash. Aaron guides the brush with his own hands. “That’s too high.”
Ask around and you’ll get myriad answers as to the benefits of whitewashing the trees.
“We’ve always done it, so who started it or who came up with it I have no idea,” said Travis Pelfrey, who was helping mix the whitewash. “They used to use it to stop bugs from getting into trees, but I don’t know if that’s true or not.”
Pelfrey walks through the campground and asks for someone to replace him at the mixing station, then asks them if they will help him change a lightbulb later.
“There’s always something to do around here,” he said.
Frank Nix is pointed out as an expert in the tradition, and he doesn’t stop whitewashing even as he explains that the reasons for it are three-pronged.
“My theory on the whitewashing is there’s three purposes,” he said. “I think white symbolizes purity and the presence of the Holy Spirit of God. In years gone by, it also helped before electricity to keep people from walking into the trees. And I’ve heard some people say it will help with the bugs. I think the first two are the most important reasons.”
It’s hard to ignore the power that tradition has at Lumpkin Campground.
Founded as a Methodist campground in 1830, it began when 40 local men each donated $1 for the purchase of 40 acres of land and began meeting each summer for revival.
In the early days, families would pack up their horse-drawn, covered wagons with supplies to last the week and camp out in tents. The tents evolved over the years and became rustic wooden structures more akin to cabins. 188 years later, some tents built in the early 1900s still stand on the grounds, next to tents built as late as last year.
Eventually stakeholders added electricity and running water, but the simplicity of life at campmeeting still prevails, and though the campground is only a two minute drive from the intersection of Ga. 400 and Hwy. 53, the week at campmeeting feels like a world tucked away from modern convenience.
So it’s not hard to visualize how lantern light would have bounced off the whitewashed trees, guiding early revivalists to their tents each night after a sermon under the arbor. The thought seems enough of a reason to keep the tradition alive.
“At night you can see the white trees,” said Johnny Reeves, who was the head of the whitewashing committee this year. “I don’t know if you would bump into one at night without it...but that’s what they say.”
Reeves, like many on the grounds this week, has been “tenting” at the campground his whole life. His wife has never missed a week. Her father, 78, has never missed.
“There’s a lot of families that has been coming for 150 years, on down on down on down,” he said.
Like Frank’s wife Elizabeth Nix, whose family has tented for generations. She was eager to share the story of how she met her husband at the campground.
“I was taking the minutes at the trustees meeting in 1969, and this cousin introduced us. Now, 48 years later, we’re staying in tent 6, where I dressed as a bride,” she said.
She walks through tent 6, showing off a portrait of Jesus Christ she found at a thrift store, as well as a watercolor painting of the campground. Another frame holds a photo collage of her life with Frank.
“I dressed right here in this spot,” she says, pointing to a corner of the concrete-floored room.
“We were married here in 1970, the day Karl Wallenda walked the tightrope across the Tallulah Gorge, we walked the aisle. It was a hot day...it was so dry, the leaves had fallen off the trees and in the pictures it looks like fall.”
The Nix’s are now in charge of the week’s prayer meetings, held daily Tuesday through Saturday in a different tent.
“It is amazing. Every cabin has some sort of something, either a sickness or an illness or something going on,” she said. “By the end of the week, sometimes those prayers are being answered.”
She shows a wooden prayer box, with pens and strips of paper. The box is placed at the altar and picked up before each prayer meeting.
“There was a time that we got so interested in the worldly things that we forgot to have prayer meeting,” she said. “We got back to the basics and got back to the prayer, and I can tell you, since we’ve been having the prayer meetings, it's returned back to what we know it should be about and it's amazing how those people get close together.”
It's inclusivity Nix said she most wanted to emphasize. She said the idea is to get campers to witness to other people, to invite them to revival.
“If you invite one person, and ask them to pass it on, and there’s 50 cabins, that’s 100, and if they bring people with them…We’re trying to get this opened up and let people realize we want you to come in and be a part of our revival,” she said.
When 3 o’clock comes around, most of the prominent trees in the 40-acre campground are coated with the bright white paint, which Reeves says could be ruined the second it rains.
“If it rains within the next three or four hours, it will have brown streaks down it and then it’s not pretty any more,” he said. “We have had to do it as late as Monday. I was watching the weather all this week, and I think Wednesday it was showing a 90 percent chance today.”
The sun beat down triumphantly on the heads of the workers, and the rain held off until later that night.
Campmeeting kicks off tonight at 7:45. Service will be held each day at 11 a.m. and at 7:45 p.m. The closing service will be held at 6:30 p.m. July 29.
Lumpkin Campground is located at 100 Lumpkin Campground Road in Dawsonville.