I’m grateful to Janet Joiner, Community Development Director for the City of Vienna, for sharing the following text. Source: History of Dooly County Camp Ground, published by E. G. Greene in 1934. Thanks are due Bert Gregory, as well, for a tour of the grounds.
In 1874, the Rev. George T. Embry, Sr. was appointed by the South Georgia Methodist conference as Senior Preacher for the Vienna and Dooly Mission, which was in the Americus District. Rev. Embry’s charge was a large one that included all the territory from the Flint River west to Pulaski and Wilcox Counties on the east, and from Houston County north to Gum Creek on the south. The mode of traveling throughout the territory was on horseback or in buggies following Indian trails.
One day Embry was traveling the Slosheye Trail toward Vienna. This trail connected the Flint River at Drayton with the Ocmulgee River in Hawkinsville. As he crossed the Pennahatchee Creek over to Sandy Mount Creek, he stopped to let his horse drink. He crossed the creek to the south side and discovered a large spring bubbling out from under a rocky hillside. As he and his horse drank the cool water, Embry felt compelled to explore further.
He climbed the slope on the north side of the creek and came to a high flat area covered with nice large trees of all kinds. As he stood there, he felt God urging him to build a campground on the site. There was no longer a campground in this section of Georgia. Feeling the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Embry envisioned a campground where people could worship and fellowship with God and with man.
Embry began to share his vision with his parishioners and soon people agreed to meet at the Methodist Church in Vienna on Saturday, July 18, 1874 for a camp meeting rally. Several prominent men in the community gave speeches advocating the project and the enthusiastic congregation voted unanimously to build a campground somewhere near where Embry’s vision took place. Various committees were appointed to select a site, to obtain a deed, to select a name, and to solicit funds. They agreed to meet again the first week in August 1874.
At the August meeting, the site committee offered several locations, but the place chosen to build an arbor was the spot where George Embry had his vision and where the Tabernacle now stands. Thomas Whitsett donated eleven acres of land to be used for the camp meeting purposes. This was Land Lot 118 in the Seventh Land District, three miles northwest of Vienna. The deed was a revertible deed with a clause that if services were not held for three consecutive years the land would revert back to Whitsett or his heirs. Seven men were elected Trustees to take care of the property. They were: John Skipper, O. P. Swearingen, Sr., C. C. Clark, Belton O. Prather, Miles C. Jordan, James Butler and W. I. Brown.
The name committee offered two suggestions: “Pennahatchee Camp Ground” or “The Dooly County Camp Ground”. The latter was selected. The solicitation committee had collected approximately $100.00 to be used for building a brush arbor and to cover the expenses of the first camp meeting to be held in September 1874. There was a large attendance and this first meeting was considered a success. At the close of the session, there was much enthusiasm for building a permanent tabernacle. Money and in-kind donations amounting to $2,000 were pledged and a building committee was appointed and directed to begin at once in order to have a permanent tabernacle ready by the next summer.
In March 1875, once the crops were gathered, those who promised to work were ready to begin. The building committee had arranged with a man from Montezuma to oversee the construction of the tabernacle, but after looking at the plan he decided he could not build it and backed out. At that time Lucius J. McCall* was building a bridge across the Flint River at Drayton so the building committee approached him about the tabernacle project. He looked over the plans and felt confident that he could build it. It is not certain who drew the plan for the tabernacle but it is generally thought that the building committee drew the plans assisted by Rev. Embry and Mr. McCall. Men and boys came from all parts of the county to help in building the tabernacle under the supervision of McCall. Much of the lumber used was either donated or sold at a very low price by local saw mills. The Tabernacle was completed and the first camp meeting held under the structure began on August 26, 1875. Rev. Embry saw his vision become a reality as he preached at that first service under the Tabernacle. [*- Many bridge builders in the years following the Civil War were former slaves, like the legendary Horace King. I have not been able to locate any further information about Lucius J. McCall, but will share if I learn more].
The Tabernacle is 84 feet 6 inches wide by 100 feet 6 inches long. The entire construction was done with notches and pegs. The beams were so carefully crafted to be straight and true that they did not miss their notches more than one-half inch. The beautifully cut, hand-hewn heart pine beams were 44 feet long and were raised by hand-drawn windlasses. They were cut with a broad ax in order that the smooth edge would not absorb water. The posts and rafters are yellow pine; all are heartwood which lasts because it was grown to full maturity.
As centers of social activity attended by people from multiple counties, tabernacles and camp grounds needed shelters for the many families who frequented them. These were originally temporary and often in the form of tents. As families were able, they built more permanent, if primitive cabins, but the term tents remained in use. The few remaining tents at Dooly Camp Ground have been modernized.
The historic Pleasant Valley Methodist Church, once located nearby, was relocated to the site for preservation.
Dooly Campground still serves its original purpose and is well maintained.