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Spiritual Retreat
More than a century after a Methodist camp thrived at Emory Grove in Glyndon, people still travel there each summer to find peace and community amidst the quiet hills.
By Christianna McCausland Photographed by Kirsten Beckerman

Emory GroveEvery year on April 15, Bill Jones makes the trip from his home in York, Pa., to a hidden parcel of woodland in Glyndon for opening day at Emory Grove, the historic Methodist camp where Jones’ family has been coming to summer for four generations. Although the campground’s religious fervor has mostly calmed since its creation in 1868, when the water is turned on each April, “Grovers” still return to carry out the ritual of preparing their cottages in the woods for the summer season.

“It’s a little bit like stepping back in time,” says Jones, 49. “The Grove hasn’t changed a whole heck of a lot since I was a kid. There’s something about that lack of change that’s comfortable. If I need to work through something, [the Grove is] where you’ll find me.”

For most, Emory Grove would seem an unlikely getaway. It’s smack in the middle of what is now a blossoming Baltimore suburb, just minutes from the roar of 795 and the increasing traffic on Butler Road. And the 47 cottages are small and rustic, offering an experience described by one Grover as “camping with a building around you.” There is no beach, no lake, no boardwalk, no movie theater or spa.

Only in recent years did cottage owners get the pleasure of flush toilets and electric lights. What is there is a Victorian-era hotel, a cluster of cottages, an open-air tabernacle, an open-air children’s temple— and 62 acres of towering trees and solitude.

“There isn’t a lot to do there,” says Jones. “You either like it or hate it. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground with the Grove.” Jones was thrilled when he introduced his wife to the rural getaway and she enjoyed it as much as he did. He had feared she’d be “one of the haters.”

Emory GroveIt was quiet and solitude that first attracted the Methodist evangelicals to Emory Grove. Although camp meetings had started in the United States in the early 1800s, they proliferated in the wake of the Civil War. At first, they were informal events held at farms, but by the time Emory Grove was established in 1868, camp meetings were institutionalized at permanent sites.

“It’s a peaceful place where the stranger would come to associate himself with family. And persons living in a city like Baltimore, where everything wasn’t always peaceful, would find that it offered the quietness they enjoyed,” says Rev. Edwin Schell, historian for the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the Methodist Church. Schell points out that unlike other campgrounds, Emory Grove had its own stop on the Western Maryland railroad, about a half-mile north of today’s Glyndon station. Camp-goers would alight from the train and take a horse-drawn shuttle to the Grove.

Some came to the Grove just for the revival, which lasted about two weeks each summer. Others came for the entire summer. Canvas tents erected on raised wooden platforms were available for rent, and three hotels were built to accommodate guests, who soon numbered in the hundreds and thousands. Records indicate that as many as 300 to 500 tents could be erected at Emory Grove, and one newspaper clipping reports that the 1887 Emory Grove camp meeting drew 10,000 people. Attending a revival meant following a rigorous religious routine: morning devotion at 6:30, morning prayer at 9, and so on throughout the day until the final preaching at 8 p.m.

But it wasn’t just religion that brought people to the wooded hillside. Families enjoyed the fresh air— Emory Grove sits on a shaded elevation easily 10 to 20 degrees cooler than Baltimore City— and plentiful cool water provided by the Minnehaha freshwater spring. “The family was very big in the Methodist Church,” says Charlotte Smyth, whose mother’s family summered at Emory Grove until 1905. “But they went as much for a retreat as for religion. The whole experience revolved around family and the enjoyment of nature.”

Emory GroveEvery summer, the Stablers would board a train in Catonsville and travel to Emory Grove to escape the city heat. Although tent living was primitive, the family made it comfortable by renting everything from mattresses to bureaus. A photo hanging on the wall of Smyth’s Broadmead apartment shows her mother and the rest of the Stabler family— along with their cook and washerwoman— in their tent at the turn of the century, an organ just barely visible in the background.

By 1920, most of the tents had given way to cottages built on the same raised wooden platforms. According to Schell, at the height of the camp meeting movement in America there were perhaps as many as 300 “groves” around the country. Now, he estimates, only 20 to 30 still exist. Some, like Washington Grove near Washington, D.C., have become permanent churches; others have simply faded away. At Emory Grove, the construction of the hotels and cottages meant people felt inclined to come early and stay late, transforming the Grove into more of a warm-weather retreat with a revival in the middle than a camp meeting, according to Robert Jones, the author of “A History of Emory Grove 1868-1998.”

But even as a retreat, Emory Grove fell on tough times. During World War II, gas rationing made it difficult for Grovers to get to their cottages, and in the 1950s two of the hotels were crushed by snow. Some of the cottages seemed to have been forgotten by the families who owned them.

Were it not for dedicated Grovers like Bill Jones, Emory Grove may have met the same fate as many Methodist camps. Jones describes an idyllic childhood summering at the Grove, playing ping pong in the children’s temple, walking to the penny candy store and the pool in Glyndon, playing flashlight tag with his pals at night while their parents gossiped on cottage porches. For many, Emory Grove was the place for first loves, first kisses and lifelong friendships. Many of Jones’ childhood friends still come to the Grove and get together for special occasions in the offseason. During the summers, Jones usually makes the drive to Emory Grove each Friday after work. Saturday is for helping other Grovers with maintenance projects, Saturday evenings are for potluck suppers in the cottages and Sundays are for sitting on the porch, reading the paper and drinking coffee until the evening church service and the drive home.

“The vast majority of my ‘Fave Five’ are all Grovers,” says Jones. “We’re all buddies and we all still get together on Saturday evenings [at the Grove], now with our wives and our children.”

Cottage owners pay dues to the Emory Grove Association, and those dues, along with donations from the church services, as well as special event rentals at the hotel, help fund the maintenance of the historic structures and grounds. According to Jones, who is treasurer of the association, after a serious decline in the 1980s, the last 10 years have been good for Emory Grove. “There is renewed interest and new cottage owners. And for some of us who grew up there, it’s our Grove now. We’re now the custodians and we want to make our mark on the place and do things right.”

In 2002, the circa 1887 hotel underwent a massive restoration and is one of the only remaining original hotels at a camp meeting ground on the East Coast. It has wide porches set with historic wicker furniture and enormous windows that look out on the lush foliage outside. Although the top floors are no longer in use, the main floor is used for events and can be rented for private parties. The outdoor tabernacle (an open-air market house transported from Hanover, Pa., at the turn of the 20th century) is undergoing a restoration. Amish workers have almost completed a new mahogany floor. Grovers are hoping to install historically accurate exterior lights soon.

Unlike buying a beach house or a cabin by a lake, Grovers become part of the Emory Grove Association, which owns the land the cottages are on. Cottages are transferred from one owner to another (there are no realtors involved) and the owners are encouraged to help maintain the property. Emory Grove is still true to its mission as a Christian retreat, so cottage owners must be a member of a church, although services are now only on Wednesday and Sunday evenings and are ecumenical and open to the public.

It is these qualities that brought Georgeanne Lyon to the Grove in 2006. The 40-year-old mother of three small children grew up in Glyndon and was looking for a way to reconnect with her hometown. Her brother has a cottage at Emory Grove and, like most cottage dwellers, she heard through the grapevine from her home in Sterling, Va., that a cottage was up for transfer. Wednesday evenings in the summer, the family of five makes the one-hour trip from their home to the Grove for hymn sings, and spends two weekends each month and usually about one full week there.

“It forces you to slow down and enjoy nature and enjoy being part of a community,” says Lyon. “In so many places, you don’t even know your neighbors. There, you know everybody, everybody is friendly and welcoming. They know your kids, you know theirs. There are so few places where that hasn’t dwindled away. It’s nice to be somewhere where that’s been a constant.”

The Lyons’ cottage has no television or phone so the kids play outside, riding bikes, playing basketball in the children’s temple and swinging from rope swings in the trees. They can easily walk to Santoni’s for snacks or to the Glyndon pool. The family especially enjoys worshipping in the outdoors at the large tabernacle. “For me, it’s all about being close to family and being in a Christian community,” says Lyon. 

Meredith Wells, who lives in Glyndon, bought her cottage in 2000 and has painstakingly renovated it into a comfy getaway only minutes from her house. “It’s so unique,” she explains. “It’s one thing to live in a historic town, but this is like a little oasis.” Although the Grove is technically closed in the winter, Wells, like Lyon, will sometimes venture into her rustic cabin, light the wood stove and put a big pot of chili on to warm while she and her family cross-country ski in the woods. But she says her favorite time at Emory Grove is summer evenings, when the cottages glow in the dark woods. “It’s like something out of another time,” she says. “It’s always reminded me of something out of Tennessee Williams.”

Or a Norman Rockwell painting. Each year on July 4, Emory Grove comes alive in a display of incomparable Americana that even drew the attention of CNN news crews a few years back. Anyone who has ever had any connection to Emory Grove— a group that includes hundreds of people— returns to this little retreat in the woods to celebrate and reconnect. There is a small parade and a day of activities so wholesome it seems almost unreal: a contest for the child with the best decorated bike, tug-of-war competitions, sack races, softball games and an informal service in the tabernacle followed by an evening bonfire.

With so many developers salivating like wolves at the gate of the Grove’s 62 acres, it’s a wonder the land hasn’t been gobbled up. But the Grovers are a dedicated few, motivated by tradition, the desire to preserve a precious way of life— and even a little of their forebearers’ religious devotion.

“There’s always been talk of selling the place and building a Wal-Mart over the years,” says Jones. “We don’t need another Wal-Mart. We need more places like this.” 

JULY/AUGUST 2007

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