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“Fairy Habitations of The Mimic City; Sacred Victorian Cottages at Chester Heights Camp Meeting”


Photos captions:  (Left) Ms. Buchanan receiving flowers following her thesis presentation at Winterthur from CHCM Directors Shirley Allen and Loretta Yashin, Finance.  (Middle) Ms. Buchanan with certificate from the Heritage Commission of Delaware County - front row: Directors Peggy Chance and Loretta Yashin with Ms. Buchanan; rear row - CHCM President Rev. Jimmy Ray Montgomery and Director Pat Smith. Right - Ms. Melissa Buchanan, after receiving her Heritage Preservation Award.

Editors note:  A Masters thesis was presented at the University of Delaware at Winterthur by Melissa D. Buchanan. This interview is an overview of her thesis, which is currently on file at local libraries, area historical societies, the University of Delaware library and the Winterthur Museum Library in Delaware.  Ms. Buchanan was presented with an award for her thesis, by the Heritage Commission of Delaware County

Thesis Abstract: “Similar to today’s megachurches” that offer basketball courts and nurseries, Victorian camp meetings prospered by fulfilling the spiritual, recreational and social needs of their constituents. Uniform layout, scale and ornament foster a feeling of community and playful escapism, while the creation of individual family cottages asserts the primacy of the nuclear family unit.” “On the formation of Camp Meeting. Formed by middle-class ministers and businessmen who spurned nearby popular resorts which had dancing and drinking. They built their own recreational grounds and held a “camp meeting” for ten days there each summer, providing their families with the healthy benefits of fresh country air, allowing them to congregate with other Christian families with a wholesome dose of spirituality to summer vacation.

After presenting her thesis, a book containing hundreds of pages of text and photos on our Camp Meeting grounds, Ms. Buchanan graciously agreed to this interview for our Camp Meeting. Her thesis is available through one of the sources mentioned later in this article.

Q: Why did you choose this for your thesis subject?

As my graduate program focuses on "material culture," I needed an under-researched topic that offered extant physical historical evidence to work with. CHCM's buildings were perfect. I had heard of the camp meeting from a professor at Winterthur, who had in turn heard of the camp from one of the librarians that lives in the Chester Heights area. My grandmother attended camp meeting in Indiana for years, so the topic had a personal appeal as well.

Q: How long did the project take, from research to completion?

I began the project last summer (2004) by making contacts at the camp (Pat Smith was a great help), gaining permission to poke about and photograph, and looking at CHCM's boxes of information. Throughout the fall, I read extensively on other camp meeting research, the Victorian era, the Chautauqua movement, religious changes around the turn-of-the-century, and, of course, architecture and building techniques. During the month of January, I wrote a draft of the thesis. It went through several revisions with my adviser (Prof. Gretchen Buggeln, now at Valparaiso University in Indiana, published in religious architecture "Temples of Grace") March was needed to get the thesis into the required format of footnotes, illustrations, etc. It was due in April, and was presented in May.

Q: What were your most significant architectural findings?

Well, as you likely know, the true significance of CHCM is its survival. The buildings are simple, composed of many mail-order parts, and were (likely) a bit out-dated by their construction in the 1880s. (they use the gingerbread type Victorian ornament, spindles and brackets and such, high style architecture by the 1880s was more of a "shingle" style.)

Q: What were your most significant “social impact” findings?

CHCM is one of the few camps that survived as an active camp meeting continuously on its original grounds, certainly one of the most elaborate architecturally to survive. "Cottagers" at Chester Heights persevered to save their camp meeting lifestyle, and still do. That is wonderful.

Q: What were the most important development periods in the time-line of the Camp Meeting?

Well, the camp meeting changed tremendously from its earlier frontier manifestation, when it was a tool used to convert people into the new Methodist religion. They were wild, very populist, very controversial, and very emotional. By the 1850s, the Methodist Church became a mainstay with high-style buildings, well-to-do parishioners, and was respected by Americans. It was no longer the frontiersman's populist religion that broke away from the Anglican church. Time tamed Methodism, in a way. The camp meeting evolved in a parallel manner. Camps were built on permanent grounds, with single-family cottages. While all were usually welcome to attend a camp, there were gates, admission was charged, and the focus was on less on drawing new people into the church, but rather to strengthen spirituality of church members. In the early 20th century, the Methodist religion broke up into factions, and many camp meetings became associated with these various groups (the Holiness movement, for one.)

Q: What other Camp Meetings were included in your research for this thesis?

I looked often to Ellen Weiss's City in the Woods, a 1989 book she published about Wesleyan Grove on Martha's Vineyard. I used her work as a jumping block of sorts. I did try to focus on Chester Heights Camp, grounding myself in the buildings there. Other camps I mention (which were many) were just used to show that Chester Heights was typical in its time, but is now exceptional for surviving.

I intend to have it published in an academic history journal, which would give rights to that publication. My thesis is currently available at the University of Delaware Library and at the Winterthur Museum Library. I am very interested in helping the camp with its efforts at preservation, grants, funding, and such. I hope my research can help.