WILMORE — When Bernie Cobb was 5 or 6 years old, his mother packed a picnic lunch, his father asked a neighbor to milk the cow, and the family hitched up their horse and rode 12 miles to the Wilmore Camp Meeting.
On Saturday, Cobb, 85, was back for the first time since then to attend the 125th — and last — of the camp meetings.
"It was a huge crowd," Cobb said of his experience as a child. "Maybe 500 or 600 people."
And he still remembers the preacher teaching about Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead.
Never miss a local story.
"As a young boy, that planted in my mind that nothing is impossible," Cobb said, adding that those words came back to aid him after a serious accident left him in a wheelchair.
Saturday's farewell celebration had the feel of a big family reunion, with games for the children, tree climbing, a memorabilia display, a cookout and, of course, preaching.
It was an opportunity to praise God for the lives that have been changed by the meeting through the generations and also to pass on "the torch of spreading holiness," said Sharon Bradley, who serves on the board.
Since 2010, the camp meeting has been held in an auditorium on the campus of Asbury University, but on Saturday it was back at its original location adjacent to Wilmore Elementary School.
Bradley said the board is distributing the camp meeting's remaining assets to three Christian organizations: Eagle Ridge Retreat Center, the Francis Asbury Society and Evangelism Resources.
The board also forgave the seven years left on the mortgage of AdventureServe Ministries, the organization that bought the camp meeting property.
"We're incredibly indebted to them," said Andy Bathje, executive director of AdventureServe, which has been located in Wilmore for seven years.
He said the organization, which hosts mission and outdoor adventure trips, is committed to "carrying out a piece of their legacy of Christian ministry."
Young people were for many years a focus of the camp meeting, and Sharon Bryson said that makes the fact that AdventureServe now occupies the property particularly appropriate.
Bryson grew up in Louisville, but her mother brought her to the camp meeting as a girl, and because of that she said she ended up attending Asbury University and serving as a missionary in South America.
"It was wonderful," Bryson recalled of the camp meetings of her youth. "It's where I really learned about what it means to live a Christian life, not just talk about it."
She asked Roy Lauter, who was about to deliver the sermon Saturday, if he was going to do any of the "old fire and brimstone preaching."
"We could probably use a little more of that now," she said later.
In its day, Lauter said, "some of the greatest Wesleyan camp meeting evangelists in the nation came through here," and their preaching "helped hold this community together for a lot of years."
Camp meetings and outdoor revivals were once a summertime staple in the Bible Belt, and Wilmore's was attended by hundreds or even thousands of people who would spend 10 full days there. Dormitories and a dining hall were built to accommodate them.
It was "kind of like a family vacation, while getting some good retreat messaging at the same time," said Andrea Carman of Owingsville, who grew up in Wilmore attending the camp meeting.
But those days faded.
The last time Carman attended the camp meeting when it was held outdoors, she said there were perhaps 75 people there.
With attendance declining and the proliferation of other organizations focused on spreading the gospel, Bradley said the board decided to fold. While there was still plenty of money in the bank, she said, "it was costing us more than we were bringing in."
Still, Lauter said, there are thriving camp meetings in other places, and he is one of the few evangelists still making the circuit to preach at them.
At the last Wilmore Camp Meeting, Lauter said he expected some in the crowd were there for the novelty.
For others, he said, sitting on hard wooden pews on a hot August night was something more.
"They want to try to capture a memory."