A 125-year-old tradition ends Saturday when the Wilmore Camp Meeting, an annual summer revival, holds its final service.
Organizers cite declining attendance and the proliferation of other church programs in the community as reasons for the camp meeting's end.
Wilmore is sometimes called "the town that religion built." The twin schools of Asbury University, a Christian liberal arts institution, and Asbury Theological Seminary sit across from each other on Lexington Avenue. Students, faculty and staff and their families make up a sizable percentage of the population of 6,100.
So Mayor Harold Rainwater turned wistful when asked what the camp meeting has meant to the life of his city.
"I know you're supposed to be glad that it happened, not sad that it's over," Rainwater said. "But I'm sad that it's over. It was a big part of this community. It was a big part of my life. I was actually saved there with my wife when we were 21."
Wilmore grocer Leonard Fitch Jr., whose father was a president of the camp meeting, said the event allowed him to reconnect with friends who would come from throughout Kentucky and from other states. Fitch recalled how William "Billy" Webber III of Webber Farms Sausage would organize busloads of people from Cynthiana to come to Wilmore.
Rainwater has vivid memories of the sights, sounds and smells of the camp meeting, which in its heyday included 10 straight days of preaching, singing, youth activities and prayer meetings in the wilting summer heat.
"I can remember some of those preachers would not take their coats off, because that's just how they were," Rainwater said. "And the water would just run off of them."
But retired Wilmore physician Dr. Phyllis Corbitt, 91, who attended her first camp meeting in 1940, said she didn't mind the heat.
"It was hot every place, so why not be hot at camp meeting as be hot at home?" Corbitt said. "The funeral homes would furnish the hand fans, and so that was part of camp meeting. You just had to fan all the time."
Corbitt and her husband, Duvon, would later become missionaries in Africa. She said her desire to be a missionary was strengthened by the missionaries she heard speak in Wilmore.
The camp meeting drew well-known evangelists like Kentucky native Ford Philpot. Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Harland Sanders came one night and gave $10,000, Rainwater said.
The Rev. John Wesley Hughes, a Methodist evangelist who founded what is now known as Asbury University, and Henry Clay Morrison, the first president of Asbury Theological Seminary, co-founded the camp meeting in 1890.
By that time, camp meetings had already secured a significant place in Kentucky history.
One nationally and internationally known camp meeting happened in August 1801 in Bourbon County, when as many as 20,000 people heard Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist preachers at Cane Ridge.
That revival was part of the religious fervor that swept the 19th-century South and led to the founding of the Christian Church and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denominations.
The Cane Ridge Meeting House, built in 1791, and which remains the largest one-room log building in North America, still draws visitors east of Paris.
In the 20th century, camp meetings held by Baptists, Methodists, Holiness sects, and Pentecostals were common across Kentucky.
Some camp meetings are still going. Indian Springs Holiness Camp Meeting marked its 125th anniversary earlier this month in Flovilla, Ga. Others meet in Michigan, Ohio and elsewhere, Corbitt said.
But television and the Internet, while important tools in spreading the gospel, has kept people at home. No longer are they willing to spend a week in the humid outdoors.
"People like air-conditioning and people like comfort and they don't go to church and stay for 10 days," Rainwater said.
Since 2010, the Wilmore Camp Meeting had been held indoors at Hughes Auditorium on the campus of Asbury University. Perhaps 200 people would attend for a single night of preaching.
On Saturday, the camp meeting will return to its original campgrounds east of downtown Wilmore. Children's games will start at 4 p.m., a hamburger and hot dog picnic at 5 p.m. and the service at 6:30 p.m.
While he's sad to see the camp meeting end, Rainwater noted that Wilmore Presbyterian Church marked its 130th anniversary earlier this month. And Asbury University celebrates its 125th year.
"So it's not like the whole movement died. It's just that a piece of it changed," he said.