How many people can we fit on the porch? It's a favorite Salem game, and the Kemp sisters and their extended family and friends packed them in on Big Sunday, the day that traditionally draws the biggest crowd at Salem. Pictured, left to right, are Natalie Milton, Dana Kemp, Nate Turner, Martha Thompson, Jesse Rhodes, Ramsey Cook, Hunter Odom and Ann Ramsey Cook. Seated in the front is Laura Kemp and on the back row is Clay Frazier and Bill Ramsey.
COVINGTON -- For Laura Kemp and her family, attending Salem Camp Meeting is more than a tradition: It's where their roots are firmly planted as a family, a home they carry in their hearts all year long.
"If anybody in our family said (choose between) Christmas or camp meeting, we would say camp meeting. We wouldn't think twice," Kemp said.
Kemp said her family has probably been attending camp meeting since it started in 1828. Her late grandmother, Mary Sue Ramsey, who was born in 1898, often reminisced about playing there as a child.
"She did the exact same things we did," Kemp said. Now, "We sit on the porch and watch these little kids tear up and down and holler and do the same things I did and my grandmother did."
Kemp's grandmother traveled to Salem Campground in a wagon, back in the days when worshipers would bring along their chickens and cows to provide eggs and milk during their two-week stay. One year, her grandmother only brought her Sunday shoes and, "She went all week playing barefoot," Kemp said.
In those days, the family stayed in the Ramsey tent, but by 1954 it was overflowing, and Kemp's father built another tent next door. Kemp and several family members stay there every year during the now weeklong camp meeting, and they've chosen not to change much. The tent, which is really a cabin, still has sawdust floors and no air conditioning.
"If anybody mentions the word change around there, they know not to say it around me," Kemp said.
It's a sentiment that has been passed along through the generations.
As Jesse Rhodes, a 15-year-old who's been coming to Salem all her life, puts it, "You don't mess with our Salem."
"I come home with sawdust between my toes and in my pants," she said. "I love it."
Salem is where extended families have reunions, living in close quarters and bonding over lazy afternoon conversations on the porch. It's where many milestones have taken place: Kemp's grandmother had her first date with her future husband, George Ramsey, at Salem, for example.
Courting at Salem isn't unusual, but not all such relationships end in matrimony.
Jimi Bowen, who's been attending Salem for 64 years, remembers with fondness holding hands by the spring with her "Salem boyfriend, the one you have while you're here."
The younger generation understands the term. "What happens at Salem stays at Salem," said 15-year-old Natalie Milton, and six women sitting around the table, ranging in age from 13 to nearly 70, erupt in giggles.
Yep, some things never change. Like the tent porches being the official gathering spot for family and friends to catch up.
"We sit and do nothing but nobody wants to leave because we're afraid we might miss something," Kemp said.
A favorite pastime for both young and old generations is seeing how many people can fit on the porch swing -- at the Kemp tent, 10 is the record.
There are a few new activities, mainly revolving around the youth. Arts and crafts, T-shirt tie-dying and mud fights, to name a few.
But even the youngsters seem to cherish the old traditions, and are happy to forgo modern technologies, like cell phones and computers, for a week of bonding with family and friends.
"It's timeless," Milton said of Salem.
Indeed, parents are now watching their children play with the children of their closest friends at Salem. Ramsey Cook, 13, is the granddaughter of Kemp's Aunt Ann. Cook and Milton's fathers hung together at Salem -- there's a photo to prove it -- and now the two girls are friends.
Bowen has been attending camp meeting since she was a toddler. Her family has been a fixture there since its inception 184 years ago.
She and her husband occupy the tent next to Kemp's and Bowen recalls baby-sitting Kemp.
"Just about everybody had a cook that lived with them. Every meal was a social occasion," she said, noting that her cook, Bernie, and the Kemp's cook, Reba, would talk to each other out the kitchen windows.
One of the best attributes of Salem is that it's a safe place for children to run freely and enjoy themselves, Bowen said, along with the emphasis on family.
At Salem, everybody's family, Kemp agreed. "I believe we're a lot closer than we would be," she said. "Very few times does an extended family get together for a whole week like we do. It's inevitable that somebody shows up that you haven't seen in years."
The 184th annual Salem Camp Meeting is taking place through Friday at Salem Campground at 3940 Salem Road. Worship services take place daily at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.