From Connections: The Piney Woods was music to my ears

By Darlene Warren

BIG SANDY, Texas--Tents, check. Sleeping bags, Coleman cookstove and lantern, check. Ropes, shovel, clothesline, check. Broom, plastic tarps, cooking utensils, ice chests and enough food to last a week, check, check, check, check. Provisions for a rugged Colorado camping expedition. Or, in my family's case, just a preliminary packing list to prepare for the Feast.

The observance of the Feast of Tabernacles is one of several "bizarre" ecclesiastical practices that set Church of God members apart from mainstream Christianity. Although most of us still attend the Feast and regard it as a highlight of our year, there have been modifications (both slight and significant) in how we observe these holy days in recent history.

Last month's issue of The Journal carried a picture on its front page that says a lot to those who are willing to listen. Although the caption stated, "Feast of Tabernacles observers flock to the big circus-type tent at Big Sandy in 1968," on further observance the people in the photo look like they're rushing out instead of in.

I was there, and I would be willing to bet that frame was snapped moments after the closing prayer by some traveling evangelist already airborne en route to his next Feast site. All those people rushing out of the tent were en route to the nearest bathhouse.

Camping in the Piney Woods

Remember, services were long, and there were no facilities inside that tent. (Leaving during services was frowned upon by patrolling deacons.)

During the late '60s and early '70, thousands of church members traveled to Big Sandy, Texas, to experience a "foretaste of the world tomorrow." The vast majority camped out in the "Piney Woods," a large campground adjacent to the "big top."

Maybe "adjacent" isn't the right word to use here. Adjacent implies "nearness." The first four streets could be considered near, but there were 32 streets that stretched over a distance of a half-mile.

The first few streets were designated for the handicapped and elderly. The remainder of the camping lots were assigned randomly to the rest of the membership, usually, for the most part, keeping local congregations together.

The planning for the Feast began months before when you received your camping-lot reservations through the mail. You were informed at that time just exactly which lot or lots you would be using.

I don't remember too many people complaining about which lot or street they wound up on. Many actually preferred being somewhere on the back half of the campground because the older people on the first few streets tended to get upset if things didn't quieten down after the sun went down. That's when the campground really livened up.

Today there's a movement among some to take the fun out of the Feast. It is a "spiritual, commanded assembly" and not a "vacation."

Yes, I know that. But it is also a time to rejoice before God. Growing up, I don't remember having much money, but it didn't stop us from having a good time.

The people who kept the Feast in Big Sandy back then were a hardy lot. They were also fun-loving. Big Sandy's biggest disadvantage (easy accessibility to entertainment spots) became her greatest asset. Because there were few organized activities in those early days, the best times were those that just happened spontaneously.

Glen T. Farnsworth

Some of the most memorable times ever spent during the Feast at Big Sandy were when Mr. Glen T. Farnsworth pulled his mandolin out of its case. When he started tuning up, it was a summons to all the bluegrass musicians within earshot to assemble for the night's entertainment.

Smell of charcoal

People either gathered around his tent, or they didn't. They got a concert whether they wanted it or not. Fiddles, banjos and guitars joined in with that mandolin to produce some of the sweetest music ever played.

Bill Monroe himself would have been impressed. Strains of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," "Rocky Top," "Salty Dog" and "Steel Guitar Rag" floated over the campground like the enticing smell of lit charcoal on an outdoor grill.

It didn't really matter if it was hamburger meat or T-bone steak. Just like the music, you knew it was going to be good.

I will never forget it. Before the days of Vail and ski slopes and before Orlando and Disney World, there was Big Sandy and Mr. Farnsworth and his backstreet boys.

Best days

Bizarre or not, the Feast is still worth keeping. Most of us don't camp anymore, and Mr. Farnsworth has passed on, but, when I look back on those days, I realize they were some of the best of my life.

I don't know if there will be camping and bluegrass music in the world tomorrow, but it sure will be interesting to see who shows up at Mr. Farnsworth's tent when he picks up his mandolin.

The August 2002 issue of The Journal includes many photos and several other graphics, besides the Connections advertising section. Don't forget to subscribe to the print version of The Journal to read all the news and features previewed here.

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