Wednesday, July 25, 2007

At Peach Orchard, respite for the religious

Faithful reconnect with family, God at retreat center

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Carroll County resident Lenore Kimble (left) and her sister, Julie Bonvillain of Damascus, sit with Bonvillain’s dog, Goliath, on the porch of Kimble’s cabin at Peach Orchard Christian Retreat Center.
To enter the Peach Orchard Christian Retreat Center, less than a football field away from Route 198, is to travel back in time. The property, which hosted its 76th annual Free Methodist family camp last week, feels more like 1907 than 2007.

While all of the 50 small cabins have electricity, only a few have running water. The cabins themselves, some passed down through generations, are no larger than 400 square feet, each painted a solid color with a different colored trim. The cabins face away from the road in a horseshoe formation, so front porches surround a communal space that includes a playground and a pavilion. Large trees provide a buffer from direct sunlight and the outside world.

‘‘I had never seen anything like it,” said Mary Shorb, 42, remembering her first visit to the camp 25 years ago as a junior in high school. ‘‘It’s old-fashioned, something out of a story book.”

As the last campground of its kind in Montgomery County, the retreat is the sole heir to the spirit of the religious revivalism prevalent at tent gatherings held around the country during the Great Awakenings of the 19th century.

About 150 people gathered for last week’s camp, which concluded Sunday. Guest preachers, missionaries, evangelists and Christian entertainment groups made appearances throughout the week. Some of the campers were children and teenagers who stayed just for the day. Others, like Shorb, stayed overnight in their cabins.

Shorb, a Rockville resident, has returned every year since her first visit as a 17-year-old. She met her husband at the camp and sent all four of their children there. ‘‘It’s the family atmosphere,” she said. ‘‘It’s a time of renewal.”

And not just for the people. Down the entrance, past the low-slung, white retreat center is a cabin fully refurbished to look as it would have in 1931, when the camp opened. The cabin was renovated last year in preparation for the camp’s 75th anniversary and quickly became a quasi-museum, as most of the items inside were donated by church members or found in other cabins.

An antique organ dominates the front room, sheet music on top ready to play. A small, wood-and-glass display case next to the door holds family Bibles dating from 1827, panoramic pictures of campers from more than 80 years ago hanging on the walls above.

Beyond the small kitchen, its table neatly set for the next meal, is a narrow stairway leading to the vaulted-ceiling bedroom. Checkers and children’s clothing sit on one of the beds, and toys dot what little floor space is available.

The cabin is the work of Don and Marti Theune, who return each year from their retirement home in Hawaii.

‘‘If we don’t do this, so much will get lost and forgotten,” said Marti Theune, the camp’s historian.

Free Methodists broke away from the Methodist Church in 1860 because of their opposition to slavery, among other reasons. Theune’s great-grandparents housed the first Free Methodist Church in Virginia in 1879. Members held their first recorded camping trip in 1889, and, by the 1920s, were meeting annually in Bladensburg. The camp moved to Glenmont in 1924 until the current site was purchased from Luther Poole and Herbert Thompson in 1931.

‘‘It’s just peaceful,” said Lenore Kimble, 46, of Carroll County as she sat on the front porch of the cabin she has owned for 20 years. Sitting with Kimble was her younger sister, Julie Bonvillain, 37, of Damascus, along with Goliath, her chocolate Labrador retriever, visiting from their cabin down the row. The sisters and their siblings grew up off Bel Pre Road attending Layhill Free Methodist Church and the camp.

Bonvillain recalled visiting her older sisters at the teen dorms. ‘‘I remember thinking, ‘I can’t wait to get to camp,’” she said.

The sisters’ combined nine children have all attended the camp. ‘‘My kids love it,” Bonvillain said. ‘‘They talk about it all year.”

‘‘I look forward to it as much as they do,” Kimble added as they both laughed.

In the pavilion, the camp for children through the sixth-grade was winding up for the day with a sing-along followed by a counselor telling the story of the Resurrection.

‘‘It’s a lot of fun to learn with the other kids,” said Kaitlynn Shorb, 10. Kaitlynn is Mary Shorb’s daughter and Kimble and Bonvillain’s niece. She has been going to the camp her entire life and spends the week in her family’s cabin.

‘‘I like my bed at home better, but it’s OK,” she said of the living conditions.

Over in the retreat center, 60 teenagers hung out before dinner and a trip to a Bowie Baysox game. The teens stay in gender-separated dorms behind the center for the week.

‘‘Our main goal is to reintroduce them to God or strengthen their ability to identify with Him,” said Nicole Poole, 21, one of the counselors.

Poole lives just up the road from the camp and has been involved since she was little. This summer she got her own cabin — all 135 square feet of it — enough room for a bed and a refrigerator. She wants to pass her cabin and love of the camp down to her children.

‘‘It’s like a home to me,” she said.

Kimberly Reilly, 17, was beginning to feel the same way. Reilly, of Hereford, attended the camp for the first time and was impressed with the ‘‘fervor” and ‘‘passion” of her new friends.

‘‘Everyone just comes together. It’s a great environment,” she said. ‘‘People are motivated toward God.”