By Jessica Brodie
S.C. United Methodist Advocate
ROWESVILLE – A late-night fire destroyed more than a dozen rustic cabins at a historic religious campground March 10, many of them belonging to United Methodists.
Investigators are still working to determine the cause of the blaze that claimed 15 cabins – known as “tents” – at Cattle Creek Campground in a rural stretch between Bowman and Branchville in the Orangeburg District.
Orangeburg County Chief Fire Operations Officer Teddy Wolfe said the fire is “suspicious.”
“We suspect arson,” Wolfe told The Advocate. “We do have suspects, and the sheriff’s office is actively working on leads.”
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Send a donation to Cattle Creek UMC, in care of church treasurer Dale Wiles, 6333 Vance Rd., Bowman, SC 29018 (indicate that the donation is regarding the campground fire).
The fire started late Friday night, he said, and 65 volunteers from 11 area fire departments and the State Forestry Commission – as well as off-duty emergency medical personnel – worked through the night. There were no injuries.
“We call them tents, but they’re really these wooden buildings – kind of like a barn – and they have a tabernacle around in a circle in the middle for the services,” said the Rev. James Marchant, pastor of Cattle Creek United Methodist Church, which is in the campground right next to the cabins. “Everything in there is dirt roads and woods, so a fire in there in the brush, and as dry as it was at that particular time, would have burned quick.”
Cattle Creek Campground is one of just three Methodist campgrounds remaining in the state. Established in the late 19th century, it is typically used by United Methodist and other Christian families during the summer months. Many come for a week and take part in daily worship services. Marchant said the campground tents are owned by individual families, not the church. The campground was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
Crews were able to stop the fire before it reached the church. Marchant said church members, including some of the families who lost a tent, are saddened, but he said the predominant sentiment is one of gratitude that the loss wasn’t far worse.
“We were very fortunate that it didn’t get to the church, and the Lord always has a hand in those kinds of things,” Marchant said. “Sometimes little miracles happen, and you don’t realize or recognize it until they happen.
“There was no life taken, no one was out there, and basically they can rebuild what was destroyed; it’s not something that can’t be replaced.”
Most of the people in the community are farmers and a few small business owners who live in Bowman and surrounding areas, Marchant said. They care deeply about animals and the woodlands. He said the area is a beautiful spot surrounded by farmlands and woods and cemeteries, including a cemetery right inside the campground.
“It was designed to be like the circuit riders lived when they went around,” Marchant said. “They don’t have refrigerators and don’t cook with electric stoves or anything, everything’s by wood, and they try to keep it like it was 150 years ago – kind of roughing it.”
He said the church is hoping people will keep the campground and families in their prayers.
The Rev. Jim Arant, congregational specialist for the Orangeburg District, expressed his concern for the families there and also requested prayer.
“It’s a historic congregation and a historic landmark for our conference,” he said, “and it has been a source of spiritual renewal for generations. So we are praying for them that they can continue this and recover from the fire that they had.