133rd Bloys Campmeeting brings spirit and community to Far West Texas

A serene porch scene at the Meeker family cabin after a day of worship at this year’s Bloys Campmeeting. Photo by Melanie Lavrakas.

JEFF DAVIS COUNTY — Last Wednesday, the 133rd Bloys Campmeeting drew to a close. The annual August event brings hundreds of believers together in a celebration of prayer and community. The annual retreat is nondenominational, but it is officially sponsored by Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists and Disciples of Christ. 

The Bloys Campmeeting has been held at the traditional grounds at Skillman’s Grove, 16 miles outside of Fort Davis, since 1890. The event was the brainchild of William Benjamin Bloys, a Presbyterian missionary who held the first Campmeeting under a tree. The land around the tree was officially purchased and set aside in 1902, and a compound of cabins has sprung up around the site for faithful yearly attendees. 

The Campmeeting quickly grew to develop its own culture and traditions. “Nothing is bought and sold on the grounds, and no tents or cabins are for rent,” local writer and historian Barry Scobee wrote in 1931. “But camping sites are free, as are wood, water and lights. The first meeting was held under a tree, but today there is a tabernacle seating hundreds, a water and light system, dozens of cottages, and acres for tents.” 

Many annual attendees plan their lives around Campmeeting, and it’s not uncommon to meet folks who have been going their whole lives. Last year’s event was different — it was the first to return in-person after the COVID-19 pandemic caused the first scheduling disruption in 131 years. “Something was missing,” said Melanie Meeker Lavrakas, a lifelong attendee who joined in 2020 via Zoom. “It’s like your life has been put back together.” 

Lavrakas’ family moved to Van Horn in the early 1950s, and her parents started hearing about the annual retreat. Intrigued, they decided to check it out, thinking they’d only spend a few hours at the Campmeeting grounds — they didn’t even bring toothbrushes. Fellow attendees scrounged together toothbrushes for the family, and within a few years, they had helped build an addition onto a friend’s cabin that would provide a permanent place for them to stay. “They absolutely loved it,” she said. 

With decades of experience at Campmeeting, Lavrakas has seen a lot of changes. “I got real upset when I started seeing people wearing shorts out there because that used to be a no-no,” she said with a laugh. “My mother reminded me that back when they first started all the ladies wore long dresses with big bustles and hats. Things are going to change, so I started to accept it.”

Some of the traditions, however, help remind the modern-day attendees of the past. “No Kodaking on Sundays” — in other words, no photography on Sundays — is a rule that’s still enforced, though the reason it was implemented has long since faded away. “On Sundays, people from surrounding towns would come out in their buggies and have their horses tied up — and the big flash of a Kodak [camera] from back in the day would scare the horses,” Lavrakas explained.

Lavrakas has only missed two years since she first started going: one year where there was a medical emergency in the family, and another when she was in police academy. “I’m a retired police officer,” she explained. She felt that kind of career comes with a lot of baggage — mainly, a lingering sense of hypervigilance. “[Bloys] is the only place in the world I can go and 100% let my guard down. There’s not anyone out there that I would be afraid to walk up on their porch and sit down and have a chat.” 

Her eight-year-old granddaughter, Kiki Hicks, felt the same way. “The campgrounds are really really big, and my mom trusts me to get around by myself,” she explained. “Everyone out there is nice. There’s no one for your parents to worry about, it’s all just good stuff.”