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A heritage of public facilities

Posted: January 17, 2012 11:08 a.m.
Updated: January 18, 2012 5:00 a.m.

The exotic snakes were released where Historic Camden now sits. The traveling carnival had gone broke and the owner of the snakes could no longer afford to feed them. so several large and non-native snakes were set free to fend for themselves in Pine Tree Creek. Jim Thornton said this incident happened during the Great Depression.

This traveling carnival had set up at the old fairgrounds where Rhame Arena is now located. Most old-timers, those in their 80s and 90s, remember this site being continuously used for the annual county fair every fall and many can recall the excitement that the Kershaw County Fair brought to this area. The fair would usually last for a week and on Wednesday there would be kids’ day and school would be dismissed early. Many a local youngster was separated from his money trying to win a stuffed animal. It was a place where a good time was had by all.

The midway separated the games and rides and as you neared the American Legion Stadium the larger and more thrilling rides were found. As darkness came, this was also the area where the risqué shows performed. There was a wooden building where farm exhibits were displayed and there was a site for animal display complete with the requisite smells. The fairgrounds were bracketed by Broad Street on the west and Zemp Stadium on the east.

Fairgrounds and stadiums have a long history. Because fairs can trace their history to the Middle Ages, most communities had set aside land for fairs. Camden's fairground actually has a charter from the King of England. As team sports became popular after the War Between the States many ballfields were built on the fairgrounds. The fairgrounds in Sumter housed their football stadium, and the county fair in Orangeburg for a number of years hosted the Wofford vs. Citadel football game. The Big Thursday game between Clemson and South Carolina was part of the state fair. The annual Texas vs. Oklahoma game in Dallas is part of the Texas State Fair. If you travel to many communities in the American west you will find many common sites which house fairs, athletic fields and rodeo arenas.

Zemp Stadium is now the oldest continuously used football stadium in the state. Prior to 1958 the home side was a covered wooden structure and the visitors’ side had a tunnel in the middle of the grandstands. In the ’50s the yard markers were large tires painted white with the numerals 10, 20, 30 or 40 painted on four sides. The Kershaw County School District only owns Zemp Stadium, not the surrounding area. It came somewhat as a mild surprise that, in the mid ’90s in order to enlarge the seating capacity, the home side was moved to the east. As the school board sought clearance to expand the eastern side, the actual boundary was determined to be at the end of the playing field. The old visitors’ side was part of Market Street. The Camden City Council granted this old road area to the school.

In the late ’40s and early ’50s there became a national movement to organize youth sports. The City of Camden created youth leagues. If you played youth sports you played for or in “the city.” In the early ’50s one of the ballfields was located where city hall now sits and soon the Linwood area became home to three ballfields. There was a minor, little and pony league field. For many a youngster making a pony league team was a really big deal. There were cuts, and the pony league field had lights, which allowed the players to reach into a tail pipe and get eyeliner, plus you got to wear steel spikes. Oh, what a cool sound they made when you walked on concrete.

In 1963, the city built Rhame Arena, which was named in honor of Clarkston Rhame, the mayor who spearheaded this effort. In the winter of 1964, Camden High played Bishopville High in a basketball game which was the first public unveiling of the new arena. Both the Rockettes and the Bulldogs won. Eventually in the late ’60s and early ’70s the city moved out of the youth recreation program as the county encompassed the youth programs. The Kershaw County Recreation Department now headed by James Davis is a model for other counties which are studying our program as a model to duplicate.

Obviously there is controversy concerning Rhame Arena. One alternative being discussed is for a new and larger city arena to be built. There is also discussion for the recreation department taking over the Camden Middle School property, as well as talk concerning the school district obtaining and enclosing the county pool on Battleship Road. One point that everyone needs to remember is that the good citizens of this county paid for all the public facilities -- the city's, the schools' and the county's. You and I may not hold the deed but it is the citizens’ money which bought the properties and built the facilities.

Thank you for your attention.

(Buster Beckham is a contributing columnist for the Chronicle-Independent, Camden, S.C.)



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