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Carolina's Camden -- Old and New

Posted: February 1, 2011 5:08 p.m.
Updated: February 2, 2011 5:00 a.m.
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At the Point

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A note to readers: Hamilton Wright, a California man with Camden ties -- his niece, Anne Bell, lives on Camden’s Mill Street -- was a Yale graduate gripped by the history and dynamic of early 20th century Kershaw County; so much so that he wrote a travel feature for the British publication, Country Life, in 1936, when he was 23 years old.

Shelved and forgotten, the article was brought to light last year when Bell was rummaging through her uncle’s Connecticut home.

Bell stashed the article with the intent to return it where it belongs, Camden. She shared it with local resident Tony Scully, who then passed it along to Chronicle-Independent Publisher Michael Mischner.

Though Wright didn’t spend all that much time here, Bell said, he did manage a couple of visits to his parents, who landed in the Polly Balding house on Chesnut Street.

We hope our readers will enjoy this second installment of a look at the Camden aura of nearly a century ago. Take a look at the artwork that accompanied the piece, and read and enjoy as a tribute to Wright -- he recently passed away, at age 98.

-- Trevor Baratko 

In closing…

Today, the town as a town is little changed. In that respect Camden is no typical resort; visitors and modern times have had to adapt themselves to it, rather than vice versa. Changes made by local people have been made reluctantly; many of them still resent their town being categorized as a resort. Even the fact of that town becoming, in 1890, a city made no difference. Nothing could change their ways to city ways.

Camden’s first “tourist inn,” the Hobkirk, was opened in 1884 by F. W. Eldredge. Uphton Court (now Court Inn), the former home of Major J. M. DeSaussure, followed shortly. And finally came the biggest of the three, the Kirkwood Hotel, erstwhile residence of Major John Cantey. Here again Camden deliberately -- and perhaps wisely -- stayed behind the times. With the possible exception of the Kirkwood Hotel, these tourist inns have remained what they were originally intended to be: overgrown Southern homes of yesteryear, quiet, staid, unbending in their policy toward the visitor, but always maintaining the charm and atmosphere that is individually their own. For more of which the transient invariably returns.

It is this transient -- usually from somewhere north -- who really inflicted change on Camden. It is he (partnered by his thoroughbred horse) who brought the North and South to terms again -- to, and for, his own satisfaction. His means of achieving this have been (1) the winter home he bought there, (2) the horses he raced, (3) the game he shot, (4) the coöperation he has given the Southerners on behalf of their city.

Quickly to mind come many names -- Woodward, Kirkover, Bassett, Belcher, Russell, Graham, Pomeroy -- of prominent winter residents drawn to Camden by the facilities offered for shooting, hunting, racing, polo, golf, and tennis. For golfers Camden has fifty-four holes of very playable course. The Hotel Kirkwood links, a twenty-seven-hole layout, was designed by no less a golf personage than the late Walter J. Travis.

To revert to racing: the diary of James Kershaw, the so-called Pepys of Camden, records the Camden Races as first being held in January of 1802. The fixture was never interrupted, except in wartimes. In all there have been four race courses as directed by the northward spreading of the town. Charleston, the “port of information” from the mother-country of racing, shows its influence in the fact that the South Carolina Jockey Club was somewhat in advance of other states in its rules -- later adopted nationally; it was the first state to require colors. In time Camden came to be known as a minor racing-center, still slightly outdistanced by its rival, Aiken. To be sure it was a good training ground, with miles and miles of bridle paths and draglines in its environs, but it offered no meeting worthy of major aspirant.

Six years ago, however, with the placing of the Carolina Cup in competition, Camden emerged into the racing limelight. The anonymous donor of this beautiful trophy has recently been revealed to be Ernest L. Woodward, a member of the Cup Committee. The cup is a magnificent example of Queen Anne silversmithing, in fact the most valuable cup now competed for in the country. Dedication is to Thomas Hitchcock “as a tribute to his many years of untiring interest in the development and progress of Steeplechasing in America.”

The event is run annually at the end of March, three miles over timber on the Springdale Course; the first big cup race of the spring, and now very close to being (if not already) the outstanding steeplechase of the year. It is the proud hope of its sponsors to bring to the fore thoroughbreds worthy of racing in England. That hope has been rewarded: three winners of the Carolina Cup, Sea Soldier, Troublemaker, and Drinmore Lad, have crossed the ocean for the Grand National. Drinmore Lad, owned by R. K. Mellon with J. E. Ryan up, was last year’s victor in a field that included all former winners.

One feature of the Carolina Cup, in keeping with the ghost of the Southern aristocracy, is that it meets no commercial end; in 1935 a minute, self-protective admission was charged for the first time. Here is sport, pure and traditioned, bringing together -- in a vast Southern-social -- sportslovers from all over the land, occasionally from other lands. Ten thousand people; cars, ten rows deep -- come to see the young bluebloods of American thoroughbred-dom win their spurs. A testimonial to itself; to, not only Mr. Hitchcock, but Mr. Woodward. No amount or form of gratitude can adequately answer for the great good he has done racing in South Carolina and more specifically, the town of Camden.

To Mr. Woodward and the Cup Secretary, Mr. Harry D. Kirkover, our humble salute.

Shooting and hunting are quite as inviting as the racing. Quail, turkey, deer, geese, duck, and dove are the principal game, while swamp and river and field and wood provide scenic variety. Beckoning the hunter are fox and draghunts. At one time there was a vogue for hunting deer to the hounds. At another, the shooting of now extinct wild-pigeon which used to roost in such droves as to kill whole clumps of big trees.

The old days saw many front-rank polo players stopping off at Camden during the winter months to ready their string for the coming season. Later, Aiken proved more of a drawing-card. At present polo is having a local revival. Especially among the natives enthusiasm for the game grows. The Camden polo team, though not as yet first class, offers mettlesome training for the novice and should make a serious bid in the near future.

Too, in Camden’s younger days as a resort the native and the “tourist” -- as the native called him -- regarded each other somewhat skeptically. The native naturally had a “chip on his shoulder” and therefore was inclined to distrust his northern guest. On the other hand the guest, sensing this withdrawal, suspicion, consequently kept more to himself and his Northern companions.

But today the breach has been spanned. Native and “tourist” alike have come to realize that Camden itself is the thing. Personal judgment of the past, regional prejudice can have no part in the workings of a successful community. Camden, the ex-plantation town, is Camden, the mellowed resort -- the sort of community the members of the plantation age would have wished it to become. Both Northerner and Southerner have assisted in the transition: the one with his money and his coöperative method of reconstruction, the other with his tradition, his inherited sense of hospitality and willingness to adjust and be made over.

Indeed, today as yesterday, the 1888 words of those two Camden pamphleteers, speaking of their own home still ring in the mind: “The hand of hospitality is ever extended to the stranger ….”   

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