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Column: The Alexander Young portrait

Posted: February 19, 2018 4:19 p.m.
Updated: February 20, 2018 1:00 a.m.

Well-known, long-time Camden resident William M. Shannon wrote a series of articles for the newspaper in 1876 that described Camden and its people of days gone by.  He penned, “Among the new settlers after the [Revolutionary] war, many were the founders of the best society this district has ever known; founders, too, of its noblest and best families, names ever to be remembered with pride and reverence …”  Among those, he described Mr. Alexander Young.

“ … Alexander Young was another of these old landmarks; he was a Scotchman … and had many of their national characteristics.”                 

Knowing what we know of Mr. Young, these Scottish “national” traits may have included the Scots’ penchant for thriftiness, patriotism, loyalty and education.  Shannon went on to write, “Jeweller [sic], watchmaker, and bookseller -- all his life he was without any formidable rival in his calling.  He was universally known and highly appreciated.”  Of course, we know he was a masterful silversmith of note in addition to the aforementioned. The Archives and Museum is fortunate to have a large set of his silver flatware and his beautiful Federal period French Empire teapot in our collection.

Shannon continued, “Ordinarily quiet and reserved in manner and conversation, he possessed some rare intelligence and skill; he was well-informed in mechanical philosophy and, in his later years, in the new science of chemistry … he was also somewhat studied in history, metaphysics, and natural philosophy. To the thoughtful, he was an interesting companion and on the above subjects alluded to, warmed up to geniality.”

Camden’s keeper of the town clock during his lifetime, Alexander Young passed that important community service on to his son, George, at his death.  An avid Presbyterian, he served on the committee to acquire the lot for Bethesda Presbyterian Church and later served on the building committee as it was constructed. The Archives and Museum is pleased that we were able to offer a six-month exhibit on this important Camden figure. As the weeks drew near to taking the exhibit down, we received a phone call from a descendant, John Young, of Orlando, Florida. He had found our exhibit on the internet.

The message that I received from the staff said that he was coming to see us on January 9 and wanted to meet with me that afternoon.  He said he was bringing a portrait of Alexander Young -- which I thought would be the miniature likeness that we had seen in Milby Burton’s “South Carolina Silversmiths.” We knew that Young’s granddaughters had it in their possession in Camden when Burton did the book in 1942 and had tried to track it down for the exhibit -- with no success.

Well, that afternoon while at my desk downstairs I received the call from the front desk that he was here.  On the phone, I could fairly feel the buzz that was going on with the staff upstairs -- but they gave me no hints. They just summoned me upstairs. As I entered the Friends Gallery from the ground floor I saw Mr. Young and his companion, Ms. Nancy Lockwood, looking at the exhibits -- and the staff was still buzzing in the front room.  As we walked up to the front room, I could see why the excitement was in the air. John Young and Nancy Lockwood had brought Alexander Young’s full sized oil portrait, beautifully framed and preserved.

John had already shown the staff other treasures belonging to Alexander -- the door key to his first house here on lower Broad Street three doors down from the Price House and a small silver tag with Young’s silver mark on it. Rickie and I proceeded to hang the portrait in the exhibit and stood back to admire it with John and Nancy. It is a finely done seated portrait of  Alexander, perhaps when he was in his late 20s or early 30s. His curly brown hair frames a sensitive, handsome face with dark blue-grey eyes. Behind him sits a globe and a stack of books by a window which looks out on a moonlit night sky. John pointed out the two books on the top of the stack in the portrait and then gestured toward two books he had brought with him which were on the table in the Whiteley Room.  He opened one of the books revealing that they were actually a cleverly disguised game set -- checker board on top and backgammon on the inside, complete with some of the game pieces!

At that point, we were beyond amazed at the treasures John and Nancy had brought to Camden.  He said that this was not all  -- he had other things that belonged to Alexander Young, and in fact he sleeps in Alexander’s bed!  After a good chat and many thanks for the loan of his wonderful possessions, John and Nancy left for their return trip to Florida.  In subsequent days, John and Nancy sent additional Young items as he had promised -- a piece of Camden made osnaburgs fabric produced at the DeKalb Cotton Mill around 1900, a scrapbook kept by Bessie Young, Alexander’s granddaughter, in the 1950s and more.

On January 16, John called to say that he had decided to leave Alexander’s portrait with us as a gift! So Alexander has come back home to Camden to stay. We are the lucky recipients of John Alexander Young’s generosity and his love for his family’s history.  William Shannon wrote in 1876, “Mr. Young lived to a ripe old age; was very successful and universally esteemed and respected.  He is well represented by his sons, our valued friends, Dr. James A. Young and Mr. George G. Young.” Well, in 2018 Alexander Young is well-represented by his great-great grandson, John Alexander Young of Orlando, Florida.  You’ll never guess what John does -- he is a silversmith, a jewelry maker, and a clock maker!

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