The December 29, 1794, entry James Kershaw, the eldest son of Joseph Kershaw, wrote in his 1791-1814 diary states: "Dance at McCaa’s per subscription." One can only assume McCaa’s proprietor, John McCaa, offered the locals and wayfarers to Camden such evenings of gaiety frequently, as many taverns did.
Unfortunately, little is known about the establishment except its location near the northwest corner of Bull and Market Streets. Scant, too, are any references to innkeeper McCaa, except that he arrived in the area from Scotland within the decade and was the father of prominent Camden physician, Dr. John McCaa.
The invitation from Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site to current locals and wayfarers states: "Join us for the McCaa’s Tavern Bare Walls Party, Monday from 5:30-9:30 p.m." It will be the first of many evenings of gaiety to be held at the future McCaa’s Tavern, or the John McCaa house, the yet restored Saltbox-styled residence, circa 1794, once owned by Dr. John McCaa and later used for his medical office.
Tickets for the event will be $40 per person or $70 per couple, payable by cash, check or MasterCard. Included in each ticket price will be a complimentary wine or beer ticket and a cash bar offering similar libations and fruit juices will be available throughout the evening. An 18th century groaning board replete with delicious samplings of mostly authentic period recipes will be provided by some of Camden’s caterers and eateries. The acoustic music provided by Jim Hayes and the Fair Jam Band will add to the evening’s ambiance. Reservations by Wednesday and comfortable attire are encouraged.
The preview party has been planned as an early evening affair so guests may roam freely between the high-ceilinged rooms and observe the construction methods and skilled craftsmanship of Camden’s early builders and artisans. Each room will display computer generated architectural floor plans and architectural CAD renderings of the space restored as an 18th century tavern. They have been designed and generated by Alison Morris of Camden, the restoration project’s interior designer, and David Tuders and his engineering graphics students from Central Carolina Technical College’s Engineering Graphics Technology Department in Sumter.
Phase one of the John McCaa House Restoration Project will being soon, thanks to the help of Camden City and Kershaw County Councils, BlueCross BlueShield, a pending challenge grant from the Frederick S. Upton Foundation, community businesses and individuals, including descendants of Dr. John McCaa.
Funds will continue to be sought to ensure completion of the restoration, including the installation of a tap room cage bar, caterer’s kitchen and reproduction tavern furnishings and accessories. As envisioned by the Historic Camden Foundation trustees, the John McCaa will function as an interpretive center for 18th century Camden tavern life as well as provide a charming, theme-based rental venue for weddings, receptions and Historic Camden fundraisers, such as its popular Tavern Nights. Ideally, McCaa’s Tavern will function as an 18th century tavern-themed restaurant operated by one of Camden’s restaurants.
Samuel Johnson, 18th century literary titan, once said, "There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern."
As the center of the Carolina backcountry until the emergence of the new state capitol in Columbia, Camden and Kershaw County seriously embraced that philosophy. In the 18th century and early 19th century, some 22 documented taverns and inns were active in Camden proper and outlying areas.
Originally introduced to the colonies by English settlers, the tavern or pub and the church soon formed the nucleus of every community. Taverns served as places to host town meetings and court trials, make mail drops and read newspapers and broadsides that enflamed political debate, especially before and during the American Revolution.
The location of taverns was often determined by locale. Rural taverns and inns, like those in Kershaw County, were scattered about ten miles apart, a distance considered reasonable for a day’s journey by horse or coach. Conversely, a tavern built close to a church not only would provide a refreshment break from day-long Sunday services, but on bone-chilling winter days, it enabled women parishioners to refill their portable coal foot warmers while the men warmed up from a visit to the local tap room.
Taverns were usually licensed by local authorities. The amenities offered were invariably at the discretion of the tavern owner. Food, drink, overnight accommodations and boarding for horses were the norm. The regulations for populated areas, like the 1791 Tavern Rules governing Camden and Kershaw County, insured the traveler a variety of good drink, fresh meals and a good feather bed. Other diversions offered might include card games such as whist, darts, dice, board games, cock fights and horse races, music, dancing and even a performing trained bear.
Subject to the availability of ingredients, such as apples, grain and honey, many 18th century tavern keepers made the beer, wine, cider and mead they served clients. The better the quality of their efforts, the more enhanced would be their reputations as brew masters, which was important considering the average colonist consumed daily more than three gallons of those brews. That amount was still a good deal, even considering that the alcoholic content was lower than today’s standards.
Common to all taverns was a room where visitors and locals could congregate for a drink, camaraderie, discussion on current events and the swapping of local gossip for stories gleaned on the road. Larger facilities might include a dining room, parlor, tap room with cage bar, sleeping room(s), game rooms and a dance hall or long room.
Camden’s Dinkin’s Tavern, located at today’s entrance to Historic Camden, had a long room. Historic Camden Part Two Nineteenth Century by Sarah Thompson in 1857 includes an account of the tavern’s long room:
"Who among you recollects Dinkins’ Tavern…Who now living can say, there in Dinkin’s Long Room many a pleasant hour have I spent in ‘tripping on the light fantastic toe,’ where it was not unusual for all Camden to assemble who were not so old as to have lost all the springs of youth, or whose religious scruples did not forbid the innocent pastime?...
Mrs. Dinkins…as well as all of the ladies of that day could beat up a pound cake and prepare a whip syllabub at short notice: a pound cake, some wafers, broiled venison, ham and a cup of tea was ample viands…
In politics there was perfect accord, all having too recently escaped from a common danger to be dissatisfied with a government of their own creation."
The restoration and adaptive reuse of the John McCaa House as a working 18th century tavern will link Kershaw County’s tavern tradition to Colonial Williamsburg, Old Salem and St. Augustine.
The Bare Walls Party on Monday is the launch that will give residents and tourists a haven that will represent Camden and Kershaw County favorably. All proceeds from the Bare Walls Party will benefit Historic Camden and the restoration of the John McCaa House. Historic Camden’s mission is to discover, protect and interpret things pertaining to early Camden. The museum is governed by the trustees of the Historic Camden Foundation, a 501 (c) non-profit organization and annually receives some funding from the City of Camden and Kershaw County.
Historic Camden Revolutionary Site is located at 222 Broad St., in Camden. For additional information, call 432-9841, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.historic-camden.net.