Last Friday, 16 banker boxes of the late Reid Buckley’s personal papers arrived at the Camden Archives and Museum. The archives already holds the manuscript versions of Reid’s published books and papers about those published works. This recent donation are his day-to-day working files containing miscellaneous correspondence, Buckley family research, book reviews, manuscripts for screenplays he wrote, research materials for his published books, and such. The staff is eager to begin processing the collection and was peeking into various boxes this week. One of the first things they saw was a cardboard box dating to the 1970s which had been cellophane taped round and round every which a way and mailed to Doubleday Publishing in New York -- and obviously mailed back to Buckley. They joked that the box, not the contents, would be the first thing to hit the trash because of its acidic deterioration. Then Rickie, our curator, said, “But wait, this would be great in an exhibit!”
Inside the box was a typescript for a book entitled “The Anatomy of an American Town” by Fergus Reid Buckley. The typescript wasn’t about just any American town, it is about Camden. Lively reading, the book, in essence, tries to define what makes Camden the town that it is by relating its history, its ties to the land, its people through time, our Southern way of life and its appeal to the Northern visitors in the last part of the 19th century and the 20th century. It is also a book I believe Buckley had to research and write before he could decide to move back here to make Camden his home after years of living in Spain and travelling the world.
Camden was the town of his childhood winters. His family bought Kamschatka in the late 1930s and thereafter, Reid’s fall, winter and spring months were spent here. He said that he did not like Camden as a young boy. But his tales about life here prove Camden got into his psyche as he grew older -- the hunting, the fishing, the horses, the people, the land itself. He was a great storyteller and perhaps the greatest gift he left us was to write down the most famous Camden tales from the early 20th century -- like the ones about Dixie Boykin buying an elephant to plow his fields and Edwin “Icky” Guy encountering a bourbon drinking ghost in the swamp late one night. He caught the spirit and humor of the people of Camden with his pen.
He summed up the essence of Camden’s spirit too. Of the people he wrote, “Their intellectual bent is affinitous, and it is indigenous to Camden, whose sons from settler days were sent to Oxford for schooling, and then, following Independence, to Harvard and Yale, and then following the Civil War, to whatever was available whenever there were means.”
Of the historic homes in Kirkwood, he wrote, “I wondered, how would I feel, were I a Camdenite, when so many of the town’s finest houses have been taken over by foreigners? … I know what I have been told. I believe it. The people of Camden are grateful. Wealthy Northerners have rescued these places from oblivion, from the bulldozer ... They are repositories of tradition. They are embedded in the history of this town …”
When he visited here for the first Colonial Cup in 1970, he deliberately took stock of what was happening in Camden -- this small town raising the funds to offer the largest steeplechase purse in the world; a town applauding native son and architect Henry Boykin as he rescued several of Camden’s oldest dwellings from the oblivion and ravages of the years and turned them into jewels from Camden’s past; a town planning its Bicentennial tribute to its colonial and Revolutionary heritage -- the beginnings of Historic Camden. He wrote, “Camden sits in the most miserable pine barren George Washington ever rode through. But this is a town in renaissance. This is communal action, and the best sort.” He summed up the spirit of the 1970s, “Individuals of the most diverse backgrounds concerted here in community action … From the northerly Kirkwood reaches, down through the more urban residential areas and the business district, all the way out to the historical sites on the southerly fringe, the people of this community, native, recent, or seasonal, are actively engaged in beautifying their city and in preserving or restoring its heritage. They are doing this largely by their bootstraps. And they are on their way. That is, Camden seems to have a good gambling chance of becoming an aesthetic oasis.”
Reid Buckley did move back to settle in Camden for the rest of his life. He certainly added to the intellectual climate of this place -- and the color! A Camden lady stated, “Reid’s sort of our Renaissance man.” Reid thought that of other Camdenites in the 1970s. We’ll revisit Reid Buckley’s research trip to Camden in next month’s article.