Living History – Camden South Carolina
A Look Into South Carolina’s Oldest Inland City, Full Of An Elegant Small Town Culture And Storied Past.
Recognized in the guidebooks as a quaint and historic city with ample hunting and equestrian pursuits, Camden is far from the fustiness one might conjure up initially. Though undoubtedly part of the appeal, Camden’s thoroughbreds, freshly polished rifle chambers, and general air of sophistication are all pleasantly balanced by the intangible comfort of feeling right at home.
Established as a backcountry settlement by King George II along the Wateree River, Camden is as far west as most Europeans would venture in the early 1700s and soon became a convenient trading spot and outpost for the British during the Revolutionary War. The Redcoats occupied Camden as headquarters for over a year surrounded by fortifications. Although they were victorious in the Battle of Camden (1780) and Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill (1781), the English soon left Camden and burned much of it on their way out.
In the wake of the fight for independence, Camden prospered, and by the early 1800s had twice as many homes as the state capital. During the Civil War, Camden found itself once again in a pivotal role, this time as a supply station and hospital, counting Mary Todd Lincoln’s brother among its surgical staff. Ultimately, like so many others, Camden suffered under the fiery exit of General Sherman and found itself forced to evolve in the aftermath.
Wealthy northerners soon made their way to the town and brought with them a passion for horses, solidifying Camden’s place in equestrian tradition that continues today through the Carolina Cup each Spring. Over 60,000 brightly-clothed spectators, about ten times the total population, are drawn into Camden for the steeplechase event annually. If you can’t make it for the cup, be sure to stop by the National Steeplechase Museum, the only museum in the United States that is dedicated to telling the steeplechase story.
To take it back to the very beginning of Camden and further investigate its former life, the first stop is Historic Camden, where the Kershaw Cornwallis House stands, original headquarters to Cornwallis and perhaps the most iconic symbol of Camden’s extraordinary history. Thousands of spectators flock to Historic Camden throughout the first full weekend in November for Revolutionary War Field Days. The signature event features battles, camps, demonstrations, and presentations by scholars.The grounds of the house also contain a larger museum complex featuring the c. 1800 Craven House and McCaa’s Tavern, log cabins with exhibits, a reconstructed blacksmith shed, and more. Continue the story at nearby Camden Battlefield and Longleaf Pine Preserve, a 450+ acre site where the Patriots’ defeat at the Battle of Camden became the catalyst for the promotion of Major General Nathanael Greene as commander of the Southern Campaigns.
Downtown Camden is the ideal of a quaint small town, complete with plenty of shops, an impressive amount of local eateries, and distinct architecture. You’ll spot weather vanes in the likeness of Catawba Indian Chief King Haigler and the unofficial Patron Saint of Camden while he watches over the town atop both the 1886 Opera House Tower and the dome of Camden City Hall. Both are replicas of the original 1826 weather vane that is now housed safely in the Camden Archives and Museum. The museum has a top notch genealogical research facility for those who want to dig deep into the records of Camden along with artifacts and exhibits on the entire county. The newly opened African American Cultural Center houses exhibits including the legacy of favorite son and baseball Hall of Famer Larry Doby.
Once you start thinking life in Camden couldn’t get any more quaint, think again and catch a show at the Little Theater, in operation since 1948. The building has been refurbished since the old days, but still exudes character and includes two screens showing the current blockbusters.
Camden has one of the most impressive mixtures of shops in South Carolina in both quantity and quality. Take a tour of the many antique stores or peruse downtown on Broad Street. Pink Stable ladies boutique has classy southern attire in spades, outfitting locals and visitors alike in beautiful clothing fit for any horse race. For a cup of coffee and a rare find, Books on Broad is an independent bookstore selling used, new, and collectible books to flip through along with millions of titles available online. Music aficionados will naturally find their way to Davis & Sons Guitar Shop, maybe even planning a whole trip around the place. Rusty Davis, former guitar player for Eric Clapton, has everything a musician needs including plenty of life lessons and advice. Definitely check out the Bassett Gallery at the Fine Arts Center to take in art in all forms such as contemporary, classic, folk, sculptures, and paintings. Admission to the gallery and receptions are free.
Camden is also wrapped in forest land inviting lots of fun in the sun. Goodale State Park offers some of the best kayaking in South Carolina on a Civil War-era mill pond. There’s plenty of fishing, a sandy one-mile hiking trail, and a three-mile paddling trail through cypress trees.
Two of the standout options to make a weekend of your visit in Camden offer, not surprisingly, a big slice of history pie along with your breakfast. The Camden House B&B was built in 1832 in the heart of downtown and features 12 foot-high ceilings and heart pine floors that would make any historic preservationist swoon. The antebellum grandeur of the furnishings, sitting rooms, and breezy porches are merged with just the right amount of modern conveniences, even a pool!
A short walk from downtown will bring you to the award-winning Bloomsbury Inn. The former private home was built in the mid-1800s by Colonel Chestnut, then the third wealthiest person in the state. Many well-known faces of Camden history graced the halls of Bloomsbury including Mary Boykin Chestnut, famous for penning “Diary of Dixie” detailing her experiences during the Civil War. The four rooms are named after original family members–including Mary–and each contains an 1854 fireplace plus sitting area. Here, you’ll awake to the smell of Bloomsbury’s own special coffee brew and a three-course gourmet breakfast made from local ingredients.
Blackmon’s Little Midget Family Drive-In is a 30-seater that started as a hot dog stand in the 1950s. The still-humble establishment now dishes out incredible amounts of sweet tea, pimento cheese, and chicken and will also fill you up on slow-roasted barbecue, burgers, and more. The must-eat is, of course, a hot dog topped with Blackmon’s famous chili.
Every town needs a nostalgic diner on a side street where kids chuckle at the counter and patrons indulge in some old-fashioned southern goodness. Broad Street Lunch, better known as BSL, is that place. The breakfast comes hot, the burgers come on toasted bread, and the service comes with conversation and a smile every time.
De Bruhl’s Café is too tempting to pass up for all the hole-in-the-wall seekers out there. A southern-style buffet tucked behind a hotel, the cafe offers up full breakfast or the ever-adored meat and three for lunch, with options changing daily.
Just in case their weekly all-you-can-eat crab leg or rib specials don’t pique your interest, the full menu at Hifalutin will. Southern staples like fried green tomatoes and pimento cheese fries will start you off before you choose between entrees like the smoked pork drums, shrimp and grits, and apple moonshine ribs.
For a quick treat or dessert, Mulberry Market Bake Shop has everything from chocolate croissants to homemade breads and pecan rolls. The bakers are up in the wee hours of the morning to satisfy your sweet tooth all day, so make sure to return their warm smiles.
For the slow-cooked savory meat lovers, Westfall’s Texas Style BBQ is open Thursday-Saturday and is chock full of slow-cooked savory meats including brisket, pulled pork, ribs, chicken leg quarters, and smoked Texas sausage. Sauces and side dishes are available, but definitely not necessary.
A word meaning “health” in Spanish and used as a toast, Salud! is traditional Mexican fare with lots of glam and flare. The innovative menu is fresh and the lounge atmosphere allows you to really relax and enjoy the handcrafted cocktails and over 100 tequila options.
The historic exposed brick and tin ceiling are just the starting points for the charm at Sam Kendall’s, where the ambiance is unpretentiously fancy, much like Camden itself. There are separate dinner, lunch, and seasonal menus, and the seafood and steaks are standouts.
This city, as tempting as it is to pigeon-hole as exclusive and a touch high-brow, actually leans more on the side of sturdy with an approachable elegance. Camden is proud of the hearty souls that began its path to such a significant role in history, and it is conscious of maintaining its willful spirit today and more than happy to share it with all who grace its dignified doorstep.
While we pride ourselves on finding soon-to-be favorite discoveries for our readers while scouting cities, this article is by no means comprehensive. Visit www.classicallycarolina.com to explore everything Camden has to offer, including audio tours of all nine of their historic districts.
By Grace Nelson