In all honesty, driving up or down Interstate 20 in South Carolina can be a bit dull. The road is a drab putty color, and there does not seem to be much activity visible from a car outside of the changing of the seasons reflected in the trees. Those beautiful trees hide many secrets, however. Behind them you can find adventures of all kinds, from polo and horse racing to world-class galleries and antique stores. In March a noticeable bustle will be seen through those trees as horse enthusiasts and revelers head to the Carolina Cup races.
One such treasure is the town of Camden, which has been a haven for intellectuals, artists and equestrians from the Palmetto State and beyond since the 1950s. While the town seems quiet at first glance, the social and arts scene rivals many metropolitan areas during the high seasons. New Englanders with pastoral inclinations have wintered there for years, taking in the fox hunting and cultural seasons. Racehorses from less mild climates enjoy training in the warmer weather, and trainers can use the town to reach trials and steeplechases in Florida, Georgia, and the events that take place here in South Carolina. Artists enjoy Camden's retreat-like atmosphere, lively arts events and proximity to Columbia and Charleston. No one can argue that there is nothing happening on this side of the interstate.
I've had the good fortune to spend some time in Camden chatting with artists, arts administrators and locals about the town's cultural activities, all of which are worth a stop off of the highway for enjoyment. One trip last fall happened to be around the time of one of South Carolina's premier equestrian events, The Colonial Cup steeplechase, where I learned that the arts even have a place amongst the paddocks.
On my first trip to explore the artistic gems of the seat of Kershaw County, I had the rare opportunity to preview a much-anticipated antiques store. Kevin Perry is a dealer who divides his time between Camden and West Palm Beach, Fla. With discerning clients up and down the eastern seaboard and an eye for the classic and beautiful, Perry seized on an opportunity to buy an 1815 historic house on Broad Street that was once owned by the Daniel Family. Over the past two years, he has been lovingly restoring the building and preparing to open the store that features difficult to find works of art, furniture, and objets that people normally travel to New York and Boston to acquire. The business is set to open later this year and is well worth a day's (or more) drive to add to a collection.
Next, we visited with Patton Blackwell, an internationally known painter with deep ties to the town. When she was first gaining prominence as an artist, Blackwell moved to Brazil, but when her father became ill several years ago she moved back to the county that is named after her grandfather's family. Since then she has become like an unofficial ambassador for the town, a designation that she proved on that visit with my husband. It was Blackwell who informed us that we could not miss the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County, and she also invited us along for the Colonial Cup, where there is an annual arts and crafts village during the races.
When we returned to Camden for The Colonial Cup races we were in for quite a surprise. Every autumn, the Colonial Cup steeplechase whips the area's social scene into a frenzy. There are lovely parties, breakfasts overlooking the practice fields, and people who are genuine and friendly.
The feeling at the autumn steeplechase event is distinctly different and more laid-back than the famed Carolina Cup races that occur during the spring. The fall event brings a more casual atmosphere that includes The Paddock Shoppes retail village, where artists and craftspeople come from all over the region to sell their wares. From equine portraits to antique furniture to exquisite jewelry, one can find beautiful pieces to suit any taste.
The wide range of careful and beautiful work is indicative of what one can find when perusing the town on any given day. Throughout the heart of Camden there are galleries, artist co-ops, antique stores, and events that enrich and inspire. There are places like The Artist's Attic, where Dot Goodwin gathers local visual artists to work, create, and sell their wares. In this fun and quirky space one can find unique embossed prints, commissioned portraits, figurines fashioned from corn husks, and hand-crafted jewelry, just to name a few beautiful finds.
Further into town there are even more galleries, including The Rutledge Street Gallery, which is known for the diversity and quality of paintings and sculptures in its beautiful, refined space. Not far away I found South Carolina's only deltiology library. It wasn't until I visited The Dusty Horseman that I learned that deltiology is the collection and study of postcards. This store has a collection of antique and current postcards that keeps visitors thumbing through collections for hours. In addition to the postcards, The Dusty Horseman carries an impressive collection of antiques collected from local estates and plantations. At certain times of the year the store will host dinners and historical readings that are often sold out soon after the dates are announced.
The community of Camden is well-versed in all genres of the arts, as there are constant theatrical performances through the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County which also hosts classical music concerts and a host of other events. During the warmer months the staff will sometimes open up the back stage garage door and host parties that include movie screenings. The center also hosts music, dance, pottery, and knitting classes that draw participants from around the state.
The town is a gem that is nestled behind the trees of I-20 where arts enthusiasts mingle freely amongst the horse set, and the two groups support each other in a way that makes the town a delightful place to spend a day or two. With charming bed & breakfasts like The Bloomsbury Inn and The Camden House, it would be easy to plan a weekend getaway that would be unforgettable. For more information on all that this town has to offer, please click here. I promise that you will be impressed!