By Margaret Walker
Black Belt Living Magazine
Imagine a place where exchanging pleasantries is the height of good manners, where friends and strangers alike welcome one another with a smile or quite possibly a “How do you do?” Where the traffic that leaves even the most saintly big city dwellers yowling under their breath, is scarce. Where the age-old adage encouraging people to “stop and smell the roses” is not an anomaly but a way of life. Where, against the curtain of aged buildings weathered with character, enterprising farmers sell freshly-harvested produce or catfish at the curb market to eager buyers.
This is Camden.
Camden grew up humbly until the 1850s. On September 14, 1832, Thomas and Martha Dunn provided twelve acres of forest to establish a new county seat in Wilcox County. Located four miles from the Alabama River, this parcel of land—initially christened “Barboursville”—was incorporated and renamed Camden in 1841. By the 1850s, Camden had become a cultural, educational, commercial, and legal center of Wilcox County.
The importance placed on education by early Camden residents was evident in the establishment of the Wilcox Female Institute in 1850. In order to provide the type of boarding school education a young lady would receive in places such as Virginia and the Carolinas, wealthy plantation owners donated the necessary funds to build a local school. The female college was a great success, attracting students from all over the South. Today, the structure is the home of the Wilcox Historical Society. The Society’s commitment to raise money to restore the institute to its former glory saved the historic landmark from destruction, preserving an iconic piece of Camden’s history.
A trophy case of antebellum structures, Camden is a town that marries past and present in one beautiful landscape. The focal point of downtown Camden is the imposing red brick, Greek Revival courthouse built in the late 1850s. It is one of only four antebellum courthouses still in use in Alabama. The Wilcox County Library is located on the second floor and contains an expansive collection of genealogical records.
The Historical Society sponsors an annual tour of homes and historic landmarks. The most recent tour held in February 2012 included the oldest documented structure in Camden: the Dunn-Fairley-Bonner-Field home, originally built for Thomas and Martha Dunn. The tour also showcased GainesRidge, built in the 1830s. In 1985, Betty Gaines Kennedy and her sister Haden G. Marsh converted this antebellum structure into GainesRidge Dinner Club. The quintessential southern dining experience offered by Mrs. Kennedy with her fried catfish fillets, homemade bread, and black bottom pie tempts customers from miles away.
Built in 1851, the Sterrett-McWilliams house displays a broad mix of architectural styles ranging from Victorian to Greek Revival. Owned by Garland Cook Smith and her sister Jean Lindsay Cook, this home has also been featured in the tour of homes. The sisters’ great-grandfather, Richard Ervin McWilliams, fought in the Civil War with a group known as the Wilcox True Blues. The True Blues, comprised mainly of young men from eastern Wilcox county and Camden, carried a distinctive blue flag. Samuel Tepper hand-painted the name, “Wilcox True Blues” on one side and an image of a rattlesnake, cotton boll, and a steamboat on the other. Although the True Blues proudly carried their flag into battle, the regiment was captured by Union forces in Tennessee in 1862 and their flag confiscated.
Decades later, an unusual turn of events reunited McWilliams with the True Blues’ flag. In 1917 while visiting family in Lansing, Michigan, McWilliams’ youngest daughter found the flag on display in a museum. She recognized the flag because of the detailed descriptions her father had previously given her. She contacted her father with the unlikely news and the quest to bring the flag back to Alabama began. In 1921, the state of Michigan returned the flag to McWilliams. In recent years, the Wilcox Historical Society, working in conjunction with the Alabama Department of Archives and History, had the flag restored.
Camden is not only a town with a rich, intriguing history but also one with a healthy appreciation for the artistic culture of the Black Belt. Anyone planning a trip to Camden should venture into Black Belt Treasures, a gallery filled with items by Black Belt artists. The craftsmanship and artistry on display is staggering. Items for sale include books, paintings, pottery, hand-woven baskets, jewelry, and quilts made by the famous Gees Bend quilters.
Whether shopping at Black Belt Treasures, touring antebellum homes, or buying fresh produce from the curb market, the peaceful tranquility this small town offers is well worth a visit. Friendly people who delight in the simple pleasures of life make Camden an inviting oasis for those who appreciate a slower pace of living.