Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Camden's historic walking tour is one of Wilcox County's best kept 'secrets'

Wilcox Female Institute
One of Wilcox County’s best kept “secrets” is Camden’s historic walking tour.

I first took this walking tour in 2012 and have taken it several times since then. It never gets old, and I learn something new and interesting about Wilcox County’s history each and every time I follow the tour through Camden’s downtown streets.

I first heard about this tour years ago when I read a story about it in The Progressive Era. I made a few inquiries and eventually my friend David Johnson, who lives in Camden, provided me with a copy of the tour brochure. The tour was developed by Nick Baggett as part of his Eagle Scout service project.

I got the itch to take the tour again this past Sunday morning, and I began the tour by parking on Fail Street beside the Camden Baptist Church, near the corner of Broad Street and across from the Camden Cemetery. The tour consists mainly of two parts, that is, it guides you by several historic buildings on Broad Street and then takes you through the cemetery, highlighting the numerous important figures from Camden’s history that are buried there.

Planning to finish the tour in the cemetery, I took a look at the old buildings along Broad Street first. Across from the Camden Baptist Church sits the Wilcox Female Institute building. Incorporated in 1850 as a “boarding school for Southern young ladies,” the school closed in 1910. The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, now serves as the headquarters for the Wilcox Historical Society.

Just down the street from there sits the Camden Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church building. Built in 1849, it’s the only church in Camden that predates the Civil War. According to brochure, the building is now a private residence.

The next building down Broad Street is my personal favorite, the Dale Masonic Lodge building. Housing Dale Lodge No. 25, which was organized in 1825 at Dale Town, the cornerstone of this building was laid in November 1848. According to the brochure, Union troops camped at this site while passing through Camden in April 1865.

From there, I walked back up Broad Street to the Camden Cemetery, which dates way back to the early 1800s. Just inside the entrance sits the impressive Confederate Memorial Statue, which was erected in April 1880. Built to honor the Confederate dead from Wilcox County, the monument was erected by the Ladies’ Memorial and Wilcox Monument Association.

The rest of the tour takes you through the cemetery and past the graves of many notable Wilcox County residents, including William R.K. and Franklin K. Beck, the nephews of U.S. vice president William Rufus King; Margaret Beck, the sister of William Rufus King; Dr. John Daniel Caldwell, Camden’s first mayor who named the town after Camden, S.C.; Delitha Cook, the wife of Zo Cook, the probate judge who saved county records during the Civil War; Alexander Bragg, builder of the Wilcox County Courthouse; Thomas Dunn, Camden pioneer and founder; Joseph Gilmore, a four-year-old boy who, according to his tombstone, was “intentionally drowned by a family servant” in 1853; James Hawthorne, a Civil War soldier who won the Southern Cross of Honor; Ebenezer Hearn, builder of the historic home, Gaines Ridge; William Brutus Howard, a famous lawyer, political speaker and writer; Richard Channing Jones, former University of Alabama Chancellor; Emmett Kilpatrick, a presidential interpreter and Red Cross official who was taken prisoner during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and held in a Russian prison camp; Benjamin Meek Miller, former governor of Alabama; and Lt. Joseph M. Wilcox, a native of Connecticut who had Wilcox County was named in his memory in 1819.

One of the more interesting graves in the cemetery is a pile of bricks near the entrance that marks what is believed to be a mass grave where the victims of the Orline St. John riverboat fire were laid to rest. About 120 people were onboard the riverboat on March 1, 1850 when sparks from a furnace ignited a fire that sank the Montgomery-bound riverboat. Forty people died in the accident, including all women and children on board.

After the cemetery portion of the tour, I hopped back in my truck and rode downtown. I parked just off the town square, and finished the tour by taking a closer look at the Old Wilcox County Courthouse building. Built in 1857-58, this building now houses the Wilcox County Public Library.

In the end, I have to say that over the years I’ve taken historic walking tours of this type in a wide variety of places, including Montgomery, Greenville, Selma, Monroeville Mobile and Pensacola, Fla., and Camden’s walking tour is as good or better than many of those. For those of you interested in taking the Camden walking tour for yourself, you can download a copy of the tour brochure at http://www.wilcoxareachamber.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/walkingtourbrochure_camdenv1.pdf.

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