Camden’s Equine Culture

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road
on October 26, 2003

When it comes to enjoying equine activity, the people of Camden, S.C., aren’t just horsing around.

Home to the National Steeplechase Museum, visitors can relive history as they admire the treasures of victory—ribbons, trophies, and plaques—as well as memorabilia outlining the sport’s illustrious past. A large bay window at the rear of the museum affords a spectacular view of the Springdale Race Course, where guests can watch horses train daily for their moments of glory.

Built in 1930 specifically for the Carolina Cup steeplechase event, the course made its mark in 1961 when its races were televised by a Columbia, S.C., television station—the first live broadcast of a steeplechase. Today, the spring races and surrounding festivities combine for one of South Carolina’s biggest outdoor parties, drawing as many as 50,000 people and a field of horses from across the country and abroad.

Each fall offers steeplechase enthusiasts an encore, as competitors vie for the $100,000 purse of the Colonial Cup, a race established in honor of Marion duPont Scott, the primary benefactor of Springdale’s expansive facility. This year’s event is scheduled Nov.16.

“This is a great place for teaching younger horses,” says Janet Elliot, a trainer whose horses have won every major race on the steeplechase circuit. Although she resides in Lancaster County, Pa., she returns to Camden each winter to work horses in transition from flat track racing to jumps, as well as those she plans to start in the spring.

“The tracks are manicured so they’re always in pretty good shape. The sandy soil here is a much more forgiving surface than clay,” she says. “There is tremendous acreage here. There are lots of low jumps and woods.”

Tremendous indeed. Springdale is located on 12 square miles of protected land, affording space for almost any equine activity imaginable, including foxhunts through heavily wooded areas. “The event is about the experience,” notes Hope Cooper, Springdale’s executive administrator. “No foxes are killed in the hunts.”

While its greatest fame comes from steeplechase and flat track racing, horse culture in this community 30 miles east of Columbia is diverse. Its Westfall Arena hosted 38 equine events last year, ranging from elegant dressage competitions to raucous rodeo spectacles.

“To make this work, you have to relate to all kinds of people and the needs of all these different breeds of horses,” notes Larry Westfall, arena owner. To accommodate its clientele, who come from all over the country, Westfall’s 38-acre facility is practically a city unto itself with 290 stalls, RV hook-ups, and a full-service restaurant.

Not surprisingly, horses play an increasingly important role in the economy as well.

“The horse industry is the second largest employer in Kershaw County behind our duPont carpet fiber manufacturing facility,” explains Buddy Clark, executive director of the Kershaw County Chamber of Commerce. “It takes 1.1 people for every horse in training and you’ll find about 2,000 horses in training each season.”

Add to that all the services associated with the horses’ care.

“The support services in the area are tremendous in terms of tack, vets, feed, blacksmiths, and transportation,” Cooper says.

If you suspect that there’s a bit of Old South decorum about the town, you would be correct. Established in 1731, Camden (pop. 6,682) is South Carolina’s oldest inland city. Its historic district boasts more than 60 sites, ranging from cottages to expansive mansions.

British Lord Cornwallis conspired against colonists here in 1780. Today, the reconstructed mansion where he plotted his attack is the crown jewel of the Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site, which also includes stockades and other period buildings.

Leaping forward almost a century, history buffs can learn of the Battle of Boykin Mill, the state’s last Civil War engagement. Fought a few miles from the city’s historic district, the restored community of Boykin now offers visitors the chance to step back in time by touring a grain mill, broom factory, and general store.

And while the area also is known for great golfing, fishing, and antiquing, it’s still Camden’s equine heritage that makes it a horse of a different color.