I AM GOING to Camden today with my best good friend, Monica, and I am so excited about it.
Until she messages me, and I remember she doesn’t consume meat. Or dairy. Or eggs.
“Prepare yourself for the eats today,” I write her, thinking of the catfish restaurant I’ve been told is a can’t-miss when visiting the deep-south-Arkansas town.
Today, I think, is just not the day to be a vegan.
There are quite a few things for me, the vegetarian, to eat, though. Woods Place bills itself more as “Southern Style,” than strictly fish-centered, so I order fried pickles and fried mushrooms and fried green tomatoes and fried okra, and there are fried hush puppies, too, that come gratis. Monica has to fudge—these delicacies have been dredged in a mixture likely containing eggs—but for today, she does indeed fudge. For a little piece of grease heaven.
It seems we’re in Grapette heaven, too. The brick and corrugated-tin walls boast the most extensive collection of Grapette memorabilia I’ve ever seen in one place: framed paper advertisements and round metal signs and even delicate, decorative plates like my Granny used to have, only instead of a country landscape bordered by flowers, there’s a Grapette soda bottle bordered by flowers.
“So, do you have Grapette?” I ask the waiter on one of his check-ins.
“Yes,” he answers, as if I’ve asked a trick question, or maybe as if I’m the dumbest human on the planet. Turns out Grapette was born right here in Camden. Benjamin Tyndle Fooks, a graduate of Camden High School, dabbled in a couple of early careers (Methodist ministry, the lumber industry, even service-station ownership), but it was the purchase of a small soft-drink bottling plant in February 1926 that would change the course of his—and Camden’s—future.
Monica and I take a sip. It is sweet. Like, grapey, communion winey, liquid-sugary sweet.
Today is not the day to be the descendant of diabetics.
I start eyeing folks at the tables around us, wondering who might be the best to ask about must-sees around here. Should I hit up the table full of older folks where a dapper Southern gentleman in a Razorback-red sportcoat is listening to the Hogs game being broadcast on the speakers overhead? How about the semiprofessional middle-agers at the table catty-cornered to ours, all collared shirts and pressed khakis? There’s also the family—complete with great-grandma, teenager and toddler—who take up seven of the eight seats at their double-wide table.
They laugh heartily at something someone said, and I choose them.
“This is my first trip to Camden,” I tell them. “Where do I just need to go today, before I leave town?”
The young grandfather takes the lead. “Why, there’s a chili cook-off going on downtown today! They’ve got tents set up, and kids’ games, and I bet there’s even crafts down there, too.”
“Sounds perfect,” I say and smile. Chili cook-off, I think. Not even the day to be a vegetarian.
“That’s the best tip of the day right there!” he smiles back.
I head back to my seat. “Welcome to Camden!” the great-grandmother hollers after me.
Monica and I begin to pack up, but there is one more menu item we have to try.
“We’ll take a fried apple pie,” Monica tells the waiter.
“One? Or two?”
I steal a glance at the fried food on the table, a good half of what we ordered still sitting in paper-lined baskets. “One,” I say confidently.
But I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. That fried apple pie is just about the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. Monica and I both eat our respective halves in about three bites.
I guess today isn’t the day for educated guesses, either.
It’s a pleasure to head down Washington Street from Woods Place to downtown. Historic homes line the road, the most well-known of which is the McCollum-Chidester House, a National Register of Historic Places landmark and important piece of Ouachita County history. It’s closed today, which is a bit disappointing, but when we arrive at the cook-off, parking is delightful, with a lot sponsored by the First United Methodist Church located right at the top of the festival, where there are still a few open spots just for us.
Monica and I run into a tent right off the bat hosted by the Ouachita County Courthouse, where County Judge Robert McAdoo is on-site, running the booth.
“We’re rich in Civil War history,” Judge McAdoo tells us when asked what we need to know about Camden. In fact, the Camden Expedition was the final campaign conducted by the Union Army against the Confederate States back in May 1864. Didn’t turn out so well for the Yanks—the Camden Expedition has been called “the greatest federal military disaster of the American Civil War”—with the Union forces suffering over 2,500 casualties, hundreds of wagons lost, and Shreveport uncaptured. The courthouse where Judge McAdoo sits has more than a half-dozen monuments related to the Civil War, including a statue of a grave-looking woman clutching a flag close to her breast, the words “To Our Confederate Women” etched in stone beneath her.
“We’d wanted to go the McCollum-Chidester House, but it’s closed,” Monica says of the home where part of the 1985 mini-series North and South was filmed. “We saw a picture of Kirstie Alley and Patrick Swayze at Woods Place, and I was obsessed with that show when I was growing up.”
“Let me walk with you a minute,” the judge says, becoming our guide through downtown. He tells us about the Postmaster Grill, the fine-dining restaurant that has been repurposed from the historic courthouse. He tells us how the proceeds of this year’s cook-off will go toward establishing an outdoor space next to the public library, where kids can do art projects and adults can do yoga. And he tells us about the three major festivals Camden hosts: this chili cook-off, the Daffodil Festival in March and Tate’s Barn Sale in September.
Then he introduces us to Kathy Boyette. “This is our local historian,” he says, his smile wide. “And the curator of the McCollum-Chidester House,” he winks.
Today is not the day to be easily defeated.
Kathy is a spunky blonde who is more than happy to load us up in her car and take us right to the house for a personalized tour. We couldn’t have been luckier than to have been cleverly introduced to her. Although she was a military brat who grew up all over the United States, she’s lived in Camden since 1983 and seems to know just about everything about the town’s history. “When the Camden Expedition came through, Camden was the second-largest town in Arkansas,” she tells us. “It was a river port, and the Ouachita River flowed right up from New Orleans. We had access to all kinds of goods.”
The McCollum-Chidester House was built in 1847—it’s now 171 years old—and it was the first house in Camden built of planed lumber. It had the first wallpaper in town, too, and it was the first kitchen to have an iron cook stove. The house hasn’t been impervious to modern-day advances, however; QR codes in modern frames positioned around the house link to entertaining YouTube videos, complete with historic characters portrayed by the members of the local historical society. Don’t have a smart phone to access it all? No worries. The house can provide you with an iPad.
“If I told you all of the things I know about this house, you’d be here for six months,” Kathy tells us, and we believe her. We even—kind of—would like to stay the six months and hear all about it. Alas, we have husbands and children and jobs and whatnot to get back to.
Today is not the day to be a deserter, I suppose.
On the way home, Monica and I pass a little shop on the very edge of town. “Harvey’s Grocery Store” the sign proclaims. “Politics Spoken Here.”
We stop. We can’t help ourselves.
But it is closed. Empty shelves stand askew inside the cobweb-laden windows, dust as thick as the history we’ve experienced today.
We’re a bit disappointed, to be honest. But with the way things have been going the past few years, we’re also relieved. Today is not the day to talk politics. Today is the day to let fried apple pie be the last taste in my mouth.
A view of history with a side of the future
When the Old Camden Post Office opened in 1896, the focus was on the mail. Nowadays? Filet mignon with Bordelaise sauce and a bacon chocolate torte. We’d call that an improvement. (133 E. Washington St.; postmastersgrill.com)
Since its construction in 1847, this historic home has been a hub for history, from the early stagecoach lines to the Civil War. And now, you can see it for yourself—same as it’s always been. (926 W. Washington St.; ouachitacountyhistoricalsociety.org)
While Camden’s rich in history, community efforts like this million-dollar, rails-to-trails path indicate it’s got a pretty promising future. Plus, you’ll need to walk off that bacon-chocolate torte. (facebook.com/camdenconnectionsfoundation)
Let’s say you’ve got both Civil War buffs and toddlers in tow. With its picnic tables and green space and historic markers, this place should more than satisfy young and old alike. (explorecamden.com/city/play)
White House Cafe
Sure, you could check Yelp for the best local restaurants. Another indication that a place has got promise? Longevity. And the White House Cafe, open since 1907, has got that aplenty. (323 S. Adams Ave.; whitehousecafe.food74.com)