The following essay is one of the things that, very gradually, led to the creation of Columbia Closings. I wrote it in one draft (apparently without even having my hands on the home keys at some points) to try to quickly get down what I was feeling at the time. I had some vague idea about polishing it up and trying to place it in the Neighbors section of The State or in The Free Times, but in the event never submitted it anywhere as I realized that even if it were accepted, it would have to go through a dis-enchanting number of edits for length and content. Certainly if I had actually submitted it, I would have toned down some of the over-sharing. (I have even done a bit of that in today's edit).
Anyway, this sat for years on my hard drive and was one of the things I had in the back of my mind as I gradually came up with the idea for a site of What's Not In Columbia Anymore. It would have been one of my first posts except for the fact that all the photos it mentions were missing. I'm still not entirely sure they are any of the ones I've found, but at least I have now found and digitized a good number.
Looking back from 50 at what I wrote as a 29 year old, I have to shake my head a few times and hope I save my outrage for bigger targets now, but I have refrained from doing any major edits:
Bell Camp, Oct 15 1990
I pulled into the parking lot of the McDonald's at Clemson Road. I went in and got a cup of ice tea, making me an official customer. I left the tea in the car, and picking up my small disposable camera and set out across the road. The sun was bright and the air was warm and clear. There was no sign of the record breaking rains that had deviled the state on Friday and Saturday. It was a good day for a walk.
As I made my way over the ugly bank of pushed up dirt, I could suddenly see into the slight valley that cradled a placid rectangular lake in its gently sloping walls.
The lake itself used to haunt my dreams. Momma had taken us there once or twice when were were little, and then never mentioned it again for years and years. Several years ago, while walking at Bell Camp, I noticed that the "No Trespassing" signs in the woods behind the park were gone, and kept walking where I would normally have turned back. I had come out on a rise overlooking the lake from the end opposite where I was now. It had been an intense flash of deja vu, and one of those moments when the years drop away and you can imagine your mother coming up behind you with a gaggle of cousins and a picnic basket. Later I told Momma how I had found the lake, and she told me its name, which I cannot remember. She didn't say why we had stopped going there. I imagine it was the "No Trespassing:" signs. I never dreamt of it after finding it again. Lately it has been "discovered" and a housing development is being build around it. Either the houses are not selling, or are home to sedentary people -- I never see anyone out around the lake.
I missed the place where the dirt road that runs along the lake bank closest to I-20 joined the clear-cut I was walking down, and so had to slog my way through a brief copse of woods and underbrush to find it. I doubt there's any vehicular traffic on it; there's a three foot gash cut through it at one point that's been there several years, but I did see signs of horses. Almost stepped in them, actually. I walked alone, the sounds of westbound traffic on I-20 an occasional roar, muffled by the embankment and brush.
When the road ended, I found myself on the "cliff" overlooking the west end of the lake. I walked carefully along its edge until I found the trail leading to Bell Camp.
Soon I saw the brick and cement of one of the old charcoal grills. There had been picnic sites on this side of the Bell Camp lake for as long as I could remember, and in all those years, I couldn't ever remember us using one -- We always set up on the side nearest the lodge. The old bridge leading onto the south lake bank was in bad shape, just a buckled sheet of plywood over the brick edges of the cut-through, but it held my weight.
What struck me most as I stood on the bank, with my first good view of the Bell Camp lake, was the shame of it all. This was a Swimming lake, with sand specially laid down to avoid that slimy bottom that often mars freshwater swimming. It was a good lake, even if the water would turn your bathing suit yellow, and here it sat with weeds growing on the beach and in the swimming area.
I suppose I should have sen it coming. In the old days, the place was always packed in the summer, there was a floating raft out in the deep water that was sometimes empty and sometimes had a sliding board or trampoline. University students essentially ran the place, with the kind of uncritical attitude you might expect, and the lifeguard was only on duty until 5. We would always try to come after 5, because after the lifeguard left, we could really have some fun. In the beginning, nobody had pools, and a trip to the Y Camp as we called it then, was a major expedition down dirt roads far out in the country.
Gradually, things began to change. More and more people had access to pools, and the incredible vise that is the American Insurance/Litigation syndrome began to clamp down on the University. As the 80s drew on, fewer and fewer people wanted to come swim in a lake, and the University banned first swimming after the lifeguard left, and them swimming altogether. The territory changed too. What was the deep boonies in the 60s was now prime Columbia Northeast territory and the University got greedy. I should have seen it coming when Holderman sold the camp, but I didn't, and it had shocked me.
I walked across the bank. The old bathhouse, which had become the concession stand, the new bathhouse and the lodge all had No Trespassing signs. I stayed well away from them -- if anyone stopped me, I intended to say I thought it applied only to the building. It might even be true. I went across to the old playground area. Things seemed to have been dismantled to the point that no child might accidentally have some fun.
The picnic shelter at the start of the nature trail was still there. The last time I had used that was for the ACM cookout in College, seven or so years ago. I remember I rode back to campus with a pretty girl in my lap. Unfortunately, her boyfriend was driving -- They do make a nice couple.
There was grape vine near the shelter. It was a bit late in the season, but there were still a few grapes on it. I tried them -- Sour! Sour! I started around the nature trail. In even the few years the Camp had been closed, the brush had begun to close in on the trail, and in one place there was a tree down across it, probably a memento of Hugo. I generally try to walk the trail in grape season, because there are usually more of the large green scuppernongs, but I saw none today.
When I got to the break for the "meadow", I left the trail. As far as I know, I'm the only one in the family who knows about the meadow. It's a place where the woods stop and give way to bushes and erosion trails in the sandy soil. In season, it's full of blackberries. In the fall, there's a persimmon tree that is always loaded with persimmons. That's what I was looking for now.
It was still there, with much of its harvest under it, but a lot still on the limbs. I pulled gingerly, taking only those fruits that dropped readily into my fingers. You do not want a persimmon before its time, ever. I tried several. Thery were the first I had had in probably 15 years, and were better than I remembered. I ate several and picked some to carry out.
I got back on the path, and walked until I got to the little wooden foot bridge over a swift stream that always reminded me of a mountain brook. I never figured out where it came from -- perhaps the other lake. I took some pictures of the stream rolling through the mossy banks into the lake. I had gotten a wide-angle disposable camera, and I knew they wouldn't come out right but there was nothing I could do about it.
Past the stream, they had done a clear-cut through the woods, and some sort of excavation for sewer lines, power lines, drains or some such. At any rate, after all the rains, I didn't want to slog through that soggy mess, so I turned back and retraced my steps. This time, when I got to the shelter, I headed up the hill towards the cottages.
There used to be a little putt-putt course on the hill, In real terms, it never was much good, and vanished long before the Camp closed, but we used to have a lot of fun, hitting balls around on those off balanced, crack-sided, worn carpeted, pine straw strewn holes. I think we had some kind of rule that applied if your ball turned aside after hitting pine straw, but I'm not sure anymore.
The cottages themselves were simple one room affairs. You could rent them to stay in, I think by the week. It was always something were were going to do "next year", and while I doubted my sister ever thought about it after the first or second grade, the idea had always fascinated me. Now they sat there, with broken windows and open doors, all the mystery gone. There wasn't going to be any next year. I was mad for a few minutes, then I was sad.
I looked at them for a while, and took some more pictures.
The caretakers' house was empty too. I hoped they had had someplace to go. As far as I know, the same man and his wife were caretakers all the years we went to Bell Camp. Momma know them, and she used to stop and talk with them on our way in sometimes. Gradually, as we grew and got more insistent that we start swimming now, we saw them less and less. Now I can't even remember their names.
Behind the house, across an over-grown lawn was a shed I couldn't ever remember seeing before. I walked over to it, and saw there, leaning against the wall, the most melancholy sight of the whole day. It was a "Stop" sign, mounted in a wooden frame, with a placard that read "Members Only".
There's a long winding driveway leading into Bell Camp, and on that drive there is a little shelter where they used to pay students to sit with this sign and come out and check your ID as you drove in.
The whole thing was a joke, because they weren't there at all after 5, and half the time before 5 they had something better to do. When they were there, they would wave an essentially unlimited number of people through on one ID. It was part of the casual "Good enough" atmosphere.
I looked at the sign for several moments, then turned and walked off. As I headed down toward the main parking lot, I started to get mad again. I thought of entertainingly amateurish Fourth Fireworks displays, of swimming and canoeing, of Momma going up to the lodge and telling the students running the PA to Please turned down the music, of picnics and cookouts, Sus breaking her collar bone jumping off an inner-tube, Sir Cow and Sir duck, playing putt-putt, and of how the fish would come bite you if you stood still long enough, of playing pom-pom and chicken-fighting. And now, here it all was not being used for anything. Not for houses, a country club, anything. I was mad enough at Holderman to spit. What can you do when someone has sold your childhood?
Nothing, you can't do anything. But I can remember, and I can write it down. And if you read this, then there are two of us who remember. And they can never take that away.
I looked for grape in the vines around the lot. Too late in the season. I started back to McDonalds.
On reflection, I believe the caretakers were the "Shealy's". Also, the Clemson Road lake is (at least now) called Hughes Pond.
The note I wrote on the Wolfpro envelope dates this photoset to Fall 1991 "probably" (all photos are clickable). Note that the lake is still filled, and the cabins are still standing as are the Concession Stand (old bathhouse), the new bathhouse and the lodge. Also most of the playground equipment is still in place and upright, including the swingset arch, the obstacle course,the monkey-bars and the see-saw. The final picture is of the second lake, off the camp property and closer to Clemson Road:
This set is from Sunday 6 March 1994. Notice that the lake is drained at this point, and the raft is aground. Somebody has tipped over the see-saw, but the lodge is still standing. I later "liberated" one of those wooden slat trash cans though I haven't yet done anything more than set it on the carport. The first three pictures are of residential water infrastructure going in. The next two are of the Clemson Road lake, and walking that lake bank towards Bell Camp:
This photoset is from Saturday 23 August 1997. We start with the ruins of the caretaker's house and the outbuilding behind it. The piano was once inside the lodge, and people (with varying degrees of skill) would bang on it every now and then. The rope of floats divided the little kid area of the lake from "the deep end". Note that the lake has been re-filled again to some degree. Also, the bath house has been taken down -- the stairs now go to nowhere. I don't know what was going on with my light-meter, but some of these seem considerably under-exposed.
This photoset is simply labeled "Fall 2003". Several of the pictures seem to be from around the nature trail, including what I think are the remnants of a small foot-bridge over the "chasm" just off the playground. The lodge is gone, except, for some reason, a bunch of electrical insulators. The steps to the bath house are more overgrown, and a tree is growing from one of the trash bins. The parking lot (whose road now leads nowhere) still has a concrete wall around the camp end, and the walkway with guardrails which led to the lodge now leads nowhere. The swingset arch has been uprooted, and dragged into the bushes.
This photoset is dated "Summer 2004". By context, I can say it was probably August. These are the playground monkey-bars, which have been uprooted and carted off to the corner of the old playground area. They now have trees growing through them..
These three pictures come from Spring 2005. By this time access was intermittenly possible through Belleclave during "open house" events. Someone has set chairs down by the lake's edge for fishing. Again these are not well exposed:
This photoset is from 13 August 2006, and is shot in black-and-white for reasons which made sense at the time. A house has been built on the "far" shore of the Bell Camp lake. People are fishing from the "near" lake bank, and a house is being built on the lake bank which led up to the playground. The swingset arch is still in the bushes:
This color set is from the sam 13 August 2006 visit. You can sort of see that a cul-de-sac where a new house is being built. This is more or less on or by the old lodge location, though it is getting harder to tell the exact geography. Again you can see that house being built, and the fishers on the lake bank. The set also goes to the south, dam, edge of the lake an looks at the path that leads back to the Clemson Road lake. There is also a picture of the still gravelled (more or less) parking lot:
These two pictures are only labeled "Summer 2006". Once more you can see the walkway from the parking lot to the lodge, and the new house across the lake:
"Summer 2007". The new house above the lake bank is finished (but unoccupied). This was the last time I was able to get into the old Bell Camp location. It's behind a gated community now, and I have not seen an "open house" for several years:
There were (more or less) three ways to get to Bell Camp. The first way was to take Two Notch Road out past Sequi to Sparkleberry Lane and then turn right on Mallet Hill Road. Mallet Hill was definitely unpaved in the beginning (and probably unnamed in those pre-911 days), and Sparkleberry itself may well have been. It was definitely a trip to the edge of the world. The second way was to take Percival Road to Smallwood Road and turn left. The third way was to take Faraway Drive past Blue Cross/Blue Shield to Alpine Road and then go left on Old Percival Road to Smallwood. This way was like driving through a third-world country, or The South 50 years previously.
Here is the turnoff from Percival to Smallwood:
At the time, there was a small, wood-shopped sign for Bell Camp on the north-east corner. I thought about nicking it at one point, but either someone beat me to it, or the clearing of the land for the new houses that are there now put paid to it. (There was lots of nothing here back in the day..)
Belleclave is the upscale, faux-gated development off of Mallet Hill which currently has the only road leading into the old Bell Camp property:
Bellclave Road leads to Bellford Ridge Road, which follows the old camp entrance road:
The gates that cordon off the old Bell Camp property are at the intersection of Bellford Ridge Road and Belle Valley Lane. The tennis courts would have been just past the gates on the right:
It's not currently possible to get past those gates without a code, and it's also not currently possible to hike in from Clemson Road without going through a lot of people's back yards, which obviously I'm not going to do. A few weeks ago I tried going down Wildewood Center Drive to see if I could hike in from there. The answer is no -- Although a dirt road does lead off from the final cul-de-sac and accesses a new catchment basin, there is a fence all around the old Bell Camp Property. However, from that fence I could distantly seen the lake (apparently now being called Bells Pond):
Now that I've got the essay in there, and have finally marshalled all the photos into one spot, here are just a few more random thoughts and memories about Bell Camp:
In the late 70s and early 80s, the annual Fourth of July celebration at Bell Camp was a big deal. They would have bands on the playground, and later fireworks out on the lake launched from the raft. I'm pretty sure Bell Camp Fourth of July was the first place I saw The Swimming Pool Qs perform. I had only been listening to rock for a few years at the time, and I just didn't know what to make about this jangly band singing about how Your baby is a big fat tractor and ride her you must! The fireworks, like most of what happened at the camp, were handled by work-study students who had all the pyrotechnic training you would expect. One year they practically managed to set the raft on fire and all the staff had to "abandon ship" by diving into the lake.
The lake was mostly fed by creeks, but there were a number of springs as well. A few welled up at the edge of the swimming area, and were clay lined. You could stick your hands in and pull out potting style (not red) clay, and if you walked over the lake bottom near the spring mouth, you could feel the bottom giving way beneath your feet.
The beginning of the end for Bell Camp probably came when I-20 cut through for Camden. All of a sudden, you didn't have the same "miles from civilization" feeling with cars whizzing by not too far from the lake's edge. It was still somewhat rustic when Crazy Jim sold the place, but it's incredible how much the area has changed now. The original plan was to take the money from the sale and buy the University a new recreation area on Lake Murray, but I don't know if that happened or not.
There were two lodges at different times. The camp underwent a major renovation sometime, I think, in the late 1970s. At that time the old bathhouse was converted into the concession stand (where you got snacks, checked out life vests and canoe paddles, or golf clubs and balls), and a new bathhouse was built further up the hill from the lake. At about the same time the old lodge (which was also the original concession stand) was torn town and the one I have pictured here was built. As well as the piano, the lodge had ping-pong tables and foos-ball. If a thunder storm blew up, which it did about half the time on summer afternoons, everyone would repair to the lodge and play ping-pong.
I fully expect I will uncover more pictures sooner or later. If I do, I will add them here as well.
UPDATE 8 September 2012: Added another picture of the automatic gate.