Historic field finds new life

Back in the day, Camden, S.C., was the place to be for well-heeled Northerners looking for warm-weather diversions. A big part of that was the town’s equine culture, centered around its historic polo field. Built in 1898, the Camden polo ground is the second oldest in the nation. Through the first half of the 20th century, it was a hotspot on the polo circuit as the town became a winter resort, drawing visitors from around the world.

The sport, and the town’s polo field, went into decline around the 1950s. The proud grounds where “the sport of kings” had been played for decades fell into disrepair and seemed to be relegated to the archives of a lost civilization. The field was brought back from the dead in 2001, however, when the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County and the Camden Polo Club teamed up to revive what it described as “this grand, family-oriented tradition.”

Polo match for the Camden Cup, May 2008. The polo field.

The field is now protected in perpetuity by the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation and has been declared a national landmark. It is used now for a variety of events and local recreational activities—but polo has made its return as well. On the first Sunday of May each year, the annual Camden Cup polo match is held, marking the high point on the calendar for this grand turfgrass venue.

Getting it ready

Organizers of a dog show, who hold about eight events there each year, take care of the field most of the year, but two to three months prior to the Camden Cup, it’s all about getting ready for the once-a-year polo game.

This year,  that responsibility befell one Jeffrey Graham, real estate professional by trade and chairman of the 2008 Camden Cup, a fundraiser for the Fine Arts Center.

“It’s special, it’s unique, it’s tucked away,” Graham said. “So, it’s a treasure for Camden.”

With help from the state and the Edgar Cato family, who donated money to keep the property part of a trust, the polo field is back—and in better shape than ever, according to long-time observers.

Bringing the field to peak condition for a one-day annual event is no small task for a volunteer turf manager and crew. The nearly 6-acre field is 425 feet wide and more than 800 feet long, a vast expanse that makes a football field look tiny in comparison.

“It takes a good four hours to cut this field,” Graham said. “It is very big.”

The grooming begins in late February or early March with initial cuts and work on ant mounds. Fire ants are a perennial problem in these parts.

Jeffrey Graham, chairman of the 2008 Camden Cup. Polo ponies rest up before the ride home from the Camden Cup event.

Camden is situated in the sandhills area of South Carolina, a geological region 100 miles from the Atlantic that 20 million years ago formed the coast. As such, the sandy soil is primarily home to longleaf pine and blackjack oak—even including some carnivorous plants that draw nutrients from unfortunate insects to make up for the lack of fertility in the soil. Also, the field is not irrigated, which makes it a challenge, particularly with the drought conditions that South Carolina has suffered in recent years, Graham said.

“We’ve had some great rain recently that really helped us out,” he said. “Obviously, you get daisies and all those things that grow up, but for the most part the field looks great today, and it is from people taking care of it and protecting it.

“Mr. Cato, who actually used to play here, said this is the best the field’s ever looked.”

Graham and his crew used a John Deere tractor for the initial mowing, as well as John Deere industrial mowers for finish mowing. He used a Husqvarna to accomplish the lowest cut, less than an inch, just before the game.

In a game that has players swinging mallets as 1,000-pound horses grind it out on the turf, the field takes a considerable beating during the course of a game. The players, taking part in a time-honored tradition of “divot-stomping,” pitch in during the middle of the match to help repair the damage.

“Any kind of divots and things are bad for the horses, so that’s our main protection for them,” Graham said.

A week after the polo game, the field is used for a steeplechase.

Saved by the game

The polo field nearly went into extinction nine years ago when a developer had  designs on the property for a townhouse complex. The plan was to put 160 units there in the midst of the town’s historic district.

“If it had been developed it would have been a pretty awful neighborhood,” said Rudy Kohn, who lives adjacent to the polo field. “As you can imagine—160 units in that area—the impact it would have on Camden.”

Kohn was part of a group that banded together to save the historic polo grounds. He now pays the utility bill for the park. A corporate sponsor pays to have the field mowed periodically through the year, Kohn said, but the real work is done in the weeks leading up to the Camden Cup on the first Sunday of May.

Ron Barnett is a freelance writer and has been a frequent contributor to Turf over the years. He resides in Easley, S.C., and is always on the lookout for new and interesting stories in the Carolinas, Georgia and east Tennessee.