A history about our beloved Camden Town Hall…
Camden’s Town Hall and Opera House was built in 1889 for about $15,000 and opened with an opera performance on the night of May 11th. Throughout the next several years, the building would house the town offices, police department, a jail, and the fire department downstairs, and a stage, auditorium and activity area upstairs.
The variety of activities and events held upstairs during those first years was impressive: from plays to community dances, from high school graduation ceremonies to sporting events. Camden’s first men’s basketball game was played in the Hall in 1904 between the Stars and the Stripes. The auditorium was packed and the excitement of the game inspired the women of Camden to form two teams and in 1905 a packed house gathered again to watch the Women’s team, the Reds vs Whites.
In addition to local talent, the town often hosted several out-of-town entertainers including theater troupes, road shows, magicians, and musical bands. Traveling medicine shows often came to town, too, and the townspeople flocked to the Town Hall to see the show, hear the medicine man’s boisterous sales pitch and purchase a bottle of elixir (what the salesman referred to as “medicinal wonder”).
The Town Hall was an important gathering spot for Camden residents and also lots of folks from out of town. They say area residents came from every direction for the fine entertainment at Camden’s Town Hall. It was the definitely the hip and happening place to be–until the building was condemned in the late 1920’s.
Use of the Town Hall slowed in the late 20’s when the second floor of the building was condemned by the state fire marshall for lack of an outside fire escape in 1929.The town did not have the money for repairs so while the offices remained downstairs, the top floor would be closed for the next four years.
In 1932, several young Camden men who called themselves the Progressive Club, met and wanted to do something for the betterment of town. They donated labor, townspeople donated money, and the village kicked in what it could and they began renovations to the beloved Town Hall. They installed the needed fire escape, tore out the old stages, laid a new wood floor, redecorated and installed a new furnace. The Club then sponsored a dance to re-open the Hall in 1933. With the band’s first song providing the rhythm, 170 couples danced and celebrated.
A long-time Camden resident H.R. Brown (Brownie) said there were so many people at the dance and and the music so festive that the walls were shaking. There also was much confusion when four long coat racks fell over. As coats were claimed, one woman was missing her fur coat. Someone claimed to see a woman wearing one walking into a local bar, so a member of the Progressive Club and a local constable accompanied the woman to the bar and returned the missing fur to its rightful owner.
By the way, Mr. Brown met the future Mrs Brown (Gladys) at one of those dances in the Town Hall a few years later. He asked a pretty girl to dance, she said yes and the rest, as they say, was history.
Big name bands played in the Hall and so did local favorites. The Acton Band and John Bacon, champion fiddle player, and his Preble Entertainers (with sons Homer and Harry)were regulars joined by a wonderful young piano player named Dean Pottenger. When Mr. Bacon passed away, Mr. Pottenger formed an Orchestra and provided music most Saturdays from 9:00-midnight throughout the 40’s. People came for miles around to listen, dance and visit with their neighbors.
In the 50’s, dances continued to the music of the Stardusters and other local and out-of-town bands. They added lots of youth activities at the town hall. There were music hops, roller skating, basketball, halloween carnivals with prizes for children’s costumes, meetings of local groups/organizations, events with Santa every Christmas, ballroom and tap dancing lessons, and, of course, the regular Saturday night music and dancing. They had it all.
The Town Hall was once again the center of activity for the folks in Camden.
The downstairs area still held the village offices, the fire and police departments and even a jail in the rear of the building. The fire department would move to their new location at the corner of Central and Lafayette in the late 1960’s.
By the 1960’s, though, the building was deteriorating and repairs were needed once again. Local groups (the Lion’s Club, the Boy Scouts, etc) made several repairs, the the Town Hall limped along to the 1970’s when the village council had to seriously consider its future. A “What is the fat of City Hall here?” campaign started via the local newspaper, asking residents to weigh in on the discussions. They stated that without repair, it would soon need to be torn down. At that time, they estimated the cost of repairs to be $30,000.
No repairs were made, though, and while the offices remained on the main floor, the town discontinued use of the top floor, and it fell into further disrepair. In the 1980’s, the villages offices and police department were moved to a building on Main Street but not before the Camden Somers Township Fire and EMS Departments hosted several Haunted House events in the basement of the building. Kids—and adults—lined up down the street for the opportunity to be spooked and frightened by Jason with his roaring chain saw, a werewolf, Norman Bates and his mother, or many other ugly, scary creatures.
A fire would severely damage the Town Hall in 1988 making it uninhabitable and the town again struggled with what to do with the building. Repairs were sure to be costly. Many wanted to tear it down, but a group of townspeople led by citizen Jack White raised funds and secured a planning grant from the state to stabilize the structure, make critical repairs, and put on a new roof to stop further deterioration. This saved the building but it remained unused until 2017.
The Camden Village Council took on the major repairs and renovations for the building in 2016 and in May 2017, we official re-directed our wonderful Camden Town Hall. The 130-year old Town Hall is without question the most important historical building in our town. Its thick walls and stained glass windows hold countless untold memories of days gone by and its rededication was huge celebration.
While the most recent repairs and renovations focused on the exterior, basement structure, and main floor, only structure repairs and minor work has done on the top floor, with the plan for a Phase 2 Renovation to once again create a gathering place and event location for Camden residents.
In 2018, a Bell Tower was once again constructed atop the peak of the newly renovated Town Hall, and the original bell was returned (having been found and kept in wonderful shape by the local, long-time residents, the Wood family).
Plans for those Phase 2 on the top floor are in process and we are hopeful to begin those renovations in Spring 2020. I don’t know about you, but we can hardly wait to attend events there… the music, dancing and gathering with neighbors and friends.
It’ll be worth the long wait.