Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith
AIKEN, S. C. - Last week during the Masters, I had the good fortune of spending time in Aiken, the laid-back Southern town with an interesting past. Aiken is horse country, so you know right off it’s not a place where rife raff permeates the atmosphere. Aiken has a heritage that would impress anybody who’s apt to be bent toward name dropping-those emotionally linked to flowers, hardwoods, and bricks and white columns.
Horses are the reason many are attracted to Aiken. A certain President, FDR, came here for a different reason, but that is something history has whispered. There is, however, a resounding chorus shouting out to Aiken’s lifestyle and traditions.
Every town ought to be laid out like Aiken, which features wide boulevards and a plethora of one-way streets. Those one-way streets bring pause to any traveler. Their very configuration makes you idle, observe, and inhale the richness of the environment.
Every town ought to have a Wilcox Hotel. Porches with rocking chairs and rooms with fireplaces inhabited by patrons who have manners, good sense, and an appreciation for history and the past.
I am always eager to come to Aiken, walk the streets, and give myself the benefit of an encore. It would be difficult to imagine anyone stopping here and not wanting to return. This is a place for repeat visits to a town where every tree-lined street is something of an arbor. Flowers and hardwoods commingle their scents and make Aiken about the most refreshing of communities.
Aiken has a railroad, and you may not think that is unusual. On the one hand you would be correct, but somewhere along the way, somebody deigned the railroad so that it runs through town with overpasses to prevent traffic conflicts. The Norfolk Southern ushers its freight trains unimpeded-nobody has to stop, look, and listen.
The bridges are wooden and, like everything else in Aiken, imbued with charm and sentiment. The train comes and goes like the horses. There are thoroughfares where you must give way to the horses, which are either lazily treading their way to a workout or returning to their “Life of Reilly” routine at their stables.
If you have faith in reincarnation, what better second time around than to be a thoroughbred in your prime-then put out to stud when you have run your last race.
On my latest sojourn to Aiken, I checked into the lovely quarters on York Street as the guest of Cot and Anne Campbell. My room was in the potting shed, which is next door to the big house-truly a horse racing hall of fame. Cot was an advertising executive before he figured out how to make syndication work in the horse racing business. No man has enjoyed the sporting life like Cot, who is the Old Man River of horse racing-just rolling right along. He remains on a sophomoric high each racing season. He’s there from Hialeah to Louisville to Pamlico to Belmont to Saratoga. In between venues and seasons, he shows up at the sales, looking for a bargain colt that will excite his investors. Saratoga has become his second home. Except for the Triple Crown events, Saratoga is the Mecca of the thoroughbred set. There are side trips to museums and historical sites in New England, and just down the way there is Manhattan and Broadway-just a couple of options of many which await the Campbells when they make Saratoga their August home.
When he is not “horsing around,” Cot enjoys life with Anne on York Street. They like good food, they entertain, and they are charmed by things electric and cultural. Cot is happy when his schedule allows him to identify with the laid-back living lifestyle that has made Aiken attractive to visitors and vacationers for years. Playing golf, reading books, and managing Dogwood Stable keeps Cot busy but not so busy that he can’t write a book himself. He’s written three, and his friends would be pleased with the news that there might be a fourth.
Aiken is one of those places-I salivate when I know I’m headed this way. When I leave, I cruise slowly out to the Interstate, conjuring up a reason to return.
Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.