READERS’ NOTE: This is a special edition of Discover Small Town America. For those not familiar with the term piss and vinegar it is – according to one online dictionary – “a phrase used to express an attitude of somebody who is full of energy, vigor, perhaps rowdiness or excitedness”.
People with a general familiarity of blues music would, of course, be familiar with the late B.B. King, but probably not someone like Bobby Bland. Recreational pool players would know names like Minnesota Fats and Willie Mosconi, but not Larry Lisciotti. Folks with a background in the field of community planning or New Urbanism* would definitely know names like James Rouse and Andrés Duany, but probably not Dan Camp. They should. We now do. Keep reading...
Having left Memphis, Rorie and I meandered along Highway 82 near Starkville, Mississippi (population 23,888) and saw a sign for something called The Cotton District. We decided spontaneously to detour onto Old Highway 82 and check out this place with the interesting name.
Good signage brought us into town and we picked a random place to park. I asked a delivery man if he could direct us to The Cotton District and he said “Sir, you’re in it. This is its epicenter”. Rorie saw an amazing building down a side street so we walked toward it thinking it might be part of what came there to investigate. As we got closer, a young professional-looking woman walked toward us and Rorie asked if the structure was part of The Cotton District. She said it was, then turned and pointed to a man sitting at a table on the porch of what appeared to a cafe or pub. “He’s the one who created The Cotton District. His name is Dan Camp”, she said. We walked up to where he was seated (a place called Commodore Bob’s Yacht Club – in turns out it was his family’s restaurant), introduced ourselves and almost immediately we were off and running. And I do mean running…
Commodore Bob’s Yacht Club
From the start, it was clear Dan Camp is a whirling dervish, someone who’s delightfully full of piss and vinegar. Words can’t fully explain the experience we had, but we’ll do our best to give you a sense of this dynamo, who might give The Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis beer commercial (“Stay thirsty my friend”) a run for his money.
Dan took us into the restaurant and introduced us to the staff. Then he made a big deal out of showing us the restaurant’s VERY small restroom. Rorie and I were thinking, we later admitted to each other, that maybe this guy was a kook. But, once he explained the photo on the wall of a little boy in a little wooden boat, its importance became clear. It was a picture of a very young Dan Camp in the boat he built from scratch with the most basic of tools. Here’s that story:
When Dan Camp was only 13 years old, he set out on what would become a five year adventure in learning how to build his very own boat. Between the ages of 14 and 16, he built this boat without any adult supervision. The whole process taught him such things as proportion – size versus environment – and specifics of boat building (loft lines, inboard engines, and white oak framing for example). But it also taught him the lessons that he still lives by today,” if you’re in doubt of what to do, just do it. Don’t ask someone if it’s OK”. And that’s just how he went about building the Cotton District and filling the beautiful and imaginative homes he created with lucky college students from the nearby university!
This brief excerpt from an interview Dan did with The Dispatch a few years ago provides a succinct and powerful description of this man and his accomplishments:
Sometimes special people are harder to understand or appreciate than others. Dan is irascible, irreverent, irrepressible and a royal pain in the ass, but he is all that and wonderful, too. He has created beauty where there was blight, and he has done it despite the naysayers and critics, both local and from afar. The fruits of his perseverance and vision are there for all to see.
Dan gave us a tour of the Cotton District in his snazzy personal golf cart, driven by his wonderful and very patient assistant Mary. We got a chance to witness the result of Dan Camp’s extraordinary vision and leadership, which transformed blighted areas with dilapidated housing into amazing new neighborhoods offering many different style homes with great porches and community courtyards that encourage neighborliness.
Here’s Rorie and Dan in front of the beautiful pool house he’s building for his wife. Rorie said to me, “Bart…are you paying attention”?
Ode to the Parthenon. Cool place to gather with friends!
Dan the Man…
So you can live in a typical college dorm or this. You decide!
How do you tell Dan Camp’s story on a website post? You can’t, but here’s an wonderful interview with Dan from Mississippi PBS that helps fill that gap:
CLICK HERE: https://youtu.be/wRK3lyk1r70. Please take a few minutes to listen – and enjoy.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the years with luminaries like Presidents at the White House, famous (and infamous) Members of Congress, cabinet secretaries (anyone remember Robert McNamara?), governors, mayors and Fortune 100 CEOs. I was certainly pleased to meet them and honored to be in their company (well, most of them). But, meeting Dan Camp and getting the personal tour of his amazing Cotton District – a place he conceived of, designed and built – was a major highlight of my many years working on behalf of America’s small towns.
Dan Camp is someone I would love to sit on the porch sippin’ bourbon with. I wish I had time that day to hear a lot more about his interesting personal story, and learn more about his version of that fancy thing they now call New Urbanism. Maybe he’ll invite us back some day.
* According to Wikipedia, “New Urbanism” is an urban design movement which promotes walkable neighborhoods containing a range of housing and job types. It…has gradually influenced many aspects of real estate development, urban planning, and municipal land-use strategies.”