By G. Harris Jordan
Camden, South Carolina is a beautiful midlands city known for its colonial heritage, Revolutionary War sites and fine houses. It is part of the “Olde English District,” named for 1700s British settlements. It is also one of the oldest and most active equestrian communities in the country. From fall through late spring more than 1500 thoroughbreds are present for various regularly held events. Many lovely homes and horse farms dot the area, hinting at a quiet and well-mannered gentility. There is more.
One notable Camden resident is Mr. Ross E. Beard, Jr. — affectionately known to friends as “REB.” A retired businessman, he spent much of his life amassing a remarkable collection of historic firearms and associated memorabilia. In 2013 the Camden Archives and Museum acquired his collection. The director, Ms. Katherine Richardson, alongside curator Ms. Rickie Good, continue to work with Mr. Beard to sort, label and display the nearly 1,000 firearms and the untold numbers of other items — thousands of U.S. military unit patches, enameled pins, uniforms and original photographs and documents from famous commanders.
The Camden Archives and Museum is housed in a 1915 Carnegie Library building. It is an attractive and welcoming red brick structure on a grassy tree-covered lot at Broad and Laurens streets, near the center of the town. The setting is inviting to all seeking a window on history, a treasure trove of artifacts to feed the curiosity of the history-hungry.
The Ross E. Beard, Jr. Collection fits into that perfectly. It covers five centuries of firearms history including wheel-lock, flintlock, cap-and-ball, early cartridge and breach loading guns as well as more modern designs. There are blunderbusses; Kentucky rifles; ancient hunting rifles and shotguns; and historic war arms and weapons used by lawmen, gangsters and spies. There is also an 1804 air rifle similar to that carried by the Lewis & Clark expedition. Many pieces from the War Between the States may be seen, such as a rare breach-loading .52 caliber Sharps & Hankins Carbine and one of the surviving French LeMat nine-shot revolvers sent to the Confederacy, one of which was carried by Gen. “Jeb” Stuart.
I spent the day with Mr. Beard, an accomplished, entertaining and intelligent gentleman. He explained how his godfather, famous FBI agent Melvin Purvis, stimulated his interest in firearms by having him help clean and maintain his gun collection. Ross was ten years old. G-man Purvis gave Ross his first gun and started his lifelong fervor for gun collecting. His ensuing relationship with Purvis instilled in him broad and deep appreciation for and knowledge of firearms and their history.
Besides the various firearms bought around the world, Mr. Beard’s collection is made up of several concentrations he acquired from three distinct sources — those from Purvis, those from U.S. M1 carbine designer Williams and those from British secret agent Peter Mason.
Purvis’ gun collection and law enforcement mementos center on his fight against gangsters in the 1930s. J. Edgar Hoover put Purvis in charge of hunting and capturing or killing some of the most notorious gangsters of the era, including John Dillinger, Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd and Lester M. Gills, a.k.a. “Baby Face” Nelson. Mr. Beard inherited numerous gangster-used guns: Dillinger’s sawed-off Parker shotgun, Thompson submachine gun, his straw Boater hat and pistols are all on display.
David Marshall Williams also fed Ross Beard’s interest and knowledge of guns. Better known as “Carbine” Williams, he went from being a criminal to architect of the most mass-produced U.S. military rifle in history. A colorful character, Williams hailed from a good and well-off farming family. He possessed a genius for mechanical design and held 61 patents for firearms design and improvements. Some of his designs were invented and initially drawn and made while he served a prison sentence in North Carolina for 2nd-degree murder. Williams was subsequently pardoned with the endorsement of the victim’s wife and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Although he designed for Colt, Remington and Winchester, it was the Winchester M1 Carbine for which he is most well known. While there is some question as to exactly how he became known as “carbine,” it may well have come from the fact that some eight million iterations were produced by various U.S. manufacturers. Forty-one M1, M2 and T3 Carbines, covering every variation and manufacturer, are part of the Beard Collection.
Weapons and tools of the undercover spy game make up the third concentration of items. They come from Mr. Beard’s longstanding friend, Peter Mason. A former member of the British SAS (Special Air Service — a special operations unit), Mason spent considerable time undercover and behind German lines. Apparently Capt. Mason and his team were dispatched with Churchill’s orders to collect sensitive Nazi documents and to capture or liquidate Nazis. Mason made 59 parachute jumps to kill 57 especially odious Gestapo and SS personnel responsible for the torture and death of British SOE (Special Operations Executive) secret agents and SAS teams caught behind lines. Mason’s work continued into the Cold War period and is still cloaked in secrecy. Among the relevant items are Soviet single-shot cigarette, pen and pencil guns, Mason’s Bowler hat with metal lining and hidden pistol and a pipe made to shoot poison darts. There are also sound-suppressed (mistakenly called “silenced”) firearms, and more.
There is much more than is covered here and you could easily spend hours wandering about the displays. It is worth a trip to Camden to visit the Archives and Museum. Admission is free and is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. For more information, call (803) 425-6050 or visit cityofcamden.org/archivesmuseum.aspx.
G. Harris Jordan is a former lobbyist and consultant for federal government affairs; he is an active small business consultant. He lives with his wife on Johns Island, S.C. He may be reached at BroadReach2@verizon.net.