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August 19, 2003
"When I retire," the elderly gentleman who was sharing a bench with me said, “I’m going to retire right here, in my own home town. There’s none better. I got my boil and my barbeque close by. What more can I ask for.” Looking around, I had to agree. I was in Aiken, one of the prettiest towns in South Carolina, surrounded by flowering azalea and breathtaking wisteria. I’d just enjoyed a great meal - pecan chicken and peanut butter pie - and was watching the “happenings” in The Alley which was once home to stables and blacksmith shops. Today it’s heritage buildings have been restored and are used for restaurants, shops and offices. Aiken is indeed a place one can work in and retire to. Better still, there’s so much to see and do, it’s a community that visitors can enjoy over a two-three day period.
For tourism purposes, South Carolina is divided into a number of districts, one being Thoroughbred Country which comprises Aiken, Allendale, Bamberg and Barnwell Counties. The area, loosely bounded by the Savannah River - Low Country - Old English District and Upcountry Carolina, the Highlands - received its name as it was well-known for thoroughbred horse breeding and equestrian sports during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
People have called the area that encompasses Thoroughbred Country, home for a very long time. The mighty Savannah River and valley that acts an a boundary between the states of South Carolina and Georgia, has supported human habitation for the past 12,000 years as ongoing archeological excavations are proving. Chert quarries provided a valuable commodity for native peoples. During the area’s later period of history Scots, Irish and German peoples settled and worked the fertile land. Large plantations grew cotton and other revenue producing crops in the rich red soil of the river’s basin.
The hub of Thoroughbred County revolves around the town of Aiken, home to approximately 26,000 people. With its unique parkways, historic main area, tree-lined avenues and built heritage, Aiken is a quintessential southern community that exudes small town charm and hospitality. Aiken was laid out in1834 to include double-avenued streets that were in proportion to conveyances - thoroughfares that could accommodate large and elegant horse-drawn carriages. After the Civil war, now often referred to in the South as the War of Aggression, the Aiken area attracted a large number of wealthy Northerners who established a “winter colony”. From the 1870's through the 1930's, Aiken shone as the gathering place for some of the most monied families in America .The area’s drawing cards included its reputation for horse breeding, and equestrian sporting events and it’s moderate winter climate.
The influx of money saw the community prosper. Heritage structures were restored. New mansions built especially along Hayne and Colleton Avenues, South Boundary and Whiskey Road. One of the most lasting and fascinating features of this built heritage are high Serpentine brick walls.
Area history is best experienced at Aiken County Historical Museum. The museum is housed in “Banksia”, a heritage mansion dating to both the 1860's and 1931. At one time the winter cottage of Richard Howe, the building had 32 rooms, 15 bathrooms and an impressive ballroom. The museum’s collection is extensive and excellent. Unusual displays include a Circus Room and a tribute to firemen and their equipment. Admission is free.
Another free attraction is Hopelands, a formal garden on the former Iselin estate. The land, bequeathed to the city by Mrs. C. Oliver Iselin and opened to the public in 1969, has a good collection of live oak, deodara cedar, magnolia and the beautiful Cherokee rose. The park is home to the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame, The Dollhouse, a performing arts stage and significant wetlands. Two thousand acre Hitchcock Woods adjoins Hopelands One of the largest urban forests in the U.S., it provides hiking and horse riding trail opportunities. Ryepatch, the former home of Edmund and Dorothy Knox Goodyear, is also adjacent to Hopelands. Here visitors enjoy the Carriage House Museum, Rose Garden and Guest Cottage Restaurant. If you are an architectural buff, drop in at the Information Centre for a heritage driving tour brochure which lists ninety-four points of interest including heritage structures and parklands. You’ll notice as you drive around that some streets in Aitken remain unpaved. As a large amount of equestrian activity still takes place in the Aiken area, streets left “as is” for use by horses, riders and carriages.
The Aiken area is a “happening place” all year round. Musical entertainments, heritage days, live theatre, sporting and equestrian events, highland games, art shows, lobster races and Native Pow Wow are only some of the events that visitors and townspeople enjoy. A stroll around Aiken’s main streets - Barnwell, Richland and Park Avenue - has its rewards. Restored commercial buildings house antique and specialty shops and restaurants such as The Westside Bowery. As the town is centrally located to both Upcountry mountains and Low Country coast, it makes a good home away from home for exploration of the surrounding area.
The broad Horse Creek Valley located between Aiken and the Savannah River, was home to a number of planned mill towns like Graniteville and Vaucluse. It also boasted some of the best known plantations in South Carolina. One of these plantations, Redcliffe, was completed in 1859 by James Henry Hammond - U.S. Congressman, Senator and Governor of the State. Named for red clay deposits in the area, the property and its extensive collection was donated to the state by a great-grandson in 1973. The approach to Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site, which is open to the general public, is through a unique avenue of old oaks. The mansion is in the process of being restored and tours are given by knowledgeable guides. Several of the most interesting features are an art collection, large central halls in the mansion and intact slave quarters.
A number of small communities around Aiken are worth day visits as each has its own unique charm and history. Take time to fully explore each town’s built heritage and diverse history. Driving along #278 toward Barnwell, the flora is indicative of that found on the Sandhills in the midlands of South Carolina with lots of loblolly and long leaf pine. Watch for turkey vultures whose favourite perches are water towers. The area is known for deposits of Kaolin which is used in the manufacture of detergent, baby powder, tires and paint. Be sure to stop at The Little Red Barn, at the junction of Highway #39 and #278 where more than fifty South Carolina artisans have their work displayed.
Barnwell is known as “The Gateway”, for both Low Country if you’re heading to the coast, or Thoroughbred County if you’re leaving the coastal area. Highway #278 feeds into The Circle, the main street area of the community. Park and enjoy a stroll around the circle. Have a float at Berley’s Pharmacy with its old-fashioned soda shop. Try to tell the time at the unique vertical sundial, located in pretty gardens by City Hall. On Highway #64, just off the Circle, the Church of the Holy Apostles, a charming Victorian wooden structure, is surrounded by the old burial ground.
From Barnwell it’s an easy drive to Thoroughbred Country’s Scandinavian district. Along the way you’ll pass cotton fields, “shot-gun”- also known as “straight through” houses, loblolly pine, fields of strawberry plants and cotton. Denmark, with Sweden and Norway just up the road, are typical of southern towns where the railroad ran through the center of the community and played a vital role in its prosperity. The demise of the railway left some communities struggling. Fortunately, for these communities, there are far-sighted people who see the benefits of tourism and work hard to welcome visitors. Southern hospitality is legendary, and is alive and well in small town and rural South Carolina.
Denmark’s water tower is graced by paintings of dogwood to commemorate its annual Dogwood Festival. Brooker Hardware, really a good old-fashioned department store, is worth exploring. If you’d like to make a quilt but don’t want to cut out all those little pieces, check out the selection of pre-cut quilts at the Five & Dime, across the street from Brooker’s. The Jim Harrison Gallery is a few steps down the street, Harrison being a famous licensed artist for Coca Cola. His Gallery provides a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
On the same street, The Carolina Collection Fine Antiques, a three floor bonanza of American and European antiques, is housed in a c1922 former AT &T Telephone Plant. The story goes that c1930 through 1950, both men and women worked at this plant but on separate floors. Great pains were taken to make sure the sexes didn’t mingle while in the building. As one elderly gentleman said, “If you could get a woman to go up the fire escape to the roof, you knew she was a frisky one!”
Bamberg, on Highway #78, a few miles east of Denmark, boasts more than fifty Victorian buildings that line both sides of Railroad Avenue. The rails have been taken up in Bamberg and the area made into a “rails to trails” project. Bamberg shares its railroad history with many of the small communities who were linked by the 136 mile Charleston to North Augusta line.
Blackville on #78 west of Denmark, boasts Millers Bread-Basket, a cafeteria-style restaurant that serves Pennsylvania-Dutch food with a southern flair as the area is home to a number of Mennonite families. A craft, antique and notions shore adjoins the restaurant, Owner, Ray Miller, is involved in a number of worthwhile community projects, one of them the rebuilding of the Shamrock Hotel, a c1912 railroad hostelry.
Healing Springs, located three miles from Blackville, were revered by the Native Indians for their healing powers. By 1770, the area that comprised the springs belonged to Nathaniel Walker who deeded the acre of land on which they flow to “God in perpetuity”. Today, a sign stated that message beside the spring which flow freely for anyone who wishes to take a sip - a bucket or a barrel. Directional signage isn’t too prominent so ask for directions to Healing Springs at the Bread-Basket Be sure to take along a vessel so that you can taste the mineral water.
The Agricultural Heritage Center which is located just outside Blackville tells the story of the area’s agricultural history including that of cotton. As you drive the highways and byways, you’ll pass cotton fields, the crop still grown as an agricultural product in the area. You do have to call the Center before visiting to make sure a staff member is on hand.
If your interests lie in birding, genealogy, canoeing, kayaking Civil War sites re-enactments then Thoroughbred Country is the place to spend some time. For those interested in gardening, the best time to visit is in April when, among other plants, azalea, wisteria and Carolina jessamine and Cherokee roses are blooming. Summer brings pecan, peach and fig trees to fruit. Autumn is later arriving and a nice time of the year too as you can enjoy summer-like weather well into October.
There is a wide variety of accommodations to choose from in the Aiken area but none comes more highly recommended than venerable "The Willcox", a four star luxury hotel in downtown Aiken. Afternoon tea is served in opulent surroundings by a magnificent fireplace in the lobby. Nothing beats sinking into a feather-down mattress after a day of discovery and exploration, except an elegant, beautifully prepared, well-served meal in the hotel’s classic dining room.
Before you set out on any trip, it’s a good idea to contact local Chambers of Commerce and district tourism organizations for a comprehensive package of information. During high season, it’s also a good idea to book accommodations in advance.
IF YOU GO:
Aiken, S.C. 29801
Beech Island, S.C. 29842
Aiken, S.C. 29802
Aiken, S.C. 29801
Barnwell, S.C. 29812
Denmark, S.C. 29042
P.O. Box 247
Blackville, S.C. 29817
Denmark, S.C. 29042
Blackville, S.C. 29817
Aiken, S.C. 29801
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