A Journey Through Old Edgefield
EDGEFIELD PHOTO GALLERY
The old red barn at Mount Vintage Plantation
U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond withMayor John Pettigrew
Johnston's downtown shops
Edgefield's historic square
Children fish off the pier at Slades Lake
Master potter Stephen Ferrell
By Tricia Price Glenn
It’s an extraordinary story of drama, triumph and tragedy. Historic buildings, settings and people define the character of Edgefield County today and reach deep into the very heart and soul of the Old South. The county long has been recognized for its political leadership and vivid history. Today, it presents the quintessential picture of a charming rural region that belies progress and prosperity bubbling beneath its surface. Grand monuments to local heroes and well-groomed gardens of purple pansies bask in warm sunlight on the Edgefield village square. Its tradition of political leadership, meanwhile, lives on.
The entire downtown of Edgefield is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Sightseers, shoppers and browsers stroll around the traditionally designed courthouse square. The village is a popular destination for antique collectors, genealogists and history buffs. Some of the state’s oldest records miraculously escaped courthouse fires and Sherman’s army and are available to researchers in the County Archives.
But this haven of history has its sights set confidently on the 21st Century. With boundless acres of rich cropland, Edgefield - a county of 20,000 - provides agricultural produce for consumers near and far. It also is the scene of both traditional industry and high technology.
"We used to be strictly agricultural," says Jack Tiller, president of the Edgefield County Chamber of Commerce, retired business executive, antique dealer and college football referee. "We’re more diverse now."
Textiles (including those produced by Milliken and Mt. Vernon Mills) and lumber are leading industrial products. The new Edgefield Industrial Park just outside Edgefield (convenient to I-20, Tiller points out) received its first tenant earlier this year: V.F. Play-ware, a clothing manufacturer. A branch of Piedmont Technical College occupies a restored building not far away. Concurrent Technologies Corporation, a Pennsylvania company, recently established its southern regional headquarters in the restored Kendall Mill facilities. Component Manufacturing in Trenton produces air-conditioning components, while Carolina Machine Shop is a major auto engine refurbisher. Altogether, the county boasts 15 industries, Tiller proudly observes. Small businesses and shops bolster the economy.
"It’s a progressive county," says Barbara Rupert, one of several area bed-and-breakfast proprietors and a member of the Edgefield County Chamber of Commerce board of directors. "The chamber itself started with next to nothing - just an office and a phone. Now we’re up to about 250 members."
To journey through Edgefield County is to discover proud, friendly people who value their heritage while looking to the future.
The first settlers to Edgefield quickly began to tap the countryside’s potential. They arrived in the late 1750s, when the only sign of civilization was a Cherokee Indian path winding through primeval wilderness. Others followed in droves: Scots-Irish, German and English families who migrated from the North or left European shores to brave the unknown frontier in hopes of improving their lot in life. These rugged trailblazers cleared the great forests, built log homes, farmed the land and planted the first seeds of modern society in what was then part of the American frontier.
The South Carolina back-country at times was a violent place. The vicious Cherokee War of 1760 - 61 was followed by a frightening wave of crime, resulting in the overzealous vigilante movement called the Regulators in the late 1760s. Then the American Revolution cast its shadow over the frontier. Area settlers, weary of fending for themselves with no representation in the colonial government, became passionately involved in the war. Patriot or Tory, they hurled themselves furiously into the fray. Intense guerrilla warfare between the factions led to a virtual civil war within the Revolution.
Many skirmishes and battles took place in and around Edgefield. At the most significant clash, the Battle of Roger’s Old Field, a party of 24 Patriots attacked a company of 72 Tories in the vicinity of the present-day courthouse. At least 40 were killed and were buried nearby.
The plainspoken words of Edgefield Patriot Thomas Swearingen typified the unyielding mindset common to the beleaguered settlers: "I never expected any pay nor, indeed, was I induced to enter the service by such a consideration. I thought if we gained our freedom I could make do without it, and if we failed I might be hung and it would do me no good anyway."
In 1785, three years after the Revolution ended, Edgefield County was created from the Old Ninety Six District. The new county encompassed a vast area stretching from the Saluda River to the Savannah. The first courthouse, built in 1789, was a simple log structure. According to the minutes of the court, a gaol (jail) had been built several years earlier. The present courthouse, whose classical features were inspired by famous architect Robert Mills, was completed in 1839.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as citizens demanded more local political control, the counties of Aiken, Saluda, Greenwood and McCormick were created from the Old Edgefield District. This decreased the size of Edgefield County to a mere 481 square miles, roughly one-fourth its original size.
Nonetheless, for more than two centuries the district has furnished South Carolina and the nation with a procession of exceptional political leaders. They include ten South Carolina governors, five lieutenant governors and seven U.S. senators. In 1876, Edgefield’s name was attached to an aggressive plan to return conservative Democrats to power following Reconstruction. By 1890, the county had spawned another political phenomena as Edgefield native Ben Tillman seized control of the state Democratic Party, becoming governor and then U.S. senator.
W.W. Ball of The Charleston News and Courier once described Edgefield as having "more dashing, brilliant, romantic figures, statesmen, orators, soldiers, adventurers, and dare devils than any other county of South Carolina, if not of any rural county of America." Ball added that an artist drawing a typical picture of an Edgefieldian would have to use stronger colors and bolder lines.
Best-known among Edgefield’s great statesmen today is the revered Strom Thurmond - oldest living member of the U.S. Senate. His life of service to his constituents and to the nation reflects proudly on the people of the region. His birthplace stands amid other old, handsome homes just beyond the village square.
Other extraordinary leaders of recent times include Benjamin Mays and Charles Gomillion, who provided key leadership in the civil rights movement.
The County Archives and the Tompkins Genealogical Library, both on the square in Edgefield, offer historians and researchers a vast array of historical and genealogical information, plus a rare collection of early deeds, plats and court records to examine. In 2002, these resources will be enhanced by the addition of the Joanne T. Rainsford Heritage Center, the Discovery Center for Region II of the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor.
Visitors from all parts of the world come to Edgefield to explore the living history projects and capture the timeless spell of the Old South. The town has expended considerable effort developing its tourism resources and promoting itself.
Meanwhile, the primary goal of Edgefield Mayor John Pettigrew Jr. is making the county a better place to live and work. Improving education and attracting new business are his top priorities. He acknowledges, however, that tourism is a vital part of the county’s future. "Our target market for attracting tourism is geared toward people who are interested in exploring the past and are seeking to experience the essence of a small, historic southern town."
At Old Edgefield Pottery, one can watch master potter Stephen Ferrell skillfully recreate Edgefield’s famous pottery from native clays. Edgefield’s stoneware tradition represents a cultural horizon in the development of American folk pottery. Potters from the Old District are believed to have been the first American crafters to use an alkaline glazing technique that combined a blend of European, African and Asian influences. One of the most talented craftsmen in the history of folk pottery was an Edgefield African-American slave named Dave.
Across from the courthouse on Jeter Street, village blacksmith Linda Rosi works over a fiery forge, fashioning creative items in the manner of the area’s forefathers. The blacksmith shop, as in days of yore, is a hub of activity. As Rosi adds the last touches to an elaborate garden gate for an Aiken client, her hammer rings across the park, drawing a curious audience. For much of the last century, the quaint brick blacksmith shop was operated by an African-American craftsman, McKinley Oliphant, who shod horses and mules, repaired wagons and made minor repairs on farm equipment.
At Carpenter’s Stand on Main Street, wood carver Ike Carpenter plies his trade. The 1995 South Carolina Folk Heritage Award winner transforms blocks of native wood into unique masterpieces, including tables and hunt boards. Amid Carpenter’s myriad carvings of bowls, spoons and other small artifacts are Mason jars filled with curious trinkets and old South Carolina license plates, wagon parts and the tools of his trade.
Carpenter also maintains a produce stand, selling homegrown tomatoes, peaches, squash and other seasonal products. Leroy, Ike’s pet rooster, scratches through the shavings.
The trades of pottery, blacksmithing and woodcarving are invaluable adjuncts of the Edgefield community. Their authentically reproduced presence in Old Edgefield enhances that quarter’s distinct personality. All the living history projects in Edgefield are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Johnston, seven miles east of Edgefield, is a neat town boasting rows of Victorian houses with colorful, well-groomed gardens. The town originated in the 1870s when the railroad passed through - to the chagrin of citizens in Edgefield, who were without a railroad and were desperate for an efficient way to ship their cotton. Today, Johnston proudly proclaims itself "The Peach Capital of the World." Miles of rural country roads in the vicinity are bordered with picturesque orchards. J.W. Yonce & Sons, one of the county’s most prolific peach growers, ships thousands of crates each season to locations throughout the nation.
In April, Johnston hosts its renowned Peach Blossom Festival. In nearby Trenton, another idyllic hamlet, the annual Peach Festival in June draws people from all over the Southeast. In addition to peach crops, in late summer and early fall you can view broad cotton fields with snowy white boles.
In both Edgefield and Johnston, visitors browse through antique shops specializing in items from pottery, art and memorabilia to fine English furniture.
Edgefield offers an array of entertainment and recreational opportunities. Oakley Park, a magnificent ante-bellum mansion, houses interesting items of the Confederate period. Magnolia Dale, nestled in a stand of old magnolia trees at the end of Bacon Street, is home of the Edge-field County Historical Society. Portraits of famous Edgefieldians adorn the walls; antiques that belonged to Edgefield governors are displayed throughout the house.
The headquarters of the National Wild Turkey Federation is in Edgefield. This nonprofit organization, dedicated to the conservation and management of the American wild turkey, has a worldwide membership of more than 300,000. The federation maintains a museum, open to the public on weekdays. Edgefield County is home to two other national wildlife conservation groups: Quail Unlimited and Waterfowl USA.
For golfers, the county boasts Mount Vintage Plantation Golf Club, reputedly one of the finest new courses in the country. Site of the LPGA Asahi Ryokuken International Championship last September, the course has a spectacular blend of hills and valleys, lakes and streams, elevated greens and heavy tree cover. The Plantation also has equestrian facilities for lovers of horses and fox hunting.
Throughout the county are restaurants offering both fine dining and casual southern fare. Travelers can find overnight accommodations at several bed-and-breakfasts and motels in Edgefield, Johnston and surrounding areas.
Some of the stores on the square in Edgefield still operate under the same names as when carriages and sunbonnets were among the merchandise they sold. The town watering trough has been supplanted by a fountain; street lanterns are now electric; horses and wagons have been replaced by automobiles; and the notion of duels on the courthouse steps invokes only curious inquiries from history buffs. But in many other ways, the old village has changed little since Mary Perry sold her ginger tarts on the street corner a century ago. Edgefield County residents consider it the finest place to call home.
For information, contact the Edgefield County Chamber of Commerce, (803) 275-0010, info@ edgefieldcountychamber.org. Also, contact the welcome center in the Tompkins Library, (803) 637-4010, email@example.com.
THIS ARTICLE IS FUNDED BY:
* Mount Vintage Plantation, North Augusta
* J.W. Yonce & Sons Inc., Johnston
* Edgefield County Chamber of Commerce
* Edgefield County Hospital, Edgefield
* National Wild Turkey Federation Inc., Edgefield
* Edgefield Inn, Edgefield
* Old Edgefield Grill, Edgefield
* Economic Development Partnership, Aiken
* First Citizens Bank of S.C., Johnston
* Tidwell Jewelers, Johnston
* Tiller's Antiques, Johnston
* Windsor Jewelers, Augusta, GA
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