Aiken's Head Cheerleader
Photo by Chris Thelen
Pardon Coleen Reed if she enthuses about Aiken, its history and its people to everyone she meets. If she seems effusive about her town, it’s because she has experienced it all firsthand and has been captivated by the entwined stories of its past. Like an explorer, her spirit is fed and fascinated by tracking the tales that shadow the places, people and events of this verdant equestrian community.
Yes, it’s true that many Southerners pride themselves on knowing their heritage, tracing their town or family roots deep beneath the loamy country soil. But Reed is a Jersey girl. Can Jersey girls trace Southern history?
Apparently this one can.
If there was any doubt, her community credentials alone could qualify her as a historical biographer. Better than asking what the energetic, pony-tailed Reed does, one should ask, what doesn’t she do? She has been the town’s Christmas in July elf and St. Patrick’s Day leprechaun, serves as a board member on the Aiken Historical Society and the Center for African American History, Art and Culture, has co-authored the historical book A Pictorial History of African Americans in Aiken County and is a perpetual volunteer at Downtown Aiken Development. She has even written her own cookbook, Recipes and Other Things Learned at the Aiken County Farmers’ Market. As if those titles were not enough, she also serves as the avid historian for the 60-year-old Aiken County Farmers’ Market on Williamsburg Street.
“What am I?” she wonders aloud when asked about her official position with the market. “I am a cheerleader.”
A cheerleader with a relentless defensive posture that some SEC coaches would trade their eye teeth to have on the line.
When the market was in danger of being demolished, Reed was part of a group that fought not only to preserve the oldest county farmers market in continuous use in the state, but also petitioned to have it registered in the Aiken Registry of Historical Places.
Though the initial petitions were denied, the group pursued the documentation and, in 2005, after three years, Reed and her good friend Aiken native Rosamond McDuffie were victorious. Today a historical marker is prominently positioned at the market. Touchdown.
With the market’s future secure, Reed has reprised her role as a reveling fan. The 30 or so farmers who appear each week at the market provide hundreds of residents and visitors with everything from fresh, naturally grown produce and meats to honey, dairy, plants and flowers. Reed’s pride in the market and its merchants is evident. She points with definitive regard to the certified South Carolina-grown label that several farmers have obtained for their products. The label, Reed explains, means that the farmers practice sustainable agriculture. “It’s [farming that is] good for the people and good for the environment.”
Though many items are not certified organic, most of the Aiken County growers who sell at the market minimize chemical use on their farms, according to Reed. The distinction between organic and naturally grown products can be subtle. And Reed points out, the organic label can sometimes indicate potentially undesirable fertilization or other practices were used in growing.
“When somebody says to me, ‘It’s organic’ I ask them to tell me what they think is organic,” Reed says, protective of her county farmers. “Our farmers are very conscientious about what they do and how they do it.”
When she is not rooting for or chronicling the history of the farmers market, Reed can be found doing everything from rolling up her sleeves for a new restoration project to taking part in historical reenactments.
Take for example one recent sweltering summer day when Reed was undeterred by soaring temperatures from working at Pine Lawn Cemetery, designated on the historic registry as Aiken Colored Cemetery. The cemetery, which dates back to 1852, was the final resting place for Aiken’s black community, including war veterans, former slaves and prominent members of society. As a member of the Center for African American History, Art and Culture’s board, Reed does not sit by idly at meetings and legislate proclamations to be carried out by others. She is a hands-on volunteer, even when it means clearing brush to discover unmarked graves and piecing together deteriorated headstones at the peak of summer.
As successful as some campaigns have been, the future of other preservation efforts remain unclear. Presently, Reed has turned her attention to save the Gaston Livery Stable, one of only five all-brick barns in the state. Though the property is eligible for national historic registration, it is not protected from being sold or demolished. As in previous matters, Reed knows she must proceed one step at a time, patiently but confidently, remembering what is at stake and what triumphs have already been achieved.
Fifteen years ago, when Reed moved from the coastal, commercial Atlantic City vicinity to the hazy sunshine of tree-lined Aiken, she was focused on assisting her mother who was still finding her way after her husband and Reed’s father passed away the previous year. Based on events occurring elsewhere in her life, Reed made the decision to make her move permanent, saying, “It was the prudent thing to do.”
Now this Yankee transplant and self-proclaimed Aikenite says she has found her way in the Southern places by holding fast to this truth: “You remain a stranger in a place until you know its history.”
“And so I’ve done everything I can to learn Aiken history.”
In conjunction with lessons in history, Reed says that she has received a much more intrinsically valuable education from her friends and mentors here than in all her years of formal schooling up north.
“How do I say it?” considers Reed deferentially. “[My friends] calm me down. They keep me out of trouble and on the right path.”
Reed further credits her peers with getting her involved in local history and teaching her “Southern ways.”
For the woman with an undeniably lingering Jersey twang, just a willingness to learn the ways of Southern culture appears to be enough for her to be embraced by those with much deeper local origins. Here, in the one place where she has lived the longest in her life, the ubiquitous Reed is a historian, a restorer of broken things, a researcher, a rescuer of damaged places. The one-time nurse with an Army brat lineage has made more than a home in the Palmetto State. She has fashioned a place where she belongs, grafted herself into the lush landscape like the venerable oaks that dot its roadways, as if she has been there in its past all along.