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The Magic of Banksia

Banksia rises from the landscape, her grand white columns soaring. The strong-jawed exterior, like that of many southern matrons, belies what she holds in her heart. Banksia, a 1930s product of Aiken’s Winter Colony, is the keeper of Aiken County’s artifacts. She is home to the Aiken County Historical Museum. Her walls and halls and rooms and corridors care for and preserve the history of the county from prehistoric times to modern.

Born in 1970, the year of South Carolina’s tri-centennial, the museum was initially housed in the old jail behind the courthouse. The brainchild of the Aiken County Historical Commission, in the 42 years since its inauguration it has matured into a tell-no-lies, keep-no-secrets darling of the county.

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Under the oversight of the Commission and staffed by Elliott Levy, director, Mary White, assistant director, and Brenda Baratto, curator, along with a team of volunteers, the museum doesn’t simply display memorabilia. It gives voice to the tales of the county’s people and places, some well-remembered and others long-forgotten. “Like any museum,” says White, “we are here as a repository of artifacts and our mission is not just to maintain those artifacts, but to also tell the history of them.”

It wasn’t until 1984 that the museum moved to Banksia, setting up exhibits in space not used by the county library, the other occupant of the house at that time. By 1991, the library had moved to other quarters and the museum exhibits expanded into nearly every nook and cranny. Built by Richard Howe, the 1930s portion of the Winter Colony mansion adjoins  an older wooden house dating from the 1840s. Together they form a 17,500-square-foot rambling structure that has been as much a part of Aiken’s history as a holder of it.

Atop a hill on its 3.5-acre city block, Banksia is a gracious hostess and a lady familiar with nurturing enterprises. Howe’s daughter-in-law sold Banksia in 1951. It served as a boarding house for workers during the 1950s construction of the Savannah River Plant. Southern Methodist College, in its infancy, housed itself in Banksia beginning in 1957. Later, in 1961, Banksia became the first campus for USC-Aiken.

The museum staff reaches out to communities around the county with educational presentations to school groups, women’s clubs and other civic organizations.

The grounds, in addition to the interior, are utilized to preserve the county’s past. Visitors can tour an 1890s one-room school house and an 1808 log cabin, both moved to the museum property from elsewhere in Aiken County. Upstairs, in Banksia, a children’s room put together by White has playhouse replicas of the schoolhouse and the cabin that invite children to explore history with their hands and their imaginations.
Another, perhaps more obscure, attraction added not long ago to the museum collection on the grounds is the William Gregg buttery, the only thing that remains of the William Gregg estate. A buttery is a man-made stone cave that was situated near late Colonial-era kitchens for storage of the days’ fresh meats, vegetables, eggs and dairy products. At a temperature 15 to 20 degrees cooler than outside it kept foods from spoiling.

Gregg, a progressive-minded businessman far ahead of his time, built the Graniteville Mill and the town of Graniteville in the 1840s. Mill employees made up the citizenry of Graniteville and were supplied housing, medical care, churches and schools by the mill. Gregg established the first compulsory education system in South Carolina, requiring the children of mill workers to attend school until age 14. Construction on Kalmia Hill near the location of Gregg’s homesite sparked the excavation of the buttery, which White says “was torn down layer by layer and then rebuilt on the [museum] property.”

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photo by Brent Cline

In cooperation with Meade Hall School, the museum has also provided garden space for children to dig into history by participating in Girls’ Tomato Club. Girls’ Tomato Club originated in Aiken in 1910 with a teacher named Miss Marie Cromer, who had as her objectives to teach girls to grow better tomatoes and aid their development into the best women they could be. Girls’ Tomato Club was a precursor of and impetus for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 4-H Club. In the Women of Aiken County room, there is more information about Cromer and several other influential women who have shaped the region, the state and the nation.

The museum staff reaches out to the communities around the county in other ways, as well. White, who places emphasis on education, gives performed presentations to school groups and women’s clubs depicting what life was like for children or women during various points in history. The museum staff provided guidance for an Eagle Scout project centered on cleaning up and restoring Coker Springs. They are now assisting with fundraising and physical work to restore the Gaston Livery, which is one of the few brick barns remaining in the country.

A project of which they are especially proud is the award-winning Horse Creek Valley documentary. The film unravels the local and statewide importance of Horse Creek to Native Americans, to the textile industry, to the 13 small communities that lined its banks and to the artistry of Edgefield Pottery. PBS airs the documentary, winner of the prestigious 2012 Silver Telly Award, once every three months. Copies are also available in the museum gift shop. And a fabulous collection of excellent examples of Edgefield Pottery from Aiken County is on display in the museum.

 “For the most part, things just come to us,” explains White of how the museum obtains artifacts. “Almost everything that is on exhibit now is something that has come to us through donation.” A recent acquisition is a set of 1940s photographs taken of the city of Aiken by the late Julian B. Salley, Jr., an attorney and civic leader born in Aiken County. The exhibit of these pictures predating the Savannah River Plant is open in Banksia’s parlor and accompanied by photographs of the same city scenes as they currently look today.

Aiken Preparatory School, originally founded to educate the Winter Colony children, recently donated an oil portrait of its organizer, Louise Eustis Hitchcock. Depicting Mrs. Hitchcock mounted on a steed ahead of the hounds, it in itself tells a story of the woman who instigated Aiken’s Winter Colony and equestrian roots. The portrait hangs in a place of prominence over the fireplace in the ballroom.

With so much to see, to really take it all in requires more than one excursion. The price of admission—free—and the hours—10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays—are just right for taking multiple leisurely strolls through the building and on the grounds. See the clock from the extinct town of Hamburg and learn about Hamburg’s founder, Henry Shultz, who by request was buried standing up with his back to Augusta. Run your finger along Moody Drug Store’s counter and peruse the shop’s 1940s wares. Take the children to the Public Safety Exhibit, where they can see and touch an 1880s fire engine and a hand-drawn ladder wagon. Examine a real moonshine still in the Agriculture Room and discover the Aiken woman who kept the Hope Diamond rolled in a silk stocking in her top bureau drawer.

Whatever you hope to find, it’s there. No secret. No lie. •

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