Friday, February 18, 2005

Aiken, South Carolina

Back again. I decided to go with the "other" well-known city in the CSRA, Aiken, SC, for the next couple posts. Aiken is much smaller than Augusta (pop. 25,000) and was voted one of the U.S.'s top 10 "All-American" cities in 1997. That same year it was voted one of the 10 best places to retire in the U.S. by both Money and Golf magazine. Good grief. So, yeah, Augusta it sure ain't. It's also a "HORSE TOWN." For those of you who don't live in a "HORSE TOWN" (almost everybody), the designation basically means that you'll see horses walking along the side of the road, grazing in municipal parks, and going through the drive-thru at Taco Bell. They're everywhere. I believe both Seabiscuit and Secretariat were from Aiken, but don't quote me on that. In any case, lots of Kentucky Derby participants live and graze in Aiken. In about a month the city will host its Triple Crown Horse Races and the population will double for about three weeks. As for the photo, its one of the many railroad crossings on the outskirts of downtown. No, the sky is generally not purple in Aiken. I dunno what happened.

Aiken is also a much younger city than Augusta. Chartered December 19, 1835, it was named for William Aiken, Sr., President of the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company. Now, Mr. Aiken was a key player in the building of what was going to be the longest railroad in the world at the time. Which railroad was that? Yes, very good, it WAS the Charleston-Hamburg Railway. Boy, this site is getting downright educational. Anyway, it was Alfred A. Dexter, an engineer from Boston responsible for overseeing the contruction of the railroad, who developed the original plat for Aiken on September 24, 1834. It was Dexter that laid out Aiken in a nice, neat checkerboard pattern with 150-foot wide boulevards and streets named for South Carolina counties running north-south. He also included the planting of numerous trees and shrubs along the thoroughfares. And, you know, the city map still looks pretty much as it did when it was first laid out. If you look to the left of the photo below you can see a white-picket fence and a stately house. Some horseys were grazing behind the fence. Naturally, my attention was elsewhere.

Now, you're probably asking yourself, "Yeah, that's all well and good, but WHY did Dexter put the town where it is?" Well, I'm glad you asked. See, while working on the railroad, Dexter had become a bit smitten with Sarah, the young daughter of Captain W.W. Williams, who owned a plantation right where Aiken is now. Obviously being a romantic man, Captain Williams was more than happy to give Mr. Dexter his daughter's hand in marriage--if Dexter would re-route the railroad (and, by extension, the town) past Williams' house, thereby vastly increasing the value of the property. The soil near the plantation wasn't all that good for building a railroad whose construction was already pushing the bounds of modern technology, but Dexter had it real bad, so there was nothing to do but move the tracks. Thus, while settlers were in the Aiken area even prior to the Revolutionary War, Sarah Dexter nee Williams is why Aiken is EXACTLY where it is today. Interestingly, residents of the area during the Revolution generally sided with the British. Huh. No, I wasn't drunk when I took this picture of a warehouse in Aiken. The building is listing to the left.

Not much happened in Aiken until 1845 when... Well, actually, a couple things DID happen. One, the town's namesake, William Aiken, Sr., died in 1831 after being thrown from his horse. In 1844, William Aiken, Jr. was elected Governor of SC. Sure, it's likely the two events weren't related, but they were important occurrences for the state. BUT, in 1845, a cotton mill and adjoining town were built out of local granite near Aiken. Which mill was that? Yes, very good, it WAS the Graniteville Mill. Man, sometimes it just all comes together. Kaolin mining was begun by Southern Porcelain Manufacturing Company farther down the valley in Bath in 1856 and Aiken was off and running. In February 1865, General Sherman targeted the Graniteville Mill for destruction, but Confederate soldiers were ordered to protect it and Sherman retreated. Thus Aiken was spared a brutal economic blow. Here's a shot of another warehouse outside downtown.

Aiken has always been a bit, er, what's the word? UPSCALE? Being up off the coast, the town offered a summer retreat for folks wanting to escape the humidity, bugs, and general unpleasantness (AKA turning yellow and vomiting blood AKA yellow-fever) of the lowlands. Wealthy Captains of Industry began to bring their families with them from the New England states. And, with wealthy people comes...POLO, natch. The game of polo had only been played in the U.S. for six years when it hit Aiken in 1882. The Aiken Polo Club joined the United States Polo League in 1889 and the town became the "Polo Center of the World." Really, it was called that. The horses have been around in a big way ever since. As have the lobsters. Yessiree, supposedly the good citizens of Aiken began racing lobsters as a spoof on the Kentucky Derby. Every May folks bring out their best racing lobsters and have at it. The winner gets to go free. The winning lobster, that is. As for me, I was REALLY getting into warehouses, I guess.

We're gonna stay in Aiken for a couple more posts 'cause, dammit, I got more to say. Thanks to the City of Aiken and Mike Sigalas's Moon Handbook of South Carolina for filling in the details for this post. Just a couple more things: If you're still looking for a City of Dust soundtrack 'cause you don't always have the blues, might I recommend Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings? Ms. Jones is a native of Augusta and it shows in the mean blend of funk and soul that her and the band whip up. James would be proud. I didn't know they still made this type of music, but after catching a show this week, complete with a song about Augusta, I'd say check it out by all means. She's got a few more shows in the US and then it's over to Europe, so all my French readers should be on the lookout. Um, yeah. Here's a wide boulevard lined by live oaks, just as Alfred A. Dexter envisioned it. Well, without the cars and pavement, but still. Y'know I can't help but wonder if Sarah ever knew the terms of her betrothal.

Finally, Brendan Canty, drummer for one of the finest rock bands the planet has produced in the last 20 years, Fugazi, recently released a DVD entitled "Burn to Shine" that fits right in with the theme here. He had bands come in and play a single song in an abandoned house in Washington DC that was going to be set on fire for a fire department training exercise. I really dig the concept and he's got plenty of talent from Dischord Records folks and others, including the always-worthy Bob Mould. Even the still photography of the old house is cool and the final shots of the place going up in flames make me think I should take up arson. Anyway, it's going to be a full series of sessions in different cities. If you've got the bands and the locations, let 'em know. It seems like there's some kind of abandoned places, uh, zeitgeist, or something. Is it a statement about our culture? Hell, I might as well mention another Brendan Canty project, Pancake Mountain , a great kid's show featuring many of the musicians that show up in Burn to Shine. It's good stuff. Hey, I can appreciate a sheep puppet asking former presidential candidate John Anderson for campaign advice just as much as any seven-year old. Oh, and, geez, one more plug. It's not The South, but check out Weird New Jersey. Wouldn't it be fun to do the same in YOUR town? Okay, back on the railroad tracks and heading further into Aiken for next time. Adios.

P.S. Notice the first all-color post? Bright and snappy, eh? Don't get used to it...


Anonymous said...

Awesome article on Aiken! Thanks for writing it :-)

Anonymous said...

I ran across you blog one day doing a search for Aiken. I really like you stuff and have been looking at the whole site

jmhouse said...

Hi Ron,

Thanks for the encouragement! I enjoyed your photos of Aiken as well, and will be stopping by to see more.

Thanks Again!