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Aiken, South Carolina
By Lisa Halvorsen
This historic winter escape now boasts year-round attractions in “Thoroughbred Country”
Attracting visitors year-round, Aiken, South Carolina, offers the sublime complement of agreeable climate with many attractions. This western South Carolina city is also known throughout the world as “Horse Country,” for its excellent thoroughbred racehorse training facilities producing such champions as 1990 Preakness winner Summer Squall and 1993 Kentucky Derby winner Sea Hero. It also claims a place in history as the site of one of the last Civil War battles.
On Saturday mornings, a two-hour guided tour of the city is offered on the Aiken Trolley. The tour departs from the Washington Center for the Performing Arts at 10 a.m. and provides a good orientation to the area’s history, equestrian sites and attractions. At the visitor’s center, you can pick up a map for a self-guided tour of Aiken that focuses on the historic architecture, from shotgun houses and mansions with names like The Nook, Chinaberry, and Let’s Pretend, to historic schools, churches and public buildings. The map also shows the locations of horse racing tracks and Hitchcock Woods, considered one of the largest urban forests in the country. .
Before setting off to explore on your own, be aware that certain roads – primarily the dirt roads in the horse district – are off-limits to large vehicles because these roads are used to train horses. You can obtain information about vehicle restrictions at the visitor’s center.
PLAYGROUND OF THE WEALTHY
In the 1800s, Aiken became a popular destination for Charleston residents escaping the hot, humid summers with their threat of malaria. In the post-Civil War years, some of the country’s wealthiest families – among them the Vanderbilts, Cabots and Whitneys – discovered Aiken, turning it into their winter playground.
America’s social elite built grand mansions that were referred to as their “winter cottages.” These estates had elaborate gardens, beautifully landscaped grounds, and later – when the families brought horses with them – stables and polo fields. Included among these estates was Rose Hill, the first property in Aiken to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today most of the homes that were part of the “Winter Colony” are privately owned and not open to the public. However, a few houses and places, like Hopelands Gardens and Hitchcock Woods, do welcome visitors.
Banksia, a 32-room Victorian mansion named for the banksia rose, now houses the Aiken County Historical Museum, which fills three floors of the mansion. Here you will learn about the history of Aiken County, beginning with the first European settlers. Other exhibits focus on the area’s plant and animal species, and geology.
Outside you can visit the China Springs one-room schoolhouse (circa 1890), the Ergle log cabin (circa 1808) and the remains of an observatory. The latter was built in the late 1880s to view the Transit of Venus, a rare astronomical phenomenon during which the planet Venus crosses in front of the sun.
Another of the grand cottages is Rye Patch, today a popular spot for weddings and other catered functions. Named after a local carriage restorer, the Clifford S. Gerde Carriage Museum, on the grounds, displays several vintage carriages, buggies and surreys, including an 1890 buckboard phaeton and a 1900 three-seat surrey.
Hopelands Gardens was once part of the winter estate of C. Oliver Iselin and his wife, Hope, who was known as the “the great lady of racing.” In addition to horses, she was interested in horticulture and developed lovely gardens on their property. When she died in 1970, at the age of 102, she bequeathed her home and gardens to the city.
The 14-acre garden, located adjacent to Rye Patch, showcases many plant species found in the South, including camellias, azaleas and 100-year-old live oaks. It’s also the site of free concerts and performances throughout the summer, so check to see what’s scheduled during your visit.
The Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame, housed in a historic carriage house in Hopelands Gardens, features photographs, racing silks and other memorabilia relating to champion thoroughbred flat racers and steeplechase horses that were trained locally. Admission is free.
If interested in horses, you might want to watch a polo match. The sport has been played here since 1892, not long after it was first introduced in America, making Aiken a U.S. polo capital both then and now.
If visiting in March, plan to attend the Aiken Triple Crown. This premiere occasion features three weekend events – the Aiken Trials (horse races), the steeplechase and polo, along with related activities.
AIKEN’S NATURAL SIDE
The Aiken area also offers a number of natural sites that provide opportunities for outdoor recreation, including horseback riding, hiking and birding. One of the most popular is Hitchcock Woods. This 2000-acre parcel was set aside for preservation in the early 1900s by William C. Whitney, a prominent thoroughbred horse breeder and Secretary of the Navy under President Grover Cleveland.
You can also walk the trails and observe wildlife at the Carolina Bay Nature Reserve, a natural wetland within city limits. Another option is the floating boardwalk through the marsh at the Wetlands for glimpses of turtles, fish and waterfowl.
Birders will find the National Audubon Society’s Silver Bluff Center and Plantation in nearby Jackson an ideal spot for bird watching. The 3145-acre wildlife sanctuary is home to the endangered wood stork, bald eagles and more than 200 other bird species. Deer, armadillos and alligators can also be seen at Silver Bluff.
Be sure to also check out the ongoing archaeological dig site of an 18th-century trading post and fortified home. You can canoe or kayak here on the Savannah River, or visit the Aiken State Natural Area in Windsor for an easy paddle along the 1.7-mile canoe trail on the South Fork Edisto River, which meanders through the park.
For a look at the night skies and to learn more about the solar system, visit the DuPont Planetarium at the Ruth Patrick Science Education Center on the University of South Carolina — Aiken campus. Programs for the public are scheduled for the first and third Friday and Saturday of each month.
Aiken also has an interesting Civil War heritage. It was the site of one of the final battles and one of the last victories for the Confederate Army. The Battle of Aiken, which occurred on February 11, 1865, is re-enacted every February at Confederate Park just north of Aiken, near the site of the original battle. Spectators are welcome.
BEYOND THE CITY
After visiting the city of Aiken, take in some of the sights in the County, also named Aiken. Several special events are held throughout the year at the Living History Park in North Augusta, providing hands-on experiences to introduce visitors to the area’s history, people and events. Open for touring are the meeting house, 18th-Century tavern, slave cabin and other historic buildings.
At Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site in Beech Island, visitors can explore the property that had once belonged to James Henry Hammond, a South Carolina senator and wealthy plantation owner. In addition to touring the Greek Revival antebellum home built in 1859, you can visit the preserved slave quarters and heirloom gardens.
To learn more about Beech Island, one of the state’s oldest settlements, visit the Beech Island Historical Society visitors and history center. You also might want to stop for a tour or wine-tasting at the family-owned Montmorenci Vineyards in Aiken or Valentine Sagefield Vineyards in Jackson.
Whether you are interested in history or horses, the night skies or nature, Aiken has what you are looking for, much as it did more than a century ago when many of the country’s most affluent families made it their second home.