Tuesday, October 16, 2007

You Can Take A Ride Around Aiken's Old Downtown

“At the request of Major Alex Black Ag’t of the S. Carolina Canal & Rail Road Company we have surveyed and laid off 27 Squares or Blocks in the Town of Aiken bounded on the North by Edgefield St., on the East by Williams St., on the South by Rail Road Avenue and on the West by Newberry St, as in the above plat represented – This 19th September 1834.”
(signed) Cyril O. Pascalis
(signed) Andrew Alfred Dexter

And so Aiken was born. The plat that Pascalis and Dexter, two of Aiken’s resident engineers, refers to shows twenty-seven neatly ordered rectangular blocks, lined up in three rows of nine, where the first residents of Aiken would build homes and shops and around which our beautiful, vital city would soon grow. The outer perimeter of the city went from South Boundary on the south, Charleston Street on the east, North Boundary (now Hampton Avenue), and West Boundary (now Florence Street). The railroad ran down Railroad Avenue, now Park Avenue. The streets were one hundred fifty feet wide and lots, which we would call city blocks, were four acres. Could those first citizens have ever imagined what good things would come of Aiken in the next one hundred and sixty-three years?

To get an idea of the size of Aiken in its infancy, you can take a short drive around the perimeter of those twenty-seven blocks, starting in front of the Washington Center at 124 Newberry Street, a relatively new building that stands comfortably beside the century old Aiken Club Room and Court Tennis Building.

Stop at the lights that cross Richland Avenue and continue north past St. John’s Methodist Church. This active and ever growing church has been doing the Lord’s work here in Aiken since before the turn of the century (the last one).

Continue up Newberry and before you turn right on to Edgefield Avenue, have a look north. It’s peaceful vista with wide parkways and comfortable homes that very likely hasn’t changed much over the past century.

Turn right onto Edgefield Avenue and continue as far as you can. At Kershaw Street, you’ll come to the sprawling campus of Schofield Middle School, another of Aiken’s historic sites.

The Schofield Middle School website tells us that Martha Schofield, a young, determined Quaker lady from Buck’s County, Pennsylvania came to Aiken following the Civil War in order to help educate young Negro children. With help from the Society of Friends and others throughout the state, she was able to have begun one of the most important schools for Negroes in South Carolina. The original building here was completed about 1870. There were sixty-eight students and a total of three staff members. Schofield has grown considerably since then and has recently been renovated into an attractive modern building that sits on grounds that cover several of Aiken’s original twenty-seven blocks.

To get around the school, turn left onto Kershaw Street, then right onto Abbeville. When you reach Williamsburg (called Williams in the original plat) turn right and you’ll be back on the perimeter road. If school’s out, on the weekends or after 3:30, you can stop and have a look at the park and Wetlands project established several years ago on the grounds of Schofield Middle School. Listen for the bullfrogs and watch other tiny frogs skitter across the pond abounding with water lilies and purple flowering pickerel weed.

Continue south on Williamsburg, crossing Richland Avenue. On your left, you’ll see the Aiken Farmers Market, bursting with activity if you happen by on a Saturday morning. When you reach Park Avenue, called Rail Road Avenue in the original plat, you’ll face the railroad track and remember that, like many towns across the country, the railroad was in large part responsible for Aiken becoming a town.

Ride several blocks and look to your right and you’ll notice something new growing out of the old Aiken setting. Five new, beautifully landscaped Charleston type houses invite folks to sit a spell on a side facing porch, originally designed to catch the sea breezes that blew in from Charleston harbor.

Keep driving, past the old caboose and railway cars that are soon to be part of the Aiken Depot project and you’ll come to the first of several blocks of shops and galleries. If you’re lucky you’ll encounter Bill Jackson in his beautiful and ever evolving garden. You can stop and look in, through the wrought-iron gate and notice the outstanding collection of Japanese maples and unusual sculpture that could be at home in any big city.

You can’t see the train for much farther here. A railroad cut that takes it below street level was completed in 1852.

Keep going and you’re almost done. Pass more magnolia filled parkways and stop for a minute to look south at handsome St. Mary’s Catholic Church and then at the Aiken County Courthouse and the monument to the Confederate dead that stands in front of it.

Now past the antique shop and the Chesser building and you’ll find yourself back at the Court Tennis Building, one of only eight active Court Tennis courts in the country.

These twenty-seven blocks, still identifiable after over a century and a half after they were first laid out, remind us of Aiken’s artistic and educational and agricultural and horticultural and religious heritage and why I think those first Aiken citizens would still be happy to call Aiken, South Carolina “home.”