The Upper Dorchester County Historical Society is preserving the past to share with those who are the future.
A two-lane highway threads its way past pine forests and wide-open farmland, pausing at thick stands of hardwoods and dipping dangerously close to the inky black water of cypress swamps. While this particular road may be the most heavily traveled in the region, its characteristics are not unique, for such is the landscape of Upper Dorchester County and the pathways through it.
At some time or another, most who live in Dorchester County will navigate this diverse countryside to St. George, a town that might seem the unlikely heart of the larger, lower body of the second-fastest growing county in South Carolina. As the county seat, the small community of St. George not only hosts the offices of county government, but also holds thousands of documents that remember the past, validate the present, and give license to the future of the region.
But these items represent only a small part of the narrative of this historically significant area of South Carolina. Thousands more are tucked away in the attics and closets of local individuals, having been passed down through generations. Often these gems are lost to time, but Phyllis Hughes, President of Upper Dorchester County Historical Society (UDCHS) and Chair of the Dorchester County Archives and History Center’s Board of Directors, is not about to let that happen in her county.
Hughes is a walking encyclopedia of Dorchester County history, and her extensive knowledge and passion for the subject weave little-known facts into stories that leave the listener hungry for more. In her distinctly Southern accent, Hughes reveals tales of the county, containing love and loss, murder, intrigue, politics, comedy, and tragedy into a storyline worthy of a blockbuster movie, often leading in with, “Y’all, wait till you hear this—you’re not going to believe…”
Under her hands-on style of leadership and with the help of dedicated members and volunteers, history is being made available to the public through projects that are tangible testaments to the people, events, and accomplishments of Dorchester County.
Dorchester County Archives and History Center
At the old county courthouse at 101 Ridge Street in St. George, sawdust flies from whirring saws and power cords snake through a warren of rooms on the ground floor of the brick building. The center was chartered in March of 2014 and moved to the courthouse in May of 2015. As Hughes offers a walk-through of the progress being made on the soon-to-be-opened History Center, excitement for this project is palpable.
“We’ll have a life formation sculpture of Arthur Middleton right here to greet everyone,” Hughes says, indicating the museum entrance. “He was a great American patriot and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, you know.” She leads the way past exhibits chronicling the history of the Kusso and Natchez Indian Tribes merging to become the Edisto Indian Tribe and a case which will hold fossils of some of the oldest human remains found in the entire country.
When the Dorchester County Archives and History Center opens on Saturday, January 28, 2017, visitors will find themselves totally immersed in the history of Dorchester County and transported from the earliest humans to the innovations that put the area on the map. The History Center will be home to dioramas depicting early life in Colonial Dorchester, to mannequins dressed in authentic uniforms of the day, to an exhibit exploring the African American culture centering around indigo and rice production, to displays addressing the influence of the early railroad in Dorchester County, and to rooms portraying snippets of real life in the parlors, stores, banks and even a glimpse of life in an early jail cell.
“Every single room will have something that will shock and awe visitors,” Hughes declares. “We want every citizen to feel like this is theirs—because it is their history. We want to involve teachers and students, and we’re going to offer courses in how to properly record an oral history.”
“Can you imagine the connection a 16-year-old will feel when they sit down and talk to the first black mayor, or hear the story of a senior citizen that lived through almost a century of changes? We want that to connect them and help build their interest in their community.”
In June of 2015, Dorchester County Archives and History Center began the monumental task of digitizing tens of thousands of documents from both private and public collections.
“We already have over 100,000 documents in this building alone,” says Christine Rice, Director and Archivist at the Center. “On a good day, with no interruptions and documents that are in good shape, I can digitize 400 to 500 documents.”
One of the most significant collections was passed into the hands of Anne Irick through ancestors who placed them in a fire-proof trunk in the early 1800s. The key to the trunk was lost for many years, a cautionary tale for how easily timeless treasures can be lost. When the key was found, Irick was like a kid on Christmas morning. The Moorer-Murray Collection, as it is known, is an exhaustive anthology of a family that she quips, “Never threw anything away.”
“They saved everything,” Irick explains as she looks over the thousands of tissue-thin documents, letters, and photos, some of which she took to be examined by Antique Road Show experts when they came to Charleston. “The family made lists of everything—from goats to furniture.” No one knows why the documents were all brought from the courthouse in Walterboro prior to the Civil War, but it was fortuitous since most records left behind were lost forever when the courthouse was burned during Sherman’s March to the Sea.
Perhaps the most dramatic piece in the collection is a Pre-Revolutionary War land grant signed by Royal Governor Thomas Broughton. Written on skin, the document still holds the large wooden seal of the governor.
“We hope that people will bring us their historical treasures,” Hughes says. “We don’t have to keep them. We will simply digitize and catalog them. We don’t have everything online yet, but I look forward to the day when our children will be able to have access to all of it.”
“Our goal is to one day house the entire history of Dorchester County under one roof,” says Hughes. Without a doubt, they are off to an auspicious start. When the doors open in January, the History Center will play host to The Smithsonian Institute’s Traveling Exhibit, “The Way We Worked.” Adapted from the original exhibition and developed by the National Archives, the exhibit explores how work became such a central element in American culture by tracing the many changes that affected the workforce and work environments over the past 150 years and draws from the institution’s rich collections to tell this compelling story.” The exhibit will be on display January 28 through March 12, 2017.
Koger Murray Carroll House
Standing at the corner of Wire Road and Quaker Road in Grover, SC (just outside St. George) is another impressive project of the Upper Dorchester County Historical Society. Known by the names of its different owners since its construction circa 1792, the Koger House is believed to be the oldest house still standing in Dorchester County.
Having been largely uninhabited for over 25 years, the historic home built by Major Joseph Koger, the first sheriff of what was then South Carolina’s Colleton District, was gifted to the UDCHS by Mr. and Mrs. Fitzhugh Sweatman. Its restoration would require substantial funds and major work, but Hughes and the society members were determined to move forward with the preservation of this important structure.
With funding supplied by a small initial award in the form of a Transportation Enhancement Grant, the UDCHS was able to stabilize the foundation and roof of the building, declared by the SC Palmetto Trust to be an endangered historical property. Built along the stagecoach route and wagon road between Charleston and Augusta, the Georgian-style clapboard single house constructed of black cypress is a testament to meticulous craftsmanship, and its worn wood floors and woodwork tell the story of the thousands of feet that have passed through its doors. A lingering bloodstain on the floor of an upstairs bedroom adds an intriguing chapter.
To help underwrite its restoration, the Historical Society “sold” each of the 9-over-9 paned windows to donors, allowing them to honor or memorialize loved ones in a significant and lasting manner. Proceeds from the sale of several publications have gone toward the organization,s fundraising efforts, including The Diary of David Gavin, a painstakingly transcribed diary of a teacher, attorney, surveyor, estate manager, land speculator, and investor, who served in the South Carolina General Assembly from 1834-1843 and again after the Civil War in 1865-1866 and Memorial Stones Cemetery Inscriptions of Upper Dorchester South Carolina, a book that covers inscriptions from 138 cemeteries and has proven to be an invaluable tool for genealogists.
“We opened a bank account with a zero balance to get this project started,” Hughes discloses. “Two individuals put $100 bills in the jar, and that’s what we started with.”
The finished product is impressive and a must-see for all who live in Dorchester County. Hughes gets a bit emotional when describing the efforts made to bring the home back to life. “This house belongs to all of us—every citizen of Dorchester County. We just prayed that we did everything right while trying to restore it, and that those who come after us will continue to save it.”
For more information on membership and the work of the Upper Dorchester County Historical, visit www.scdchs.com
For information on Dorchester County Archives and History Center, visit www.dca-hc.com or call (843) 563-0053.