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South Carolina’s Olde English District
Thomas R. & Deborah A. Fletcher
Rich in history and charm, the Olde English District of South Carolina takes its name from its Colonial English and Revolutionary War connections. The district takes in a seven-county area in northern South Carolina. Unfortunately, it is an area we have driven by many times, rolling down the interstate on our way to some destination, clueless to the culture and history we were bypassing.
Interstate highways anesthetize us to the communities lying beyond the concrete ribbons. Communities are forever changed. Others are forgotten. These routes of commerce have changed America at least as much as Wal-Mart. We map out our routes, hit the interstate, and give little notice to anything between here and there (other than gas, food, and restroom breaks). Cheraw, South Carolina is a town that has felt the impact of the Interstate system.
Cheraw first appeared on English maps in 1750, but was for centuries a well-trafficked area along Native American trade routes. Cheraw takes its name from the Native American Cheraws that once had a fortified village near the town’s location.
Visitors in this town of 6,000 are noticed. As we walked into Mary’s Restaurant for breakfast, table conversations quieted. People shuffled in their seats for a better look at the strangers.
Cheraw sits at the last navigable point north on the Great Pee Dee River. During the era when river traffic ruled, Cheraw became an important area market city and shipping center for cotton, tobacco, and other products. The railroad moved in and took over as commerce king. Cheraw held her place. Later, the highway system came through and US Route 1, the main north-south east coast artery, ran down Market Street, the town’s main thoroughfare. US Route 1 still comes down Market Street, but the traffic is now mostly on the interstates, on I-77 and I-95 which flow around and through the Olde English District. Don’t expect a generic, spring-up-along-the-interstate sort of town, Cheraw isn’t, her character and history make her different and worth a visit.
An important year for the area was 1768. Joseph and Eli Kershaw planned the layout of the town. That original layout is now part of a 213-acre district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was also the year that Saint David’s Parish was established. Saint David’s was the last state-church parish established under King George III. The Anglican Church (later called the Episcopal in the US), as a state-established agency, was responsible for civic as well as religious affairs. It was thought the establishment of the parish would bring order to what the British considered a rowdy area. In naming the parish "St. David’s," in honor of David, the Patron Saint of Wales, the British aimed to appease the many Welsh residents of the area. Old St. David’s Church building was constructed as a result of the parish being established. The building was in use by 1772, though it wasn’t completed until 1774.
Cheraw was considered strategically important by both sides during the American Revolution. The church building ended up being used by both sides. The South Carolina Militia used the church for quarters several times and the Seventy-first Highlanders used the church as quarters and hospital during the summer of 1780.
After the Revolution, the state church was disestablished, and St. David’s vestry ceased to meet after the counties act of 1785. The church saw infrequent use for the next few decades, during which both Baptists and Presbyterians used the building. The Episcopal Church reclaimed the building in 1819. In 1826 an addition was added to the building, making it the building one observes today. During the Civil War, the church was once again used by both sides.
In 1916 the congregation, having outgrown the building, moved to the new location on Market Street. The church building was given to the Chesterfield County Historic Preservation Commission in the 1970's. The commission restored the building to its 1826 condition.
Old St. David’s is just one of many historic buildings in Cheraw, several of which are more than 200 years old. The earliest house dates around 1780. The lovely homes and buildings of the historic district reflect the prosperous past of Cheraw. The Cheraw Lyceum building, which serves as the town’s historical museum, was built in 1825 to be a chancellery court and was later used as a library. St Peter’s Catholic Church was built in 1842, the first Catholic church in South Carolina outside Charleston. Town Hall was built in 1858 and has been the home of city government since. Cheraw has over 50 antebellum structures remaining. Surprising, since Sherman passed through on his way back North in 1865. One may see the house General Sherman used as his headquarters. Sherman spared Cheraw the destruction he visited on so many of the South’s cities. Other than an accidental gunpowder explosion that leveled the business district, the town was left intact.
Stop by the Chamber of Commerce and pick up a guide to Cheraw’s Historic District. While there, ask for the keys to Old St David’s Church and the Lyceum. They’ll turn you loose with them, so you can examine both properties at your leisure. The town’s homes and buildings display a wide range of architectural designs ranging from Federalist to Colonial to country farm houses. Cheraw is one of the oldest cities in South Carolina, and because it is neither on the coast nor along the interstate, it is often overlooked. Nearby, Cheraw State Park, one of the largest in South Carolina, offers a plethora of recreational activities from golf to swimming.
South Carolina’s Backcountry is dotted with sites important during the American Revolution. The Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site includes the reconstructed Kershaw-Cornwalis House. The house was commandeered and used by Lord Cornwalis as British area headquarters. The site also includes the 18th century town site, log cabins, and exhibits, with free daily, self-guided tours. Guided tours, including a slide presentation, are available Tuesday through Sunday for a fee.
Historic Brattonsville is a 775-acre living history museum that interprets Carolina Backcountry life from 1740-1860. History comes alive as one is transported back in time. Listen as the conversation turns to the threats of war, see the spinning of wool, observe farm life from long ago. Historic Brattonsville was a location shooting for the movie, The Patriot, which has a scene depicting Huck’s Defeat, an American victory that took place on the grounds July 12, 1780. The war had dragged on four long years in the north and it didn’t look favorable. Led by William Bratton, it took a ragtag band of stirred-up Scotch-Irish rebels of Presbyterian extraction with no affinity for the English Crown nor the State Church to start turning the tide. (Lord Cornwallis referred to his time is South Carolina as being in a "nest of Presbyterian hornets.") Although the battle was not that spectacular, Huck’s Defeat was an important American morale booster and turning point of public opinion. The British were vincible.
Used in The Patriot, The Colonel William Bratton House is a two-story built by Bratton on land purchased in 1765, and probably is the oldest building in York County. The Battle of Huck’s Defeat is reenacted annually the second Saturday in July. Historic Brattonsville is open year round except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
A visit to the region would be incomplete without a stay in an antebellum mansion. The Inn at Merridun, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, fits the bill. Located on a nine-acre property in Union, South Carolina, trees seclude this romantic enclave from the heart of downtown which lies less than five blocks away. The Inn at Merridun is an antebellum country inn that reflects the grandeur of the South of long ago. The Georgian style home was built by William Keenan over a two-year period (1855-57), on the 4,000-acre Keenan Plantation. The plantation was bought by Benjamin Rice in 1876, when it became a part of an 8,000-acre cotton plantation. Rice left the mansion to his grandson, Thomas Cary Duncan and his wife Fannie Merriman. The house takes its name from a combination of those family names (Merriman, Rice, Duncan). The Duncans had five children, two of whom lived in the mansion until their deaths in the mid-1970's. The mansion features 7,900 square feet of floor space, white columns, five rented bedrooms, and has a spectacular curved stairway, with expansive foyers on both floors. Peggy Waller–a US Navy veteran–decided to attempt restoring and operating the mansion as a B & B after retirement from the Navy.
Breakfast comes with the stay, but dinners are also available. Peggy works hard in the kitchen to prepare some mouth-watering dishes. We can’t imagine why anyone would want dinner elsewhere after experiencing the romantic ambiance and delicious food found at The Inn at Merridun. English Teas, with a Southern flavor, are held in the tea room. It was with good reason the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in its 1999 travel directory, listed The Inn at Merridun as one of the ten great inns in the South.
The Catawba Tribe represents the largest remaining tribe of Native Americans in South Carolina. The Catawba Indian Reservation is a small reservation near Rock Hill, in Lancaster County. The Catawba Cultural Center on the Catawba Indian Reservation offers exhibits, tours and pottery-making demonstrations. Catawba pottery is distinct in that no pottery wheel is used. The Catawba potters use favorite objects or just about whatever is handy, to shape and smooth the clay. Rubbing stones are common, but many eclectic items find their way into the potters’ use, items such as an elk antler, seashell, corncob, or a Spam can lid. Following a process that has been used for millennia, the Catawba work clay dug from the banks of the Catawba River. A theme of turtles, frogs, and sunflowers seem to run through the pottery. Glazes are not used, the clay is fired in a great pit fire, which causes the distinctive coloration of the pottery. The cultural center gift shop offers Native American crafts, books, and Catawba pottery for sale.
If You Go:
A few miles south of Camden along highway 261 is the wayside of Historic Boykin, South Carolina. This is the location where the last Union Officer of the Civil War was killed. It was First Lieutenant E. L. Stevens of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the all-black unit depicted in the movie, Glory. Stevens was killed in a battle that occurred nine days after the war had officially ended. A monument to both sides of the war now stands on the battlefield. Alice Boykin has been busy restoring the structures of this wayside town. The Boykin Grits Mill turns out grits and corn meal ground by waterpower. Stop by the Boykin Company Store and Grille for a wide variety of country items, and where delicious lunch specials are served up (you can also get a burger, if you must). Looking for dinner? Try the Mill Pond Restaurant just across the street. The Broom Place, located in a restored, one-room 1740 slave house, is the place to see brooms being made by hand using broom-making equipment over 100 years old. The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Boykin Company Store & Grille
Phone: 803- 432-2786 9 AM-3 PM daily
The Mill Pond Restaurant (evenings)
Phone: 803- 425-8825
Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher / PROSE AND PHOTOS