History of Fairfield County
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Fairfield County is rich in history. From the longest running clock in America to colonial buildings, the County has many historical attractions.
Located in the upper Piedmont region of South Carolina, Fairfield County, with its rolling hills and fertile valleys, is well-known for its picturesque scenery. Known for “pines, ponds and pastures,” it is a place for people to enjoy living in a serene country atmosphere. Steeped in history and populated by people proud of their heritage, the county retains many historical buildings, churches and homes of the previous three centuries. A few featured here are monuments and memories that speak of the unique traditions and culture of the Upcountry.
Situated between the Broad River on the west and the Wateree River (now Lake Wateree) on the east, the area was hunting ground for several Indian tribes. Arrowheads and shards of Indian pottery can still be found on the banks of these bodies of water.
One of the first settlements in the area belonged to Thomas Nightingale of Charleston. In the late 1740s he established a “cow-pen” establishment about five miles south of where the village of Winnsboro would develop in the 1770s. At about the same time, English families coming by way of Virginia and Swiss German families coming from Pennsylvania and through the port of Charleston settled early along the Broad River and other tributaries of both major rivers. Another large 18th century group was the Scotch-Irish, a proud, religious people with a strong belief in education. Among the early settlers was also a sprinkling of French Huguenot families.
The Revolutionary War was said to be South Carolina’s first civil war, as many of the inhabitants had not joined in early sentiments against King George until the actual front came to the back country. As early as 1778, the cause for Independence was drawing prominent family men, but brothers were divided against brothers. However, by the summer of 1780, after Charleston had fallen to the British, the Back Country began to join the Patriot cause in earnest. There were several skirmishes in the area, notably the Battle of Mobley’s Meeting House, Rocky Mount, and Dutchman’s Creek. In October of 1780 General Lord Charles Cornwallis came to Winnsboro to spend a few months in winter camp after the British defeat at Kings Mountain. By the time he departed the following February, the Partisan cause had swelled its ranks in Fairfield District, many joining General Greene’s siege forces at Ninety-Six which pointed the way to Cornwallis’s capitulation in October at Yorktown.
“Winnsborough,” settled on land owned by the Winn family, had about 20 houses when it was occupied by Lord Cornwallis. The British camped and quartered in the town and on the campus of Mt. Zion Academy. Mount Zion in Winnsboro was one of the first schools to be chartered in the South Carolina Upcountry in 1777, started in Charleston by a benevolent group who saw need to improve cultural and educational conditions in the frontier area. Mt. Zion gained prominence in the early decades of the nineteenth century as a college preparing young men for further advanced university studies.
Upland cotton gained an early role in large slave operated plantations of the 1800s. By 1850 Fairfield was shown in the census statistics to contain some of the wealthiest land holders in the state. By 1865, however, its male population had been decimated in the War Between the States, and prosperity never returned to the “scorched” earth left after General William T. Sherman’s army burned its way through the county in February of 1865.
The first village settlement (around the 1770s) was known as Winnsborough for one of its prominent families and famous Revolutionary War General Richard Winn. Several years before the Revolution, Richard Winn from Virginia moved to what is now called Fairfield County. His lands covered the present site of Winnsboro, and as early as 1777 the settlement had become known as “Winnsborough”. John, Richard, and Minor Winn all served in the American militia and army. Richard is said to have fought in more battles than any Whig in South Carolina. John was a Colonel.
During the 1780-81 winter stay of Lord Cornwallis, Colonel John Winn and Minor Winn attempted to ambush and kill his Lordship, but they were frustrated. They were captured and condemned to the gallows, but Cornwallis pardoned and released them at the pleading of a local Tory John Phillips who was responsible for protecting many of his neighbors in that situation.
Richard Winn, John Winn and John Vanderhorst led “Winnsborough” to be chartered and laid out in 1785 and later made the seat of justice for the Fairfield District. The name of the town was changed to “Winnsboro” and the town was incorporated in 1832 to be governed by an intendant and wardens.
This house of worship was erected by the people of the Little River section of Fairfield County in 1788. The simplicity of its design reflects the earnest spirit of the Scotch Irish whose love for their religion was always uppermost.
The small church began making history when its pastor, Reverend James Rogers, moderated the organization of the Associate Reformed Synod of the Carolinas in 1803 from his humble pulpit. Late in February 1865 this historic little church, located not far from the banks of the wide flowing Little River, became the locale of some swift moving action as units of Kilpatrick’s Union Cavalry attempted to cross the river.
Finding the Confederates had destroyed the bridge to deter them, troops tore out part of the flooring and woodwork of the church to construct a bridge to allow the soldiers and heavy equipment to cross. A soldier’s written apology to the congregation is penciled on the wall of the church.
In 1785, the General Assembly of South Carolina authorized the establishment of a public market in the town of Winnsborough, Corner and Washington Streets. This market house was a square, wooden building, painted yellow, and was topped with a belfry.
Some years later, probably between 1820 and 1830, this market house was sold to Robert Cathcart for a goodly sum. Mr. Cathcart, at the same time, donated to the town his old duck-pond, a small piece of land in the middle of Washington Street, as a site for a new market house. The town council accepted the land and petitioned the legislature in due time for authority to erect the new market-house and town clock. The legislature gave this authority, “Provided the building be no more than 30 feet in width.” So the erection of our town clock was begun soon after this, probably as early as 1822.
The works for the new clock were ordered from Alsace, France by Colonel William McCreight, intendant (mayor) of the town in 1837. They were imported to Charleston by sailboat, and hauled to Winnsboro in wagons. Varied and interesting, if not authentic, are the reports of the journey from Charleston. A freedman Adam Blake declared that it took 50 wagons to do the hauling! The earliest structural clock works are wooden and still extant. The market tower clock has been documented to be the longest continually used town clock in America.
The town clock bell was French-made also, and is said to have had silver in its composition. This bell did good service until 1895. During a fire that year two young men were ringing it so vigorously that it cracked and was sent to Philadelphia for repairs. When after some delay it was returned and sounded for the first time, the tone was so different from the old tone that doubt was expressed immediately as to its being the original bell.
In 1875 it was found necessary to repair the clock tower, and an internal reinforcing wooden structure was erected. The carpentry work was done by an African American carpenter of Winnsboro, John Smart.
The old public market occupied the ground floor of the town clock and had a bell of its own. Its tone was not so silvery as that of the clock, but was a very welcome one when its ringing proclaimed to the villagers and salivating neighborhood dogs that fresh meat was to be had at the market. When the curfew law prevailed the old market bell tolled the curfew at 9 o’clock every evening.
Fairfield County’s Court House was built in 1823, Robert Mills being the architect. It is perhaps one of the oldest court houses in the upper part of the State, embodying Mills’s penchant for the Palladian design principals of balance and simplicity. It was remodeled in the mid 1800s and then again in 1939, retaining the Mills design. The original building had no portico across the facade nor was it overcast or plastered on the outside, as it is today. The sweeping circular steps were added during President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration years of the late 1930s.
County records were preserved from Union Army ransackers in February of 1865 by Sheriff Elijah Ollever. He hid most of the records and books in remote places near his home in the Longtown section of the county. Loose papers were sewn into cloth bags with drawstrings and fastened securely around the waists of the women and girls in his household, concealed under theier full skirts and petticoats. When he carried the jail records to the Wateree swamp, he was almost captured by troops and had to swim across the swollen icy stream while soldiers showered bullets around and over him. Thanks to his heroism, many of Fairfield County’s earliest records have been preserved.
In another later incident, the courthouse was the scene of a bloody lynching and riot in which several people were wounded and killed, including Sheriff Adam Hood. Many high profile court cases have been held here throughout almost two centuries of history. The courthouse is a source of pride and reverence for the people of Fairfield.
The Fairfield County Museum is housed in an elegantly simple Federal style house built for Richard Cathcart in the early 19th century.
A three-story brick structure, the house retains its original heart pine floors and hand-carved woodwork.
In 1852, artist George Ladd and his wife Catherine acquired the building to operate a girls’ school. Enrollment reached 100 young ladies before the school was forced to close by the War Between the States.
Priscilla Ketchin and her family made their home here from the l870′s until Mrs. Ketchin’s death in 1911. Subsequently, the building became rental property, a public school, a hotel and a boarding house.
In 1969, the property was deeded to Fairfield County to be restored. Restoration was completed in 1974 under the auspices of the Fairfield County Historical Commission and Fairfield County Historical Society, using government and private funds. The landmark Cathcart-Ketchin building. opened its doors on March 15, 1976, as the Fairfield County Museum.
The main floor of the museum is maintained as an historic house with antique furnishings in period rooms. Other floors exhibit collections related to Fairfield County history. Museum collections include 19th century clothing and quilts, bibles and documents, Victorian accessories, toys, Indian and military artifacts, tools, kitchen and sewing implements, banking and commerce displays.
Genealogy is an important museum activity. Volunteers maintain an extensive library of wills, estate papers on microfilm, cemetery records, histories of area families and land grant information. Visitors and letters come from across the United States seeking information. The genealogy staff conducts constant correspondence to satisfy these inquiries. Volunteer genealogy assistants are in the research rooms during most of the museum’s open hours. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for research information or to volunteer. See website www.fairfieldSCGen.org.
Traditional events at the museum include the Candlelight Open House in December. Special exhibitions and programs fill out the museum calendar each year.
The CENTURY HOUSE is one of the most imposing buildings in the town of Ridgeway. It is a massive, well-proportioned, brick house located almost in the center of the town. The ancient trees on the grounds give it a distinctive beauty and dignity.
The house was built in 1853 by James Buchanan Coleman, an extensive landowner. On locating in Ridgeway some time before 1842, he purchased the Rosborough home from his friend, James Thomas Rosborough, M.D., who had moved to Texas. The older Coleman children were born in the Rosborough house before Mr. Coleman built the BRICK HOUSE. The Colemans were hospitable and fond of company and entertaining; this is evidenced by the large and gracious home that they erected, now called the Century House.
Situated on the new Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad (built in 1856), the Colemans’ commanding brick house became the center of social and business life in the newly developing community of Ridgeway.
With the coming of the War Between the States, the BRICK HOUSE entertained many visitors and travelers passing through Ridgeway. Refugees from the low country of South Carolina and Georgia as well as others from Virginia and North Carolina became almost daily visitors in the Colemans’ hospitable and well-provisioned home. In advance of General W.T. Sherman’s marching federal army moving northward after having burned the state capital of Columbia, Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard established a temporary headquarters in the building.
The Century House now serves as the Town Hall for Ridgeway.
The CORNWALLIS HOUSE is one of the oldest and most historic buildings in Winnsboro. It is an accepted tradition that this is the house in which the famous General Charles Lord Cornwallis resided during his occupation of Winnsboro from October of 1780 to February of 1781.
The original portion of the house was built on the ground level and was two stories high. A wing and the third floor were later additions. This older portion of the house is enclosed with massive granite walls and partitions that are coated with a hard plaster. The timber used in the framing is all oversized, and it is joined with mortise and pegs. Inside stairs lead from the basement floor to the two floors above. Outside steps lead from the yard to the second-story porch. The lower porch is open but the upper piazza is enclosed with beautifully turned wooden banisters.
The first official record of this house is from 1797. At that time William McMorries, sheriff of Fairfield, deeded the place to Captain John Buchanan in a judgment case. The judgment granted forty-two pounds sterling, plus expenses of two pounds, five shillings and six pence. The lots (including this house) were sold at public auction, and Captain John Buchanan was the highest bidder.
Captain Buchanan was a distinguished soldier of the Revolution and a leading citizen of Fairfield. He was one of the first Americans to greet General Lafayette when he arrived to assist in the struggle for American independence. Captain Buchanan and the French general became close friends, and Buchanan gave him one of his servants, a man named Fortune, to serve him during the war. After the Revolution, when Lafayette visited in this country Fortune rode his pony to Columbia to greet the famous general and was treated as an important guest. A public park today is named for Fortune, where he lived out his life in a cabin at the spring.
This interesting and picturesque old home has the tradition of being the first frame structure built in Winnsboro. Built sometime in the late 1700s by Colonel William McCreight, one of this section’s well known cabinet makers, it definitely reflects the spirit of the Scotch Irish settlers in simple, utilitarian aspects. The framework, walls, and floors are of hand-hewn, wide pine boards.
The few nails used in the framework are hand wrought. The house stands three stories high with two rooms on each floor. The windows have the old twelve-pane sash and still have the original shutters. The building is now owned by the Town of Winnsboro.
The second Ridgeway church after Aimwell Presbyterian was built, was Cedar Creek Mission, organized by the Episcopalians in 1839. The Reverend Cranmore Wallace held the first Episcopal services in the AIMWELL MEETING HOUSE and baptized several Davis, Palmer, and Thomas children. In 1805 and 1826 the Reverend Edward Thomas, a missionary of the Advancement Society, had visited Fairfield and preached at the Courthouse at Winnsboro.
In 1841 Mr. Edward Gendron Palmer fitted up a house on what is now Palmer Street in Ridgeway so that the Ridgeway Episcopalians would have a place to worship.
The widow of Doctor James Davis, Mrs. Catherine Ross Davis, moved to Ridgeway from Columbia after her husband’s death and built IVEY HILL in order to be near her daughter, Mrs. Edward G. Palmer. In the early 1850′s she gave ten acres of land on which Saint Stephen’s Chapel was built. Bishop Davis consecrated Saint Stephen’s on August 4, 1854, as a chapel of Saint John’s Parish, Winnsboro. The two Fairfield Episcopal churches had taken the names of low country parishes whence so many of their earliest members had migrated to Fairfield.
One of the really great figures in the Episcopal Church of America. Reverend William Porcher DuBose, a native of Fairfield County, served Saint Stephen’s, Ridgeway and Saint John’s, Winnsboro, from 1865 to 1868 as rector upon his return to his native state from the war. Later, at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee as dean, chaplain, and professor, Dr. DuBose became a world figure in the realms of philosophy and religion. He was called by English scholars “the wisest man on both sides of the Atlantic.”
The little church St. Stephen’s is the oldest and one of the most beautiful land marks at Ridgeway. It is characterized by a steep gabled roof giving it the appearance of an ancient Gothic chapel. Handsome stained-glass windows deep-set in narrow Gothic arches further dramatize the architecture. The church was originally a frame structure, painted red. In the 1920′s it was brick veneered, and in the 1940′s a wing containing the parish house and church school was added, enhancing, rather than detracting from, the original design.
The grounds consist of a well-kept cemetery, dotted with tombstones and graves bearing the names of the builders and early families. The churchyard is enclosed with a handsome wrought-iron fence and sturdy gateways.
It is no singular coincidence that Fairfield County, with such rich religious and educational background has given so many leaders to religion and education in the state, the South, and the nation.