By Christine Tibbetts
Connect four communities with a road trip, and discover new ways to enjoy South Carolina.
Thoroughbred Country is their shared title. Individual names are Aiken, North Augusta, Barnwell and Blackville. Charming, authentic encounters to anticipate:
- Up-close experiences with distinguished horses
- Mennonite cuisine
- Living history
- Healing waters
- Artisans and their fine crafts
- Sound sleeping
Should you want equestrian experiences, make this trip when polo matches and the steeplechase are happening, and also trials to see the speeds of young thoroughbreds.
Thoroughbred Country matters to horse owners and riders in the know, and also to travelers like me who’ve never been on a horse.
I pretended I was an insider at breakfast in the Track Kitchen, hearty food in sight of tracks and stables where up to 65 horses might be training in peak season.
Aiken’s Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame sets the stage year-round for understanding equestrian history; of course, it’s staged in a two-story barn.
Even jockey fashion makes sense after visiting here.
Thanksgiving morning every year, check out the popular Blessing of the Hounds with Bloody Marys and Bagels afterwards at the Aiken County Historical Museum.
Lunch with Mennonite members of this region clearly fits in a road trip loaded with authenticity.
Mennonite bakeries and sandwich shops pop up in several communities but I’d recommend the three-course lunch in Blackville at Miller’s Bread Basket.
“You can tell when someone loves what she’s doing,” says Bread Basket manager Lill Stoltzfus, “We take pride in our pies, our breads, our cooking. Each pie is a work of art.
Consider two more ways to connect with Lill, after a long, leisurely lunch:
- Ask her to be your step-on guide even if you only have a car, not a tour bus. She can chat about her faith traditions, and take you to see meaningful places in her community.
- Spend the night in Wisteria Cottage, also in Blackville, a two bedroom, one bath bed and breakfast she operates. Breakfast? French toast stuffed with cream cheese and strawberries.
18th Century Activities
The Living History Park in North Augusta fills with pre-Revolutionary War era re-enactors twice every year—April and October, third weekend.
Men, women and children in 1750s costumes act the part, so skilled at playing their era, I started shifting centuries too.
This is spectacular, professional, immersive … yet I started off expecting less. Wrong I was.
British-influenced families, artisans and skilled craftsmen engaged in their trades throughout the Park. Behind the scenes discover these re-enactors come from all over the U.S. Tents pre-dating Civil War styles house many of the demonstrators but so do buildings because this Living History Park uses the greenhouse and furniture making shop, medicinal gardens and apothecary, blacksmith and barrel maker all year in assorted special events. Everything’s free.
Balance Fine Art With Folk
Barnwell is the town to explore the Little Red Barn, highly visible along Highway 278 and jam-packed with pottery, fine crafts, jewelry and books.
Liz Ringus is the potter, shaping clay into usable art in her gallery studio. Look for her signature face jugs wired as lamps, and swirl ware formed with three kinds of clay.
Look also for the creations of at least 35 other artists because Ringus is an encourager of what she calls ”lovingly handcrafted works.”
Denmark is the town to Jim Harrison paintings -- South Carolina coastal scenes evoking serenity.
Selling for $6 – 10,000 on average, they’re alluring, captivating, mesmerizing. Find the gallery on the crossroads of busy highways 321 and 78. Put your head in his clouds when you get inside because they puff and swirl and draw you close. Expect even more: scenes of country roads and modest buildings he called “Disappearing America” to draw out more of your memories.
Legends Fuel Healing Waters
Pack some jugs to drink from God’s Acre Healing Springs.
Find the waters bubbling up in Blackville; I’m certain anyone can point you the right way.
Spigots make it simple to drink deeply if you have a cup.
Native Americans believed in these waters, and so did Revolutionary War soldiers, too injured to continue on with their comrades but revitalized weeks later, rejoining the troops.
Legend continues since 1944 when L. P. “Luke” Boylston deeded the acre of land to God for public use.
Sleep In History
The folksy, cozy Wisteria Cottage in Blackville is one distinctive overnight option in Thoroughbred Country A Sunday night stay opens the opportunity for hymn singing at the nearby Mennonite Church.
Historic and elegant are The Willcox Hotel in Aiken and Rosemary Inn in North Augusta.
Linger in each since every nook and cranny is interesting, with art and furnishings inviting investigation. Sleeping in a mansion built in 1902, feeling at home in a neighborhood of other mansions yet just a mile from the Savannah River with options to stroll or bike paved paths – that’s the Rosemary Inn.
Stately columns, sweeping verandas and Gilded Age lavish woodwork stand out, and so does the midwestern hospitality of the propritor from Nebraska.
Six spacious suites filled with period antiques afford the opportunity to immerse in the deep south while exploring the highly planned modern city of North Augusta.
The Willcox feels more hotel than home, yet the lobby is a living room inviting conversation.
On Thursday evenings, find jazz musicians. Sustainable environmental practices are discreet and abundant.
Built in 1898, The Willcox features 15 guest rooms and seven suites, an intimate spa, and a fine dining restaurant with a chef from New Zealand.
From the grand front entrance, it’s just a few neighborhood blocks to downtown Aiken for the highly respected Playhouse and many eateries and shops.
For lots more info: www.tbredcountry.org