Aiken: South Carolina’s Horse-Obsessed City

BY DUSTIN TURNER

Aiken might not be South Carolina’s largest city, but it is by no means a one-horse town. It has a rich history when it comes to all things equestrian, and today includes horse-themed stores and a restaurant in what was once a stable; legendary training facilities; and events that draw thousands of people from all over the world every year.

Once a winter colony for wealthy Northerners seeking to escape harsh winters, Aiken now boasts thriving art and cultural scene and a unique downtown shopping and dining experience. Right off Interstate 20 between Augusta, Georgia (famed for golf and the funk-soul music of James Brown), and Columbia, South Carolina, Aiken has seen major expansion and revitalization in the past few years, especially in the historic downtown district.

Founded in 1835, the city was named after railroad magnate William Aiken, who had built a new line connecting the coastal port town of Charleston to the Georgia border at the Savannah River. Though the town’s roots might have been in railroading, the town came into its own as a sporting getaway for the elite—especially insomuch as any sport involving horses.

South Boundary Avenue in Aiken borders downtown’s horse district. (©carlfbagge/Flickr Creative Commons)

The Aiken Winter Colony was established by Thomas Hitchcock Sr. and William C. Whitney, and over the years, Aiken became a winter home for many famous and notable people, including those with such last names as Astor, Vanderbilt, Pinkerton, Rockefeller and others. According to the history of Aiken’s Willcox Hotel, the ideal of the winter colony was to play three sports a day: polo in the morning, golf in the afternoon and a hunt after dark, when riding was at its most hazardous. Both the men and the women—having inherited large fortunes from their ancestors—amused themselves with these pastimes. Too rich to work, but too active and restless to sit still, they developed in Aiken a hectic style of leisure that became a lifestyle for the privileged.

These days, Aiken has a very diverse demographic, but there’s a saying that you’ve truly succeeded when you live on a dirt road. That’s because most of the horse district around downtown is on dirt roads, just off the oak canopy of often-photographed South Boundary Avenue.

There is even a stoplight on one of Aiken’s busiest roads for horse riders to safely cross. The signal button to switch the light is placed high on the pole, perfect for riders on horseback to press without dismounting. There, riders cross Whiskey Road from the city’s horse district into Hitchcock Woods. The woods, one of the nation’s largest urban forests (it’s well more than twice the size of Central Park), boast 2,100 acres of forestland with trails for hikers, dog-walkers and, of course, equestrians. On Thanksgiving Day, thousands of spectators attend the annual Blessing of the Hounds; it’s an annual tradition which harkens back to the days of horse riders hunting foxes in the woods.

Dogwood Stable President Cot Campbell greets a horse at the stable. Dogwood has a long history of training winning thoroughbreds. (©Michael Holahan/The Augusta (Ga) Chronicle)

The equestrian focus is no mere pasttime. Among Aiken’s famous stables is Dogwood Stable, which has produced 80 stakes winners, seven Kentucky Derby contenders, a Preakness and Belmont winner, seven millionaires, two Eclipse Awards and a Breeders’ Cup victory. Stable President W. Cothran “Cot” Campbell has a roster of 14 horses, from 2-year-olds to track veterans. The stable’s most recent success is Palace Malice, the winner of the 2013 Belmont Stakes.

Even the sheikh of Dubai, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, has stables and a training facility in Aiken, to which he brings horses from the Middle East.

A postcard shows polo in Aiken, circa 1930-45. (©Boston Public Library/Flickr Creative Commons)

From horseracing to steeplechasing, polo, foxhunting, eventing, dressage and driving, the full spectrum of the questrian world can be found in and around Aiken. In fact, some of the small town’s most popular annual events—social and economic—revolve around horses. The best known are the Fall Steeplechaseand spring’s Triple Crown, the latter of which brings tens-of-thousands of spectators and competitors from all over the world to town for three consequtive weekends of equestrian events: the Trials, the Spring Steeplechase and Pacers and Polo.

“All you gotta do is take a history lesson,” says Cecil Atchley, the press coordinator for the Aiken Steeplechase Association. “Aiken is known all over the world for horses, and not just races. … It is one of the best training places on the planet, especially with the mild weather in the winter.” The sand and the dirt in the horse district is perfect for training, Atchley says, which is why the roads have never been—and likely never will be—paved. “Horse people from all over the world wind up retiring here, and they are very community-oriented and bring a lot of history and culture with them,” he says.

Aiken History 

This information about Aiken History is courtesy of the City of Aiken Tourism Department.

The South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company was established in 1828. William Aiken, president of the Railroad Company and one of South Carolina’s leading cotton merchants, hired Horatio Allen, a distinguished engineer who later built the Brooklyn Bridge, to build a railroad from Charleston to Hamburg, South Carolina, a site on the Savannah River. Work began in 1830 and on October 2, 1833, the first train arrived in the newly established town of Aiken, named in honor of the first railroad president. In 1834, engineers Alfred Dexter and C. O. Pascalis laid out the town with its wide streets and parkways, and Aiken was chartered in 1835. Aiken attracted many visitors, particularly wealthy Charlestonians who spent their summers at the “place of retreat from the heat and malaria of unhealthier regions.” In 1865, as the War Between the States neared a conclusion, Confederate General Joseph Wheeler took his position in the town of Aiken to oppose Sherman’s raid and put an end to the Union advance westward. It was one of Sherman’s rare defeats along the way.

The Winter Colony

Aiken recovered quickly from the War and in 1870 began to attract wealthy Northerners, who were lured to the area by the opportunities for equestrian sports, thus establishing Aiken’s celebrated “Winter Colony.” Among those who wintered here was Thomas Hitchcock, who with the Whitney’s established the tract of land known as Hitchcock Woods for public use.

The restorations experienced in houses and churches reflect the wealth and sophistication of the population during the Winter Colony era and illustrate its impact on the community. Hayne Avenue, Colleton Avenue, South Boundary and Whiskey Road are old, fashionable residential avenues which attracted both local residents and winter visitors to build beautiful homes.

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