County archives proposed
Dorchester County has a small history museum in Summerville, but it doesn’t have an archives to preserve historical documents and records.
The Upper Dorchester County Historical Society wants to change that, and President Phyllis Hughes appeared before county council to ask that the society be allowed to use part of the old courthouse in St. George.
Council agreed to consider her request, but the county has long looked at the courthouse as a potential source of revenue if it could open a juvenile detention facility there to house minors from across the Lowcountry and beyond.
Beside the question of the best use of the old courthouse, Councilman David Chinnis questioned the merit of a local archives.
“My biggest concern is the preservation of these documents … It’s not just locking them away,” he said.
The South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina can without question preserve those historical documents, he said.
The idea for the local archives, however, is to provide a place where people can easily research local history, to “establish the history of Dorchester County under one roof,” Hughes said in an interview.
Doing such research at the Caroliniana isn’t so easy, because you have to know exactly what you’re requesting, she said.
A Dorchester archives wouldn’t have preservation capabilities at first, she said. Instead, it would digitize records to make them accessible, then send them to the Caroliniana or the state archives for preservation.
Hughes told council there are local families with records dating to the 1700s considering donations to the Caroliniana who would prefer to keep their papers in Dorchester County, if there were an appropriate space.
The society already has documents it collected when conducting research to write a history of the county but, she said, “I had to go from pillar to post to collect that. There’s nothing under one roof.”
As an example, she has possibly the only surviving copy of a booklet published in 1913 extolling the virtues of the town of Dorchester in an attempt to induce people to move there.
She was given the book by a widow now living in Charleston whose husband had been born in Dorchester.
“She had the book and she gave it to me. Now what am I going to do with that book? Leave it in my house where nobody can see?” Hughes said.
“I would love to see that little book digitized. … We’re not going to try to keep something here that is invaluable that needs to be preserved forever,” she said.
And just as she stumbled upon this little book, there are more documents out there in people’s attics, just waiting to be found, she said.
Her vision for the local archives includes not just documents, but artifacts, information on the Edisto Natches-Kusso Indian tribe and oral histories from elderly black Americans. Very little has been researched on the county’s black history, she said.
Once the archives is established, a person should be able to walk in and ask for information on a name and then find land records, photographs, donated artifacts, and any other item attached to that person, she said.
“Fifty years down the road, what we do today is going to be important to somebody,” she said.
Council sent the society’s proposal to the planning committee for further discussion.