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Resurrecting the past

County opens Archives and History Center museum for special exhibit

  • 5 min to read
Resurrecting the past

Teen Idella Simmons (left), mother of County Councilman Willie Davis, and midwife Minnie Chestnut (right), walk to work in St. George. Simmons conducted nursing duties for Chestnut, Davis said.

Artifacts as ancient as the pre-historic era to as recent as the 20th century share a common bond inside the old county courthouse in St. George. Each of the rare finds—trinkets, fossils, documents, photos, paintings, quilts—is part of a unique exhibit showcasing Dorchester County history and national history on the American workforce.

Opening Jan. 28, the special exhibit will be on display Monday through Saturday at the Dorchester County Archives and History Center until March 11.

Though the facility received its charter in 2014, opening the Archives and Genealogical Library, it didn’t settle into its current location until the next year.

It’s still yet to open its museum doors to the public, but starting Saturday, that will change. In the meantime, the facility is open by appointment only for research only, due to museum construction, said Phyllis Hughes, chair of the Archives and History Center’s board of directors and president of the Upper Dorchester County Historical Society.

She said that for the last two years historians and archivists have been collecting a storehouse of historical information, including more than 10,000 documents and maps, early newspapers and photo collections. Since December 2015 museum officials have been collecting for this year’s exhibit, though physical museum development, building and site construction, officially started this month, Hughes said. Overall cost to develop the museum has been roughly $70,000, including funding that Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg, and Rep. Pasty Knight, D-St. George obtained. Money has also stemmed from the Dorchester County Economic Fund, the town of St. George and other private donations and membership.

Hughes explained the goal of the museum is “housing Dorchester County history under one roof” for the prime purpose of “preserving today for tomorrow.”

While a majority of the artifacts and photos included in the upcoming exhibit pertain to county history, the Smithsonian will also feature two of its own exhibits at the center. They are replicas of ones currently part of the exhibit “The Way We Worked,” housed in the Smithsonian’s National Archives.

According to the Archives and History Center website, the national exhibit illustrates “how work became...a central element in American culture” through use of visual aids showcasing societal changes over the last century and a half.

‘How Dorchester County was formed’

Local history will weave into the Smithsonian exhibits.

“We have tied things into Dorchester (County) and the way we worked during that time frame,” said archivist Christine Rice.

Hughes further explained.

“We try and follow a chronological order of how Dorchester County was formed,” she said. “Colonial Dorchester in the Oakbrook area dates to the 1690s, and prior to that the Native Americans were here, and we still have a...tribe that still lives here. Hughes was referring to the Natchez-Kusso Edisto Indian tribe, she said has “been here for a long time.”

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Resurrecting the past

An exhibit depicting the local Native American tribe, the Edisto Natchez-Kusso Indians

With special music and festive dress, descendants of the tribe will be on hand Saturday for the museum’s opening. The tribe’s exhibit is set to feature a display case of artifacts and a picturesque snapshot of an early camp and hut, along with other audio and visual aids.

The center will feature at least 15 exhibits, including one based on oral histories compiled by area students and local elderly. Hughes said local middle and high school students recorded stories and memories about the one-room schoolhouse that were told to them by local residents ages 90 and up. It’s the first in a series that the museum hopes to present to the public as a new program entitled “Preserving Our Story.”

“Once these seniors are gone, this history will be lost forever,” Hughes said. "We're losing them every day."

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Resurrecting the past

A display of a one-room schoolhouse

The oral recordings are a collaboration among the center, students and the Dorchester County Library and will remain on hand at the Archives and History Center as “invaluable history.”

Other exhibits include a mock home setting of plantation life and prehistoric fossils, including the femur bone from the extinct mastodon.

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Resurrecting the past

A fossilized Mastodon femur from the pre-historic era is on display at the center. A local resident found the fossil in Four Hole Swamp, according to history experts at the facility.

Hughes said a Walterboro man found the fossil in Four Hole Swamp. All other prehistoric fossils at the museum come from a 35-mile radius, and that excites Hughes.

“Knowing that we have the femur bone, and that others...might be down there makes me want to hire someone to go down and dig,” she said.

In addition, exhibits illustrate the environmental life of Beidler Forest—“I think the kids will really like that one,” Hughes said—a geology wall showing what different prehistoric creatures lived at certain times—“100 feet down in the ground is equivalent to 252 million years ago,” Hughes said—and a bust of local patriot Arthur Middleton.

“Ninety percent of the county doesn’t know we had a signer of the Declaration of Independence because we aren’t taught that in our schools,” Hughes said. “I think that’s why I never liked history in school because you’re told all these dates.”

The Moorer-Murray Collection

Perhaps one of the most fascinating parts of the exhibit is the display of old documents that local resident Anne Reeves Irick provided the center. They are labeled the Moorer-Murray Collection, with some items dating back to the mid-18th century.

“People love documents,” Hughes said, revealing that some of them include signatures from former South Carolina governors William Moultrie and Charles and Thomas Pinckney.

Most spectacular to Hughes and Irick are the Civil War-era letters written about current-day medicine and a king’s grant, given for a local land parcel, dating back to 1737—the original wooden seal still intact.

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Resurrecting the past

The above document is a well-preserved king's grant (circa 1737) for a land parcel in Dorchester County, with the original wooden seal still in tact.

Over the decades, Irick said the women in her family carefully preserved the documents, storing them in a special trunk. Her great-grandmother Martha Harriet Murray-Moorer started the tradition. But it was Irick’s aunt who willed them to her upon her death in 1985.

“They were my passion because they were what I needed to stand guard over,” Irick said.

But for years the key was missing, and it wasn’t until 2012 she opened the historical treasure. Irick likened herself to a child at Christmas that first moment she propped open the trunk lid.

“I was hoping there were gold coins in there, but there weren’t,” she said laughing.

While Irick wanted to loan the collection to a reputable museum, none would allow her. They all wanted to keep the papers, a stipulation she couldn’t agree to.

“I realized the value...and I can’t put a monetary value on them,” she said. “It would be like the death of me to have to sell (them).”

The Archives and History Center agreed to a loan, and Irick was happy to keep the documents safe locally. She said after she passes, her genealogist daughter will assume them.

Falling in love with history

Hughes said her perspective of history changed when she was asked to assist with the county’s centennial celebration in 1997.

An area postmaster at the time, she was tasked with traveling to Washington, D.C., to learn more about the history of the U.S. post office.

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Resurrecting the past

Early 19th century post office supplies

“It just interested me to find out the rest of the history, and I’ll die trying to find out the rest of the story because it’s too much history,” she said. “I find it very interesting to know all of this happening in our background and our children need to know (it).”

The postal service, along with older model supplies used for weighing and storing mail, is part of the center's exhibit.

Hughes and other officials at the Archives and History Center hope the museum will become a popular site for residents and tourists both to visit.

“We really want this to be something special for our community,” she said. “It’s finally happening.”

Starting Jan. 28, the exhibit will open to the public 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. Starting Feb. 2 the site will remain open until 7 p.m. on Thursdays to feature special local guests—artists, authors, a colonial dance master and more, Hughes said.

Saturdays will also feature a front lawn market place with a variety of cultural vendors. Anyone can participate in the event.

The center is at 101 Ridge St. in St. George.

For more information contact the Archives and History Center at 843-563-0053 or visit its website at dca-hc.com.

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