ARTS AND HUMANITIES: Columnist offers a tale of two books
For the past month, I have been on a local book tour in support of the publication of my second book for The History Press, a major international publishing house with headquarters in Charleston and London, England.
This second book was not what I expected it to be. Because of the popular success of my first volume entitled “Circling the Savannah,” I envisioned that I would one day write a second guidebook to cultural landmarks of the Central Savannah River Area, including additional sites in Aiken, Augusta and Edgefield.
Indeed, quite a few of my readers have asked for a follow-up volume to “Circling” since they had taken advantage of the information that I supplied in that book and they were now looking for more suggestions for interesting day trips.
In anticipation of that second project, I had already stockpiled enough material for another two dozen chapters – many more than I could fit in the first volume. In short, I was happily anticipating a nearly ready-made second book.
Alas, “Re-circling the Savannah” was not to be. My editors at the press were much more interested in my contributing to their “Hidden History” series, especially since they had nothing in their extensive catalogue about this part of the state.
Somewhat reluctantly, I proposed a “Hidden History of Aiken County,” a book that would contain both new information about this neck of the woods and revisit long-forgotten stories. I soon discovered that I already had some ideas about the personalities and events that I needed to include, and I found, as my research evolved, that I very quickly had more than enough subject matter for a full volume.
The resulting text contains 28 chapters, each one a narrative that can be read separately. Since all the chapters are arranged chronologically, however, they make up a selective history of some of the county’s most colorful residents and most dramatic occurrences.
After I signed the contract last spring, it took about six months to do most of the research and writing.
During that period, I read over 50 books, most of which are listed in the bibliography in the back.
I am a big fan of bibliographies since I myself like to know where I can go to read more about a particular topic.
I also spent many, many happy hours in regional archives, including the Gregg-Graniteville Library at USCA, the Aiken County Public Library, the Aiken County Historical Museum, and the South Caroliniana Library on the historic Horseshoe on the USC campus in Columbia.
I’ve always enjoyed archival research. As a literary and cultural historian – my specialty is 19th-century American literature and culture – I have often had to don a pair of white gloves to handle original documents. I still get a thrill perusing handwritten journals, crumbling newsprint, and faded photographs.
Each time I pull a tattered volume from a dusty shelf or open a file drawer crammed with paper documents, I imagine myself adding an exciting chapter to Richard Altick’s inspiring volume “The Scholar Adventurers.”
In short, I had a thoroughly good time researching and writing “The Hidden History of Aiken County,” and I think that the book reads well and looks great.
As with most books produced by The History Press, the volume is lavishly illustrated. Some of the photos I took myself.
In this regard, I am particularly grateful for a fascinating day spent with George “Buddy” Wingard of the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program; he was kind enough to show me the site of Ellenton and to let me photograph a storage vessel by the enslaved potter David Drake, reclaimed by his colleagues.
I also appreciate the indulgence of Steve Naifeh and Greg Smith for letting me wander the grounds of Joye Cottage, looking for the perfect angle from which to photograph their spectacular home.
For half of the visual material, I had to depend on the assistance of a number of talented individuals working in regional depositories.
Deborah Tritt at the Gregg-Graniteville Library provided me with a stunning black and white photo of the Graniteville Mill taken in the 1940s; Brenda Barrato at the Aiken County Museum scanned an image of one of that facility’s great treasures: Martha Schofield’s phrenological chart from 1887.
Janet Robinson of the Aiken County Library let me check out a rare volume of “memorial addresses delivered in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate” upon the death in 1904 of influential Aikenite George W. Croft; Beth Bilderback of the South Caroliniana Library made me a copy of a rare photo of John Gary Evans, “the Aiken Gamecock.”
The U.S. Army Signal Center at Fort Gordon sent me a scan of their file on Horst Guenther, a tragic inmate of the German P.O.W. camp just north of Aiken; the Clemson University Libraries provided a digital copy of a picture from Strom Thurmond’s first wedding; the Reese Library at Augusta State sent me a copy of a group portrait of a firehouse baseball team, which includes the only verified likeness of North Augusta founder James U. Jackson.
All of this help just reinforces the contention that in the final analysis, all effort is ultimately collaborative. The book would not be nearly so informative and attractive without the assistance of others.
Let me add to the list Michael Budd for his splendid cover painting of the Aiken County Courthouse and Tayler Rodgers for letting me use photographs that he acquired of some of James Legare’s plastic cotton furniture in storage at the Charleston Museum. Tayler is one of three USCA Magellan Scholars that I am currently mentoring; his research project on Legare will take the form of middle school unit plans in both language arts and science to be used starting this spring by teachers in this county and beyond.
Copies of both “Circling the Savannah” and “Hidden History of Aiken County” are available from major online retailers as well as the following local outlets: Aiken Office Supply and Bookshop, Booklovers Bookstore, Aiken County Visitors Center, and Books-A-Million.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack currently holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken.