The Historic Aiken Foundation has been in the news quite a bit lately. At the organization’s recent annual meeting, seven preservation awards were announced, and this newspaper launched a series of informative articles featuring each of this year’s winners and their fine work in helping to restore and improve the architectural design of the city and outlying areas.
Founded in 1974, the Foundation seeks as one of its core objectives “to increase and diffuse a greater appreciation among the general public” for “sites, buildings, residences, and structures of historical and architectural interest.” Such “sites and structures” give Aiken its distinctive character, and it is imperative that all Aiken residents understand the critically important part they play in making our town the special place that it is.
One such site is the current focus of the Foundation’s collective efforts; it is the Williams Cemetery Plot on the corner of Magnolia and Grace streets in the heart of the historic district. This particular family gravesite has long been the target of the Foundation’s attention. In fact, every year board members gather to rake leaves, extract intrusive plants and tidy up the general appearance of the place. This year’s cleanup effort took place last Saturday when a cadre of board members along with friends and family members gathered with gardening implements in hand.
Raking, I must confess, is not one of my favorite pastimes, but I was there with my fellow board members, scratching away on the ground, all for a good cause. It was a sunny winter day; and I had a great time partaking in a little morning exercise combined with a lesson in local history.
This year’s cleanup effort, however, is intended to be significantly different from those of the past. Indeed, this time the Foundation wants to make some more permanent improvements to the site. According to Owen Clary, the new board president, these enhancements include the restoration of the monuments that have fallen or cracked over time and the installation of some formal landscaping along the front fence of the property.
In support of their effort, board members are currently reaching out to the Aiken Garden Club Council and the Aiken Camellia Society, seeking their expertise and financial help. Certain HAF members have also offered to pitch in – Ed Mann, for example, has already generously pledged a half dozen camellia bushes of his own to the project.
Why is there so much interest in this small family graveyard? The answer rests in one name – W.W. Williams. Historical records reveal that William White Williams was one of our town’s earliest residents; in fact, much of the land gifted to the South Carolina Railroad in order to establish a town to serve the new transportation link between Charleston and Hamburg was Williams property.
Legend has it that W.W. Williams was instrumental in routing the railroad through his land in the hope of enhancing its value. Most local residents are familiar with the tale that railroad engineer Alfred Dexter – he and C.O. Pascalis were responsible for laying out the rectangular grid of park-like boulevards that are a special feature of Aiken’s historic core – became smitten with Williams’ daughter Sara and that her father refused to approve their marriage unless the railroad ran through his land. W.W. Williams, the story goes, was intent on finding a cheaper way to get his cotton to the Charleston marketplace, and if he had to use his daughter’s beauty to advance his scheme, he was not averse to that device.
Whatever the truth of this tale, Alfred and Sara wed in 1834, and the town of Aiken was chartered in 1835. The Williams homestead, originally a two-story, wood-frame farmhouse, was eventually purchased by Pennsylvania industrialist John W. Converse in the 1920s and substantially renovated in a Colonial Revival style. Renamed “Chinaberry,” the house, with some of its 19th-century elements still intact, stands today on York Street just south of Ray Lane.
Thus, the Williams Cemetery Plot has links to a time before the founding of the city. Along with Coker Springs – another site that has been the focus of refurbishment by the Historic Aiken Foundation – the plot is one of the few landmarks surviving from that period.
Today’s visitor will find in the cemetery many individual graves of the W.W. Williams’ family and their descendants. There is an especially impressive marker – a large vertical slab with a rounded top – commemorating Williams himself (he died in 1845), his wife, and five of his children. Inscribed in the stone is the following text: “Calmly he heard the solemn call/Which bade him life resign/Gladly he gave up friends and all/To meet his Lord divine/Time and its joys its dying breath/Did cheerfully release/‘Soon,’ cried he, as he welcomed death/‘All with me will be well.’”
Also of interest is a grave in the back right corner of the site, facing Magnolia Street. Here a wrought-iron fence surrounds the final resting place of B.M. Burckhalter, who died in 1873. According to Clary, it is generally thought that Burckhalter served as a drummer boy during the War Between the States. Two large seashells have been placed on his grave; there is a folk belief that such shells symbolize repositories of the soul.
For more information on the important work of the Historic Aiken Foundation, you can visit the organization on the web at www.historicaikenfoundation.org.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack currently holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. His latest book “Hidden History of Aiken County” (Charleston, SC and London, UK: The History Press) is available online and at local retail outlets.