Happyville: Aiken’s forgotten Jewish settlement

  • Posted: Saturday, June 29, 2013 12:12 a.m.
    UPDATED: Saturday, June 29, 2013 12:18 a.m.

The residents of Happyville, a Jewish-immigrant farming community founded near Montmorenci in 1905, were apparently no longer happy by 1907.

The community was in debt; the revenue anticipated from its ginnery and saw mill was just not there; and a spate of bad weather had destroyed their fledgling crops.

By 1908, Happyville had ceased to exist, and, today, many people living in Aiken County have never heard of the community into which dozens of Jews poured their hopes and dreams.

When Marcia Savin visited Aiken in 2003 to investigate her family’s involvement in Happyville, she found very few people who knew of the defunct community.

“Nobody knew about it. It was like Brigadoon or something,” she said.

Foreign-born farmers

Though long over by the early 1900s, the Civil War’s lingering effects were still felt in the South. The Reconstruction Era, during which the Southern states tried to rebuild and restructure after the war, had passed. Yet there was still very little in terms of industry in Aiken County, save for William Gregg’s mill in Graniteville, according to Doris Baumgarten.

Baumgarten, an Aiken County Historical Museum docent and Happyville researcher, said land was lying fallow, and the state Department of Agriculture was “desperate” to bring in people to work. So the state legislature created an immigration bureau to attract foreign-born farmers with the goal to “establish a colony of desirable Russians to farm in South Carolina,” wrote Arnold Shankman in “Happyville, the Forgotten Colony.”

“The state of South Carolina printed brochures in many different languages promising a land of milk and honey,” Baumgarten said.

Brochures, translated into Yiddish, reached the Russian Empire where Jews were suffering under tsarist oppression. Anti-Jewish laws prevented them from owning land, and restricted their travel and participation in elections. Their homes were destroyed, their families forced into poverty and quotas placed on their entry into secondary and higher education.

One such brochure, which Baumgarten has a copy of, promoted South Carolina as a state that is “favorable to agriculture and pleasant to reside in,” and it may have seemed like the answer to their prayers. The brochures also promised free education for their children, tools and land and the best markets for a farmer’s products.

“They had this dream of clean air and good food to eat. That’s why they called it Happyville,” Savin said.

Savin currently lives in New York, but her grandparents at one time lived in Happyville.

The birth of Happyville

E.J. Watson, a newspaperman out of Columbia, was selected to head the immigration bureau. He invited Charles Weintraub, an immigrant and acquaintance, to view a 2,200-acre tract in the Montmorenci area owned by M.M. Coward, according to Shankman. The land was known as the Sheffield Phelps Plantation and was being used as a hunting preserve.

On Oct. 3, 1905, Weintraub and several colleagues purchased the land, some livestock, equipment and buildings on the plantation for $6,500.

In December, Weintraub and 10 families of immigrants arrived. In January the following year, 15 additional immigrants arrived.

“Almost before they unpacked the colonists had to make preparations for a first crop. This was no easy task, for the cleared land was sandy, hilly and unterraced. Hoping to take full advantage of the water power of the creek, they made plans to purchase equipment for a grist mill, saw mill and cotton gin,” Shankman wrote in his paper.

The agricultural production side of Happyville was incorporated as the Incorporated Farming Association with Weintraub as president.

“The manner in which these people went to work was a wonder,” according to an article published in Charleston’s News and Courier and reprinted in a 1906 edition of “Reports and Resolutions of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina.” “They all worked side by side; officers and men alike ‘pulled their coats’ and went to work with a heartiness that was the admiration of all who observed their operations. As a result the bleak hillsides and sandy lands were soon transformed into clean and well cultivated fields.”

Open for business

In addition to planting crops, the Jewish immigrants harvested the land’s timber and dammed the creek to power its ginnery.

In August 1907, the Incorporated Farming Association advertised in Aiken’s Journal and Review that its ginnery is “now prepared to do work ... We solicit your patronage and will guarantee prompt work. Our ginnery is operated by water power, which is well known to be superior to steam.” Also, the Incorporated Farming Association advertised that its saw mill “would be pleased to receive orders for lumber.”

“First of all, they weren’t even farmers,” Savin said. “I am amazed they built the saw mill and ginnery. I am amazed they had any success at all.”

Lack of knowledge and experience weren’t the immigrants’ only hindrances.

In the first year, the weather was far from ideal and much of their crop was destroyed. Heavy rains washed out the dam.

“This experience only served, however, to redouble their dauntless efforts and ere long the hillsides were terraced, and hill and dale soon began to show that there existed gray matter in the heads of the colonists and that it was being put to use,” stated the report to the S.C. General Assembly.

Shankman wrote in his paper that the weather in 1907 was better and farmers predicted above-average crops.

Weintraub told The State newspaper in August 1907 that Happyville had been inspected by an agent of the department of commerce and labor “and for business acumen and success was said to be the best in the country for its size.”

At its height, approximately 50 immigrants lived in Happyville.

The S.C. General Assembly report stated that in Happyville’s heydey, “ ... there exists brotherhood, and that which all the world is clamoring for – happiness ...”

A success or failure?

By mid-1908, Happyville was over.

Savin and Shankman both wrote that many problems contributed to Happyville’s demise: more bad weather, heavy debt, lack of farming knowledge, internal dissension and a lack of patronage for the ginney and saw mill. Finances, above all else, appeared to be Happyville’s most persistent problem.

To build their ginnery and saw mill, residents had encumbered themselves with several large debts, according to Shankman, and relatively few farmers had been patronizing them to generate much-needed revenue.

“It was plain to the colonists that Happyville could not, in economic terms, survive another year without getting further into debt,” Shankman wrote. “Therefore Happyville’s residents decided to turn over their property to the creditors. On May 4th they auctioned off some of their equipment and livestock and made arrangements with their lawyer, Julian B. Salley, to sell their farmland at a later date.”

By the time the Happyville land was sold, the immigrants had left Aiken County.

No trace of Happyville exists today in the Montmorenci area.

“What is surprising is not that Happyville failed, but rather that it was able to last for more than two years,” Shankman wrote.

Baumgarten agrees. Happyville is not a failure in her mind, but a success.

“Most people call it a failure ... I call it a success because they (the immigrants) were untrained yet they opened up a mill and ginnery,” she said. “It is truly remarkable that these unskilled people had sufficient supplies and were able to open mills to people.”


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