Aiken is rightly famous for its lush gardens and fast horses, but did you ever wonder how those thoroughbred horses and hundreds of rare camellias ended up in a sleepy little southern town? Here are 10 fun facts visitors to one of South Carolina's most beautiful towns might not know.
1. While most famous today as the winter home of late 19th century equestrians, Aiken wasn’t originally built to be a Winter Colony for the rich. It was actually a railroad town in 1835, built as the conclusion of the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Companies’ line from Charleston to the Savannah River.
2. The rail line, which ended right in downtown Aiken, carried the very first steam-powered passenger train in the U.S. It was the longest train line in the country when it was built.
3. Railroad tracks once ran down the middle of the street in Aiken, but they have since been replaced with lush parks. Aiken’s downtown is crisscrossed with a unique web of one-way streets, squares and circles with fountains in the middle of them. It makes the downtown area wildly charming and beautiful, but also challenging to drive through for first-time visitors. It can be confusing to see drivers making left turns on red lights, or even going straight through the red light. The local mnemonic is “Circles go, squares no.” But when in doubt, just wait on a green light. You’ll catch on soon enough.
4. Even though Aiken was founded a century and a half after the first city in South Carolina (that would be Charleston, of course), it boasts the oldest farmer’s market in the state: the Aiken County Farmers Market is held on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
5. Horse racing isn’t the only game in town. While Aiken might be most famous for its thoroughbred races, polo and steeplechases, there are other animal athletes to cheer for. Every spring, The Great American Lobster Race takes over downtown, with crustaceans racing for glory during the family-friendly festival.
6. Hope Goddard Iselin, one of the most important members of the Winter Colony and a wealthy socialite, was the owner of Hopelands. Despite her wealth and army of gardeners, it’s believed that she planted some the trees and flowers (including beautiful camellias) at Hopelands herself.
7. A respectable Aiken “cottage” of the Winter Colony days had at least 22 rooms.
8. Joye in Aiken, founded in 2008 as Juilliard in Aiken, brings world class musicians, actors, dancers and teachers from the Juilliard School in New York to Aiken every summer. The program is housed in the massive Joye Cottage.
10. Horse racing, polo and steeplechase aren’t the only sports Aiken is famous for—it’s also the birthplace of beloved former NFL star William “Refrigerator” Perry.