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Explore Aiken's History in Its Many Museums

Bob Gillespie Bob Gillespie
Bob is a former sports writer at Columbia’s The State newspaper. He enjoys golf at South Carolina’s 350-plus courses, and after a round, sampling craft beers from the Palmetto State’s breweries.
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For a relatively small community, Aiken offers a plethora of museums covering a variety of local historic subjects and moments, from the town’s links to horse racing to the nuclear industry that has been such a big part of post-World War II South Carolina. And for those appreciative of the arts, a trio of venues offer both visual and theatrical presentations.

To get an overview of the town’s history, start at the Aiken County Historical Museum, housed in the 1930s Winter Colony mansion known as “Banksia.” Along with the historic home, the museum property features an 1890s one-room schoolhouse and a log cabin built in 1808. Operated by the Aiken County Historical Commission and open six days a week, the museum collects and displays materials recounting the county’s long history. Admission is free.

Nationally and even internationally, Aiken is perhaps best known for its ties to thoroughbred horse racing, with 40 champion thoroughbreds having trained at the Aiken Training Track. The Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum, located in an old carriage house, showcases both flat racers and steeplechase horses dating from 1942, with photos, trophies and other memorabilia. The museum and hall of fame are free to visit six days a week.

Also part of Aiken’s history are the trains that brought wealthy horse owners and fans from the Northeast starting before the Great Depression. The Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum serves dual purposes, with the visitors center downstairs, offering maps, brochures and event information, and the Train Museum upstairs, featuring nine dioramas of towns located along the original S.C. Canal and Railroad Company right-of-way and the U.S.'s first steam-powered commercial railroad. Model train fans will delight in the HO-scale displays, with interactive exhibits chronicling railroad history.

To learn about Aiken’s antebellum history, visit Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site, the 1859 home of James Henry Hammond and his descendants, as well as African American slaves who worked on the plantation and remained on the property after being freed. The mansion, slave quarters and a lane of magnolia trees (planted in 1861) reveal the area’s history before and immediately after the Civil War.

Two other educational attractions are the Dupont Planetarium and Savannah River Site Museum. Located on the campus of the University of South Carolina-Aiken, the planetarium offers programs for the public and features several telescopes, including the Bechtel Telescope in the RSPEC Observatory, plus a tilted aluminum dome and projection system with seating for 45.

The Savannah River Site Museum, closed until late 2019 for renovations, will reopen with new exhibits from the U.S. Department of Energy, recounting our achievements in nuclear weapons and energy, as well as the displacement of residents when the Savannah River Plant opened in the early 1950s during the Cold War.

A vibrant local arts scene is anchored by the Aiken Center for the Arts, Aiken Community Theatre and Etherredge Center for the Fine & Performing Arts.

Founded in 1972, the Center for the Arts offers outreach and awareness programs for children and adults, with competitions, lectures and instruction. International artists are exhibited, but the emphasis is on local and regional talent, with original works for sale in the Gallery Store.

The Community Theatre offers well-known shows, ranging from classics like “Of Mice and Men” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” to more contemporary shows, including Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “A Christmas Story.”

Etherredge Center, also located on the USC-Aiken campus, presents performing artists and concerts by the Aiken Symphony Orchestra.

Whatever your taste in museums and the arts, Aiken likely has any number of options you're sure to enjoy.

Bob Gillespie
Bob is a former sports writer at Columbia’s The State newspaper. He enjoys golf at South Carolina’s 350-plus courses, and after a round, sampling craft beers from the Palmetto State’s breweries.