It all started in the years after the Civil War. Aiken, situated in a slightly elevated plain just across the Savannah River from the railroad stop in Augusta, Georgia, was an ideal location for wealthy Northerners to bring their pastimes while they took in the “pine vapors” for their health.
“They probably left before spring,” says Brenda Baratto, executive director of the Aiken County Historical Museum.
Aiken’s start as the Winter Colony for the idle rich came when Celestine Eustis brought her recently orphaned niece, Louise, to the area for her health.
“Prior to the Civil War, folks from the coast would come inland because malaria was a big threat and nobody quite knew how malaria was spread,” Baratto says. “They thought if they got away from that oppressive humid climate that it would be better.”
According to Baratto, it was also important for Celestine to make sure her niece stayed within society. So she would also take her to New York and this is where Louise her niece met sportsman Thomas Hitchcock Sr.
“They fell in love, they got married, but Louise still wanted to come down to Aiken,” Baratto says. “It was a part of her childhood. She had very fond memories of it, and she attributed her health to her stays here.
“Tommy Hitchcock was an avid sportsman, loved horses and had such a family fortune that he can afford to indulge himself in these pastimes. And he came down and discovered that the soil and the climate are perfect for this.”
A Good Idea Spreads
Hitchcock wasn’t one to keep his newfound home a secret, and soon others started coming South too.
“And what do we all do when we get a good idea? We like to share it with our friends,” Baratto says. “And he told a lot of other people, including William Whitney, who was also very much involved with horses and, thus, the beginnings of the Winter Colony and the people coming down who had the money and the means to bring their pastimes with them. And they kept coming and they kept coming.”
Whitney bought a former boarding house from Celestine Eustis and remade it into Joye Cottage in 1897.
One New York Society columnist wrote of Whitney: “He made it possible to live there because sometimes it was most uncomfortable, without the modern conveniences.”
Joye Cottage, a large Georgian Revival residence with four radiating wings, became quite the testament to wealth and conspicuous consumption.
The property, which was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, includes the main house, the one-and-a-half-story stable and the two-story squash court — an early example of the Prairie style in South Carolina. Other outbuildings include a greenhouse, a laundry house and two small one-story frame cottages.
But Whitney’s property wasn’t the only thing upgraded. The influx of other wealthy people accustomed to the finer things in life meant Aiken needed to upgrade its offerings.
“William Whitney developed polo fields and training tracks and other farsighted people say, ‘Well, if we’re going to do this, we need that,’ and all of a sudden it becomes a flourishing area,” Baratto says. “These were just things, the amenities you needed to have.
“They needed to have that infrastructure, not for an industry the way people see it now, they just thought there were things they needed to have — their amenities.
If they were going to bring their horses, they needed the tracks, the polo fields with which to play their sports.”
Racing Takes Hold
The Great Depression took its toll on some of the vast fortunes that were represented by members of the Winter Colony, but the area’s reputation survived, and tracks for training racehorses were added.
“It just evolved,” Baratto says. “Florida had not yet opened up, so you had these wonderful resorts in Augusta, Georgia, North Augusta, South Carolina, in Aiken, Jekyll Island, Georgia.
“Because Florida had not yet been developed, the train did not go down that far.”
Visitors to the area included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Teddy Roosevelt among others, and now Hitchcock is known as the father of American steeplechase horse racing.
Steeplechases are held throughout the year in Aiken, Camden and Charleston. Whitney’s polo fields host weekly matches during the spring and fall. Hitchcock Woods, which was the grounds of Thomas and Louise Hitchcock’s home, hosts annual horse rides and is open to riders all year long.
Each spring and fall feature big races and polo seasons, with thousands of people attending matches and events, regardless of their social standing. Aiken remains a training ground for world-class racehorses, including Palace Malice, the 2013 Belmont Stakes winner that was trained at Aiken’s Dogwood Stable.
Even if today’s visitors are not captains of industry, Aiken retains many close ties to its glamorous past. The Aiken County Historical Museum is even located in a Winter Colony “cottage” known as Banksia.
“These were people who had the best of everything at their fingertips,” Baratto says. “We still have many descendants of Winter Colony people who live here full time or at least part of the year.”