by Jason Barnette
Leaving the interstate highway behind, I quickly found myself on a two-lane road trip adventure rolling through peach farms in the South Carolina countryside. The sun beamed through the sprawl of massive oak trees, playing a pattern of light and shadow across the windshield of my rental car. Soon enough I discovered the town square at the heart of the charming town of Edgefield. It would not be the last town square or charming town I would discover on this road trip. My adventure through South Carolina’s Old 96 District was just beginning.
Brief History of the Old 96 District
Nobody really knows where the name for the district originated. There are theories and legends about local Native Americans falling in love with European settlers and a cartographer making an interesting notation. I feel like the unsolved mystery just adds another layer of intrigue to this undiscovered region of the Palmetto State.
In 1769, over a hundred years after King Charles II signed a charger creating the Province of Carolina, the South Carolina colony established seven districts for administering law and voting. One of those original districts was named Ninety Six.
About thirty years later the districts were abandoned in favor of smaller counties. The Ninety Six District was divided into the present-day counties of Abbeville, Edgefield, Greenwood, Laurens, and McCormick. Today the Old 96 District Tourism Commission, based in Laurens, promotes tourism to the five-county area.
To start off our road trip, we leave the interstate highway behind as you begin the 169-mile road trip across the Old 96 District. Edgefield makes a wonderful introduction to the charm and people of the district. A half day here is in order before rolling down the road into McCormick to explore the small shopping district. Spend the night at Hickory Knob State Resort Park, the only state park in South Carolina with a lodge.
The National Wild Turkey Federation is always the first stop I recommend in Edgefield. It’s quirky but so much fun to explore the large museum to learn about wild turkeys, the federation’s mission, and a bit of local history. Next head over to the Palmetto Shooting Complex, operated by the NWTF, for a round of skeet or sporting clays shooting. First time shooters are treated to a free lesson to guarantee a fun time.
After you’re finished shooting, or perhaps as an alternative, head into downtown Edgefield. Only local traffic uses the streets surrounding the lush green square in the middle of town, leaving downtown in a sort of country stillness.
Begin the exploration at the D.A. Tomkins Library, the defacto visitor center for the town, where you’ll find genealogical records and tourism brochures. Head down the narrow alley to the Old Edgefield Pottery where you’ll likely find master potter Justin Guy working on his next beautiful creation.*
A local treat involves a two-step process. Head over to August & House to browse through their local arts and crafts. Browse the homemade ice cream selection and choose one or two scoops to go. Take the cup of ice cream across the square to Carolina Moon Distillery and ask which sample of their distilled spirits goes best with the ice cream you chose. It’s a wonderful adult treat!
Where to eat: When you walk up to the Old Edgefield Grill you might wonder if you’re in the wrong place. The covered wrap around porch on the 1906 Queen Victorian home disguises the wonderful restaurant inside. Cozy up to a table for some fine southern cuisine like their Shrimp N Grits.
Don’t miss: Go for a short walk along the 0.9-mile Ten Governor’s Rail Trail at Slade Lake. Each tenth of a mile is marked with a granite stone etched with information about the town’s ten residents who served as a governor of South Carolina.
Detour: Thurmond Lake Visitor Center
Leave the town square behind along SC Highway 23 to a dead end at SC Highway 28 in the small community of Modoc. For an interesting detour turn left and drive about twenty minutes to the Thurmond Lake Visitor Center.
When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the concrete dam across the Savannah River in 1953 it created a 70,000-acre reservoir. The dam was initially named after American Revolutionary War hero Elijah Clark, but it 1988 it was renamed the J. Strom Thurmond Dam after the Edgefield native and U.S. Senator.
Inside the visitor center tour exhibits about life on the Savannah River and mission of the Corps of Engineers. Step outside for a nice overlook above the dam and lake. Across the road from the visitor center drive down to the bottom of the dam for a secluded recreation area including a fishing pier and picnic tables.
Be careful crossing the railroad tracks that bisect this small town or you just might become trapped on the opposite side from your car when a CSX train slowly pulls through! But even if the worst happens there are lots of things to do on either side of the tracks in this small southern town.
Start at the Visitor Center at the corner of South Main and Gold Streets. Head up the street to Strom’s Pharmacy and get a milkshake made with antique Hamilton Beach machines. Pop inside Red Rooster Antiques for a quick browse, then head across Gold Street to browse the used books at Books on Main.
On the other side of the tracks pay a visit to the McCormick Arts Council at the Keturah. Locally called the MACK, the local arts council is located inside an old house. Browse the local arts and crafts in the small giftshop and take a loop through the exhibition galleries.
Where to eat: The owner at Michelle’s Restaurant grew up making pizza in New Jersey so she knows a thing or two about making a great pizza pie. You can dine inside the cozy restaurant or take the pizza to go to find a table with a view.
Don’t miss: Be sure to visit the Historic Dorn Mill just minutes from downtown. Take a tour through the old mill facility to see the original boilers made in Augusta and lots of the original machinery still in place.
Hickory Knob State Resort Park
With all the amenities and lodging options, this waterfront state park is one of the best overnight stays in South Carolina. The 70-room lodge, the only lodge located in a South Carolina state park, is in the middle of a multi-year renovation that includes updated furnishings and bedding. Traveling with your RV? Several of the campsites are waterfront with stunning views of the peaceful lake.
The biggest day trip attraction to the park is the 18-hole golf course. Designed by Tom Jackson the course includes several sand and water traps, tricky elevation changes, and gorgeous views of Lake Thurmond from almost every green. Across the park road from the golf course is the skeet shooting range and archery range. Lessons are included in the price to rent the equipment, but if you travel with your own archery gear you can shoot for free.
My favorite evening at the park began with sunset across a cove on the lake at the boat dock. I had the place to myself as the light faded from the sky and crickets sang a country chorus. I eventually convinced myself food was in order and headed over to the full-service restaurant at the park office. I had a choice of all-you-can-eat buffet or menu items; the bite sized cheeseburger sliders and crisp onion rings were perfect.
Don’t miss: The Guillebeau House is an historic log home built in several phases from the late 1700s until the mid 1800s. In 1983 the house was moved to its current location inside Hickory Knob State Resort Park and renovated as a rental cabin! The one-bedroom house includes climate control, a modern kitchen, and all the amenities to make you feel at home.
Time to say goodbye to the freshwater coast as you head “inland” to explore the town square in Abbeville, the next stop on our road trip. This short day of driving ends in Greenwood, the “big city” of the Old 96 District, for shopping, diner, and fun.
“Welcome to Historic Abbeville, South Carolina.” The wooden sign at either end of the elongated town square foreshadows the friendliness and history of the small town. Traffic moves slowly along the brick streets, filling the air with the comfortable sound of rubber tires on worn bricks.
The two-story buildings surrounding the square are occupied by a local business of one kind or another. Urban 2 Country is an interesting place to begin an afternoon of shopping; the owner searches the world for the best arts and crafts, cooking accessories, and clothing to fill his small shop. Take a stroll along the wide sidewalks to Crate and Quill Vintage Market for antiques and unique gift ideas.
The historic Abbeville Opera House opened in 1908 and to this day still offers a variety of shows throughout the year. The front offices have been converted into a municipal complex for the town. The historic theater in the back was recently renovated with over 200 seats on the ground level and another 100 on the balcony.
Where to eat: The Village Grill is located down a side alley from the town square within easy walking distance. The enormous menu includes appetizers, burgers, sandwiches, pasta, and entrees cooked with a lot of local ingredients.
Don’t miss: Take a casual tour of the Burt-Stark Mansion at the edge of town. In this home Confederate President Jefferson David met with his cabinet members and generals and made the fateful decision to surrender, bringing an end to the Civil War.
When Uptown Greenwood was original designed it boasted the world’s widest main street measuring more than 300’ wide with railroad tracks through the middle. The tracks and multiple lanes of highway have been replaced with an avenue of trees, wide sidewalks, and easy parking. Today the “big city” of the Old 96 District is a wonderful place to stop and spend a night.
As you roll into town make a stop at the Visitor Center located inside the Arts Center of Greenwood. Get an introduction to the history of the city at the Greenwood Museum next door or head to the other end of town to explore the expansive collection of railroad and electric street cars at the Railroad Historical Center. Pay a visit to the Dr. Benjamin Mays Historic Site to learn about the local civil rights activist while exploring his childhood home, a one-room schoolhouse, and small museum.
Ready for some shopping? Greenwood’s shopping district features several local retail shops along Main Street and Maxwell Street leading to the weekly farmers’ market. Main & Maxwell has a vast collection of local arts and crafts inside a beautifully restored historic building. David Lindsey Clothier is the perfect place to find men’s and women’s clothing and outdoor accessories while Sweet Teas Children’s Boutique has clothing for the little ones.
When you get around to acknowledging that grumble in your tummy head over to Kickers Takeout for a local spin on Cajun food or make a stop at The Mill House for delicious brick oven pizza. If you have a hankering for barbecue, try Fat Daddy’s BBQ. The red and white checkered tabletops, hardwood floors, and country décor will make your meal feel like a family picnic.
Where to stay: Inn on the Square is a locally owned boutique hotel within walking distance of shopping, dining, and entertainment in Uptown Greenwood. The cavernous lobby and trickling indoor water fountain welcome visitors into the cozy hotel. Book a room in the main building or choose one of the suites in a separate building with private patios.
Don’t miss: The first full weekend of each June marks the beginning of the annual South Carolina Festival of Flowers. Local businesses and organizations compete for a top prize with custom designed topiaries as events fill the streets for days. To time your road trip with local festivals and events, check out the Old 96 District calendar.
With the final day of this epic road trip discovery the history of the American Revolutionary War with two historic sites while exploring the town square in Laurens along the way.
What better way to start a day than surrounded by peacocks and sheep? Emerald Farm is one of the best hidden gems in the Old 96 District. Explore the massive model train set with working locomotives, then head out on a train excursion through the farm in custom built cars pulled by a tractor. Browse through the antique shop or giftshop where you’ll find homemade goats milk soap.
Ninety Six National Historic Site
Star Fort, built in 1781 and one of the best remaining examples of an 18th century earthen fort, is the “star” of the show at Ninety Six National Historic Site. The one-mile paved interpretive trail expounds on the history of the American Revolutionary War, the small town of Ninety Six that once stood on the park’s property, and details the fascinating story of how underground tunnels were dug near the fort.
Begin the adventure at the Visitors Center with a short introduction film and browse the vast collection of books on local history. The trail takes about thirty minutes to casually walk and a bit more if you delve into the history.
Don’t miss: About a quarter mile from the visitor center is the Observation Tower overlooking the Star Fort. The one-story tower provides a great vantage point for understanding the battlefield and making out the outline of the earthen fort.
Trees line the streets of the Laurens town square, anchored in the middle by the county courthouse and surrounded by local businesses. While US Highway 221 takes all the primary traffic just a block away the town square remains a pocket of peacefulness.
The Artist Co-Op is a great place to start because of all the beautiful artwork from local artisans. Down the block is a charming coffee shop called The Coffee Roost. Continue shopping at the Uptown Collection and Antiques on the Square, both guaranteed to surprise you. Just around the corner is the locally owned Main Street Bake Shoppe, a small restaurant that makes a mean bowl of soup.
Want to know the best place in town to take a break from all the road trip driving? The Capitol Theatre was built in 1926 and played motion pictures for nearly forty years. After being closed for the next forty years it was sold, renovated, and reopened. Today the modern theater puts on live performances and plays feature films.
The Battle of Musgrove Mill State Historic Site
In 1780 a tense battle was fought along the Enoree River between Patriots and British regulars during the Revolutionary War. The Battle of Musgrove Mill State Historic Site is located adjacent to that old battle site on the grounds of the former mill.
Start your exploration at the Visitor Center with an interactive 3D map retelling the story of the battle, a large giftshop with books on local history, and a covered wrap around porch to escape the summer sun.
Head out on the 1-mile British Camp Trail to find the ruins of the Musgrove house, see where the British camped before the battle, and see the site of former grist mill along the Enoree River. Drive across the river to enjoy the 1.3-mile Battlefield Trail through an open field where the battle took place. A 0.1-mile accessible trail leads from the parking lot to Horseshoe Falls.
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Jason Barnette knew at age 12 when his mother bought him a typewriter he would love writing stories. His first story was about Star Trek and he has been writing ever since then. He enjoys crafting a story with details and intrigue that inspire people to visit a destination. He sprinkles in a bit of history, adds a list of things to do, and gives the reader an amazing experience. Road Trips & Coffee is his main avenue for sharing his thoughts. #GoForaDrive is his handle!
*Updated 9/27/2022: Justin has recently shut down the Old Edgefield Pottery studio inside of Edgefield’s City limits and is focusing on his “country studio” that is located near Bettis Academy. The studio will be open periodically throughout the year for openings and events so if you would like more information on these you can check out his page on Facebook or at www.oldesgefieldpottery.com Justin notes that they are still in the transition stages currently and plans to have more capability to do online sales and open studio events closer to Christmas. Justin can also be reached by email at guypottery@com.