Another beautiful day here at Oconee State Park. Cool mountain air, with cotton ball clouds scattered across a Carolina blue sky. Up early this morning, fortunately. After a couple of hours writing, off to Walhalla, Oconee County’s county seat, to visit the Oconee Heritage Center.
Highways 107 and 28 snake down the mountain, past the Stump House Tunnel, with sudden long-distance views out across the mountains. On the way to reliable cell phone service, WiFi, and lunch in Walhalla.
The Oconee Heritage Center isn’t easy to find without a map. Well, even with a map! At least, it wasn’t for me. Follow the directions carefully, though, and you’ll arrive at this building. You’ll see the sign above the entrance. But that’s only once you’ve found the building.
The structure was built originally as a tobacco warehouse, I heard. Since then it has gone through several lives. Including even a period as an automobile dealership. It has a full basement, now used to store that part of the museum’s enormous collection that isn’t on display. Who would guess a building like this would house such an interesting collection of Oconee County artifacts!
Center Director and Curator Leslie White kindly agreed to chat for a while about her organization. As you’ll learn during the interview, she’s busier than a one-armed paperhanger here. With what for me would be overwhelming responsibilities.
Well, that personal background and her undergraduate and graduate degrees in journalism and public history have prepared her to tackle the job. Listen here as Ms. White describes the diversity of her responsibilities. Everything from washing bottles to non-profit fundraising. Not everyone would succeed here.
Ms. White was far more eager to discuss the Center and its program than she was to talk about herself. So at this point we shifted in that direction. It all began in 1999. Hardly a spur-of-the-moment project. It was then public-minded Oconee citizens decided to create an institution that would focus on the culture and history of Oconee County.
But that’s more easily said than done. The road to – well, many places – is paved with good intentions. After refining their general concept, they needed a building. A large building! With lots of open space. A dilapidated 1892 tobacco warehouse, then owned by the County, had possibilities. It had been through several identity changes since the 1890s, even serving as an automobile dealership at one point.
But the Center’s founders looked beyond the neglect and decay to see what we have today. Both the inside and outside were completely renovated, and brought up to the standards required of a public building.
In addition to the museum collection [more on that later] the Oconee Heritage Center sponsors an impressive number of activities for the surrounding community. Everything from American Girls Club meetings, to old time music, to movie nights. Programs that appeal broadly to Oconee County residents young and old. Check the Center’s website for programs and times at www.OconeeHeritageCenter.org.
These programs are open to the public free of charge. But non-profit organizations can’t survive on community good will alone. Somebody has to pass the collection plate, so to speak. Raise funds. That responsibility falls on Ms. White and her board of directors. The annual fundraiser gala helps. As do individual donations and constant grant-writing.
I then asked about the Heritage Center’s visitors. Ms. White said people come from all over. Even from other countries. But the majority of the visitors come from the Carolinas, South and North, Georgia, even Tennessee. And, of course, from Oconee County itself. The Center sponsors a number of programs for school children. South Carolina’s schools emphasize South Carolina history in the third and eighth grades. So that’s a natural fit. In addition, the Center has become a prized destination for the field trips of all grades.
The Oconee Heritage Center houses an enormous and diverse collection of Oconee-related material. Everything from period clothing to farm tools and horse collars. As you see above in just one small section of the mezzanine that encircles the whole main floor. If you are a serious museum visitor be prepared to spend several hours in this building. Thank heaven it’s well air conditioned!
The Center relies for its collection entirely on community donations. The things Oconee County residents bring in. No purchases. That’s unnecessary, given the strong community interest and involvement in the Center’s program. Listen here to Ms. White describe the collection and how it’s managed.
Here Ms. White describes two of the museum’s most impressive exhibits: wooden dugout canoes dating from the mid-18th century. The first was found submerged in the Chattooga River in 2002. By a kayaker, no less. Quite by accident.
Then in 2008, boys swimming in the Keowee River came upon a second carved wooden log that reminded them of the earlier Chattooga River find. Fortunately, the boys and their parents kept their find under water and notified authorities. Both canoes have been carefully preserved in tanks of water that you see here, and then, I believe, polyethylene glycol, by the Center staff and volunteers. Quite something to see.
I then asked Ms. White about the Center’s plans for the future. She has a most ambitious agenda. Made me tired just listening! Everything from a general store museum in nearby Westminster that will house the collection from England’s General Store, to restoration of the 1870 Center Methodist Church in Oakway that will be used to interpret Oconee’s religious history.
Oh, and a newspaper museum housed in the nearby Keowee Courier Building. The weekly Keowee Courier has published continuously since 1849. Not a bad run! Listen to Ms. White’s description of these projects with a click on the button above.
Oh, when you visit the Oconee Heritage Center in Walhalla, be sure to take time before going in to look over the “Manly Portable Convict Cage” displayed outside. This portable jail was used to house up to eighteen prisoners during their days of work in the more remote areas of the County.
The portable jail shares space in the Center’s Heritage Park with an enormous steam engine, both accessible down a long walkway paved with memorial bricks honoring the Center’s donors. Another excellent fundraising activity.
In closing, I asked Ms. White about the relative lack of historical material on Oconee County. And on the other Upstate counties, for that matter. Her response was interesting. It’s encouraging to learn that the Oconee Heritage Center is determined to fill that gap.
Thanks again to Ms. Leslie White, Director and Curator of the Oconee Heritage Center in Walhalla, South Carolina. What an impressive institution! I look forward to a return visit some time later in the year.