Something’s Up With Edgefield – Edgefield, South Carolina

“Are you making all this fuss over me?”

Strom Thurmond

While traveling on business through South Carolina on State Route 19 from Aiken up through Edgefield I came upon a place that was totally unexpected. Each day I would drive through the town on State Route 25 which passes through the town square which reminds me of a cross between the town featured in the movie “Doc Hollywood” and the square in the Spielberg film “Back to the Future” where Marty has to somehow generate 1.2 Jigawatts of energy and channel it into the “Flux Capacitor” so he can get back home.

There were several monuments in the town square and a stately old Courthouse on the North West corner. I kept telling myself that I was going to stop and read what was inscribed on those monuments one day after work. I finally got my chance on the last day that I was there and I discovered a community unlike any other that I have ever visited. I discovered a town where exploration, industry, war, agriculture, slavery, bigotry and feudal honor had been swirling in a vortex seemingly since the founding of the town back in the late 1700’s.

Thinking it would be a short and simple stop on my way back to Aiken after a long week of work, I parked my vehicle at the town square, grabbed my camera and went to quickly read the inscriptions on the monuments. My first stop was the Egyptian type obelisk located in the center of the square. Apparently it was dedicated to the incredible sacrifice the men of the community made during the Civil War.

Another granite marker told of 10 South Carolina Governors that the Edgefield area produced. It struck me as very odd that a tiny town like this could have projected such an influence on the rest of the State by sending so many of its men to the Governor’s mansion. The lawns of this beautiful little town square were so green, trim and neat it seemed as if the greens keeper from Augusta was attending to the details himself.

I walked from the granite “Governor’s” marker over to a bronze statue of a man facing the Courthouse. This statue was of the most famous and influential Governor and State Senator ever to come out of South Carolina – Strom Thurmond. I was now very interested as this little park held some serious significance.

The next stop was the courthouse. Atop the triumphant marble steps of this imposing old structure with white doric columns you have a fine view of the entire town square. I stopped a moment to observe, photograph and appreciate a scene of the south that to me was so foreign, being a westerner and all.

I descended the steps and noticed that there were some historical plaques on the side of the building. One in particular caught my eye and it was an ornate plaque placed in 1919 dedicated to the memory of the men from Edgefield who gave their lives in the First World War. It was very odd to see the names broken down into two categories – white men and colored men. It was a stark reminder of the tangled web of the politics and bigotry of slavery and continued animosity after the great war between the States that is still apparent just beneath the surface in so many parts of the south.

I walked through the portico under the courthouse steps and read a plaque about how a shooting occurred on that very spot taking the life of a man named Bird due to a dispute between locals. Apparently, a man’s name and honor was a huge thing back in the day in Edgefield and if you impugned a man’s honor or reputation, the Code Duello, a set of rules for a duel, would be initiated and you would shoot it out in the street.

The next plaque was quite disturbing as it told the tale of one “Becky Cotton- The Devil in Petticoats” 1765-1807, a beautiful seductress who murdered her husband in a brutal fashion by burying an axe in his head while he slept. According to legend, the all male jury in her trial was so taken with her charm and beauty that they acquitted her even though they had no doubt she committed the crime. Some say she went on to marry twice more and that she killed both of those husbands as well and threw their bodies in Slade Lake.

She was finally killed by her own brother after she was once again acquitted by the jury. The plaque on the courthouse states that the “Devil in Petticoats” was killed by her brother, who was disgusted by her behavior – he crushed her skull with a rock on the courthouse steps and then made his escape on a horse and rode west.

Very creepy yet interesting tale. Later in the day I explored Slade Lake and followed the “10 Governors Trail” which is a paved path from Slade Lake to Main Street that follows the old rail road grade and crosses Highway 25 on an old train trestle. This is a beautiful trail that has a granite marker every tenth of a mile – on these markers you will find information about all 10 Governors who came from the Edgefield area.

As I walked by Slade Lake in the waning golden light of late afternoon I thought of Becky Cotton. I looked down into the murky water and wondered if Becky actually did throw her husband’s corpses in there and if there are such things as ghosts, if they – and Becky still haunted the place.

Continuing on from the Courthouse I walked past the old black smiths shop where locals tell me for over 100 years, the town blacksmith has been on duty. Behind this shop is St. Mary’s Catholic Church and it is a wonderful old grey granite structure. I took a walk through it’s cemetery and noted several graves of confederate soldiers.

I walked back to the town square and noticed a cat inside a store window – lazily sleeping on a rocking chair. There were a bunch of cats just lounging around various places in the town. I looked at another historic plaque on a building just down the walk from the corner store.

This plaque told of the “Booth – Toney” shootout of 1878 where on that very spot, there was a gunfight between these two families that had a blood feud running back to 1869 when Benjamin Booth killed Luther Toney. There were more than 40 shots fired and when the smoke cleared – 3 men lay dead around the Edgefield town square – one in front of the public library.

By this time I was thinking to myself “What is up with Edgefield???” so much violence and fighting in such a small town. I stopped next at the old Tompkins library which houses the Edgefield Welcome Center and Genealogical Society. By this time I was fascinated with the history of the place so I bought several books on the history of Edgefield and one on the history of Company K – 14th South Carolina Volunteers.

I talked with the gentleman there for a bit and then made my way down a back alley to the old Edgefield Pottery building where I heard and exhaustive history of pottery making out of Red South Carolina Clay by the gentleman there who obviously loves his work. Apparently, Edgefield is famous for it’s clay and the pottery that is made from it.

I was hungry by this time so I went over to “Park Row Market No. 1” on the corner of Main street and the Courthouse Square. I ordered up a turkey and pepper jack panini with chipotle sauce and it was outstanding. This building is cool in itself as it housed a general store in Edgefield since 1852 and much of the interior of the place is just as it was back in the day.

It was a warm quiet evening and there was a gentleman playing guitar there and singing. When he dived into Jimi Hendrix’ “Little Wing” pulling off a great acoustic rendition, I knew I was going to stay awhile so I got a brew and elbowed up to a bench on the boardwalk in front of the store and commenced to munching my sandwich and observing the courthouse square as the sun went down.

So much interesting history took place in this tiny well manicured town square. It is impossible to capture it all in this short article and I’m sure if there are any mis-representations, I will hear about it from the Historical Society of Edgefield. Hopefully, the Code Duello will not be initiated as I will gladly correct any mistakes!

As I drove away from Edgefield passing by the peach orchards and pines with Stone Temple Pilots jamming on the radio it was as if I was in Marty’s De Lorean and I was heading “Back to the Future”. If you ever want to get a glimpse of the old south, Edgefield is a most amazing little slice in the up country of South Carolina. It is well worth a visit.