Historical Commission works to preserve history of Society Hill
By Melissa Rollins, Editor, email@example.com
“Look here.” “Oh. My. Gosh.” “Wowee.” Those were just a few exclamations heard around the Coker Rogers Store in Society Hill on Tuesday, Sept. 26 as Doris and Brian Gandy sifted through decades of documents, dirt and the occasional rat nest. Covered in dust, wearing surgical masks and headlamps, they could not have been any happier. While giving speeches and helping with genealogy research is great, these are the moments that make them the happiest.
Brian is currently the Director of the Darlington County Historical Commission; his mother, Doris, held the position before him. The mother-son pair recently spent several days helping clean out the Coker Rogers Store on Main Street. Brian had also been in the building several weeks prior when Preservation South Carolina, a group whose goal is preserving as many historic structures as they can across the state, first entered the building. The structure is interesting but the Gandys’ interest was the documents left inside.
“Preservation South Carolina comes in and when they find items that are substantially significant to the local community, they partner with museums and local historical commissions to preserve them,” Brian said. “Not only are they concerned with trying to preserve the building, they work with the local community to preserve the artifacts they find in the building.”
Brian said that the project had been a long time coming.
“Mike had been telling me that this was on the back burner and it was in the works for months and months and ultimately they got the right to go in and had acquired the rights to the property,” Brian said. “I had been in the building about seven years ago and had taken pictures and thought I had a pretty good handle on where everything was at. So when I was walking around (this time), I noticed these totes that had not been there seven years prior. Immediately, they caught my eye and it was right under where the roof was bad from (Hurricane) Matthew. I walked up to them and they were full of water, slimy, stagnate, thick; it was nasty. I was able to see on top that it was letters, bound letters. I just plunged my hand into it and pulled the top letter out.”
The letter proved to be quite significant.
“It was a letter from about 1880 from W.C. Coker to his son,” Gandy said. “Right off the bat, I got excited. The excitement spread and Preservation South Carolina immediately made the decision to roll those over to the Historical Commission’s care.”
The commission was then in possession of three totes full of documents with nowhere to process them, until Society Hill Mayor Tommy Bradshaw gave them the town’s blessing to use the warehouse portion of The Depot.
“We processed for three days in Society Hill and have now gotten it back at the Commission,” Brian said. “We’ve got one more process we‘ve got to do on it at a location separate from the Commission but it is good to have it back in Darlington. W.C. Coker resided in the city of Darlington and it is good to have his letters back in the area.”
Though the building had been opened several times over the years, Brian said that it remained virtually untouched from the day it closed.
“Coker Rogers Store was the longest operating mercantile business in Darlington County,” Brian said. “When they closed the doors and walked out on it, they just literally walked out. There are plows still hanging, hardware still in bins. The string that hung on a dispenser above the cash register for them to wrap product, that ball of twine is still hanging above where the cash register was. When they walked out, they just left everything in there. It is a treasure trove. It is almost as if this building hadn’t been touched since they walked out of it.”
Brian said that he knew there was bound to be records of historical significance in the building but that didn’t stop him from getting excited each time they found something.
“When you get a building that was in operation as long as Coker Rogers Store, it has the potential to accumulate a lot of historical documents, artifacts and so forth,” Brian said. “One of the things of note that was there that we acquired is the operational journal and minutes for the Darlington Bank. W.C. Coker was Chairman of the bank and president ultimately for the Darlington Bank so that is how it got to Society Hill. That will give us a lot more information about something connected to the City of Darlington.”
Land records, a complete collection of letters between father and son Coker, as well as personal journals are just some of the items found in the waterlogged totes. Brian said that had it been much longer before someone found and recovered those items it is likely that the percentage of salvaged documents would have been much lower.
Preservation South Carolina, Director Michael Bedenbaugh said that working with the communities that hold the keys to the history of South Carolina makes all the difference.
“We love partnering with the Historic Commission so the history and documentation and everything is not lost,” Bedenbaugh said. “We work on the place; they work on the things that make the place matter. We are all over the state looking for opportunites. We first came to Society Hill in 2007 and we were just trying to build relationships. We have been working with the Teal Family for years wanting to have a solution for it and now we have. It’s taken five years of development to pull all of this stuff together.”
Aside from Preservation South Carolina and the Darlington County Historical Commission, the Long Bluff Historical Society has also lent a helping hand in the preserving of the Society Hill and Darlington County History that has been sitting behind these walls for so long.
“This is our community and this is Society Hill’s history,” said Long Bluff Historical Society President Melissa Burch. “There is a sense of commitment and a bond to these items. I’m not even from here but this is my home now and I feel that. I’ve worked closely with Mike, giving him leads and suggesting people to talk to. We are working together for the betterment of this town. I know it helps Preservation South Carolina but we’re doing it to help Society Hill.”