Aiken’s Sporting Life, by Jane Page Gunnel Thompson
“Queen of Winter Sporting Resorts” was the advertising moniker attributed to Aiken over a century ago and still applies. As the temperatures dip and a New Year dawns, Aiken starts opening her doors to a myriad of equine enthusiasts, golfers and snowbirds that are drawn to the tranquil and relaxed tempo that Aiken offers.
Originally The Crossroads Where Indian Traders
and Coastal transporters passed time at the clean water spring; Aiken has long been a welcoming resting place for those travelers lucky enough to find their way under the shade of her ancient long leafs. The City with its 28 gridded blocks, green parkways and double carriage ways was established in 1835 by the railroad company as a summer resort; prior to that the area was known as “Pinelands Crossroads” during the Revolutionary War.
The draw of the area for winter enjoyment began after Celestine Eustis visited to assess her family holdings along the railroad line. During her extended stay at the Highland Park Hotel, which at the time it was built in 1866 was the largest wooden structure in the world; her niece, Louise Corcoran fell in love
love with the varied activities offered out-of-doors each day. The Schutzenplotz offered bowling and shooting galleries, a dance hall and interesting gardens with specimen plantings nurtured by the preeminent botanist of the period, Henry William Ravenel. Goat carts and ponies were a standard hire at the local liveries, so children of Louise’s age and social status found a certain level of freedom in Aiken. They drove and rode in the pineland forests surrounding the town and were entertained by the celebrities and Presidents that visited the resort hotels. For many of those visitors, Aiken was a health resort where doctors and turpentine therapies were proven to ease the pain of the respiratory diseases that inflicted so many urbanites of the time.
Louise Corcoran Eustis married renowned horseman and bon vivant, Thomas Hitchcock in 1891 and they spent their first winter in Aiken. The next year they invited the Whitneys and Clarkes and the next year Thomas’ brother Francis wintered in Aiken and proclaimed it “the finest footing for the training of animals and the most temperate climate to enjoy their workings.” Francis Hitchcock was
Thoroughbred Racehorse breeder and a keen trainer of hunting dogs. His studies on confirmation, movement and manner of both species led him to write foundational specifications and judging criterion for both the Westminster Kennel Club and the Jockey Club. With their enthusiasm for the area, the Hitchcocks and Whitneys invited their boarding school and Ivy league friends to join them for the sport and with polo, fox hunting, game shooting, court tennis, boxing and golf; Three Sports a Day, the Aiken way became the Winter Colony mantra. The real estate company owned by W.C. Whitney, Celestine Eustis and Louise Hitchcock was a thriving enterprise by 1920 and upon the death of her business partners, Louise inherited their vast land holdings; about 8000 acres, from which the current 2100 acres of The Hitchcock Woods was derived more or less.
The traditional equestrian uses of The Hitchcock Woods are to be preserved as part of the Hitchcock Foundation’s mission. Aiken Hounds, one of America’s oldest hunts, follows many of the same original drag lines cut by the Axe Club over a century ago. The Aiken Horse Show in The Woods is an iconic trip back in time when hunter shows were really about showing-off your fox hunting horses to prospective buyers and to your friends for the thrill of a blue ribbon and silver bowl. Trail Riding along the 76 plus miles of manicured trails and jumping the fences that have made Aiken know through the horsing world
are testament to the footing so hailed by Francis Hitchcock. It is the various missions of the Hitchcock Foundation especially for the 100th Aiken Horse Show and for the preservation of future generations of Woods users that the book “Aiken’s Sporting Life” was written for Arcadia Press’ Images of America Series. Available on Amazon.com and from many local retailers like: Equine Divine, Aiken Saddlery, York Cottage Antiques, True Value Hardware, re-Fresh, Oak Manor Saddlery, The Carriage House Inn and The Willcox, all proceeds from the sale of Aiken Sporting Life go directly to The Hitchcock Foundation.
Aiken Has Many Secrets and Many Tales
to tell, she lures you in with her gleaming winter days, refreshes your mind with her bracing pine scented air and keeps you transfixed with her many interesting visitors, residents and icons. Sir Winston Churchill, who visited Aiken many times, was rumored to have proclaimed in the lobby of The Willcox: “No time spent in Aiken in the saddle could ever be time wasted.”
He could just as easily have said the same about time spent on a golf course, on a tennis court or in the boxing ring. Aiken was known for dedicated pugilists, her golf courses boasted the first forward tee’s for ladies and several of America’s first outdoor tennis courts were built at her resort hotels. During the Gilded Age, Aiken was a playground for the rich and notorious and in the last 100 years not much has changed. Aiken still draws wealthy visitors for golf and horses. Aiken offers a myriad of things to do, from horse races and polo to Eventing and carriage driving; from court tennis and pickle-ball, to rowing and shooting. Three sports a day the Aiken way can still be accomplished and more. So, pick-up a copy of Aiken’s Sporting Life and give back to the legacy of sport that Aiken represents and you may find out a secret or two to tell the next visitor to Aiken you meet.
Jane Page Gunnell Thompson is an Accredited Land Consultant and Realtor in Aiken, SC; whose love of history and her dedication to the Hitchcock Woods Aiken Horse Show led her to author the Images of America Series “Aiken’s Sporting Life” book. She grew-up in Middleburg, VA on a horse farm and graduated from The Hill School, St. Margaret’s School and Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. Horses brought her to Aiken, but love made her stay and marry horse trainer, Mark Thompson. They live on historic Whitney Field with their child-dogs: Mini and Tug.