A few years ago, I was driving through a tiny community in South Carolina named Denmark when I stopped at a nondescript red brick building called Jim Harrison Gallery. I knew of Jim Harrison, a well-known Southern artist, but had never met him. At the time, he was best known for painting rural landscapes and coastal scenes, often incorporating Coca-Cola imagery into them.
On that fall day, I went inside the gallery and found Harrison chatting with a customer. The gallery is small, so I couldn’t help but to eavesdrop as he told her how he started his career by painting roadside Coca-Cola signs. He went on to become one of the South’s most beloved artists.
When he declared that he had about twenty cats, as a crazy cat lady myself, I listened more closely. The cadence of his words was slow and deliberate, as befitting of a Southern gentleman. As he spoke to the young woman, I looked around at paintings and postcards and prints before selecting one as a Christmas gift for a friend.
Later, when I stumbled upon Harrison’s obituary, I thought of his slightly graveled but velvety voice and my visit to his gallery with its scruffy wooden floors and big windows that allowed plenty of light. In the years since his death in 2016, the gallery has remained open and is quite possibly the biggest draw of Denmark, population about 3,000.
I’m a road-tripper, always have been, and that’s how I found Denmark in the first place. Denmark is but a fragment of a cluster of communities, small towns and counties that make up a South Carolina travel region called Thoroughbred Country, a name more befitting of Kentucky or Virginia or some other horse-centric state. Yet there I was, rambling the back roads in search of Americana, South Carolina-style.
Here’s how Thoroughbred Country stacks up. The four counties of Aiken, Allendale, Barnwell and Bamberg, where Denmark lies, make up the 2,462 square miles of Thoroughbred Country in an area squeezed in along I-20 between Augusta, the Georgia home of the Masters, and Columbia, South Carolina’s capital city.
Just east of Augusta is where I left the interstate behind to explore from county to county the mélange of small towns and their galleries, antique shops, roadside produce stands with baskets of fresh peaches and strawberries, festivals, plantation homes and historical sites dating from Colonial America to the Civil War to Reconstruction and beyond.
My grand journey began in Aiken County—the entire county is roughly the size of Rhode Island—where I met two friends who would accompany me on the Thoroughbred Country girlfriends’ getaway.
Our first stop was Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site, a museum house completed in 1859. As we say in the South, it just ain’t a home without a magnolia tree, and Redcliffe is graced by 150 of them. The antebellum home housed generations of the Hammond family who dabbled in politics and cotton.
When I asked Theresa Hipps, assistant park ranger, how the house was so named, she answered simply, “Because it’s on a red cliff.”
Below the Mason-Dixon, a red clay cliff is as sturdy of a substance as any when it comes to the foundation of a home, which attests to why Redcliffe has lasted so long in South Carolina’s fricassee-hot heat and humidity. The Greek Revival house, in the community of Beech Island, is an architectural gem, and if you study that sort of thing, it also gives insight into the Southern plantation system of the 1800s—and that includes the use of slaves, like it or not.
Afterward, we made a quick stop to see the historical exhibits at the Arts and Heritage Center of North Augusta—North Augusta is just over the Savannah River from its cousin of Augusta, Georgia—and then we checked into the striking white-columned Rosemary Inn Bed and Breakfast. While the quiet and elegant Rosemary, also in North Augusta, isn’t antebellum—it was built at the turn of the 20th century—it is antebellum-style and brimming with period furniture.
After a dinner of heavy tapas at Manuel’s Bread Café—the menu changes but we had out-of-this-world delicious pork wings, cheese, braised beef ribs and squash ravioli—it was easy to fall asleep back at the Rosemary.
Before hitting the wide-open road of the rest of Thoroughbred Country, we visited North Augusta’s Colonial Times Living History Park where I met Benjamin and Deborah Franklin (doppelgangers of the founding father and his bride), watched the Great Escompteur (real name Eric Scites) imitate a fire-breathing dragon at the Faire Wynds Circus, and learned how a spinning wheel works. Events here change from season to season, but overall the park is an excellent, authentic and, I might add, really amusing glimpse at the lives of South Carolina’s first settlers.
In Blackville in Barnwell County, the three of us stopped for lunch at Miller’s Bread Basket for a meat-and-three (that’s a meat and three vegetables to the uninitiated first-time visitors to the South), complete with fried chicken and shoofly pie for dessert. The Amish-Mennonite restaurant is best described as Pennsylvania Dutch with a Southern touch.
Our trio spent the afternoon more or less meandering the town of Barnwell and Barnwell County, passing what it believed to be the world’s only vertical sundial and then making a stop at God’s Acre Healing Springs and taking time to read its sign, “This historical property has been deeded to God for public use. Please revere God by keeping it clean.” We obliged, of course, reading further that the Native Americans believed in the natural healing powers of the spring and brought wounded Revolutionary War soldiers here to drink.
At Barnwell’s Little Red Barn Pottery and Art Gallery, housed in a century-old building, we met owner and potter Elizabeth Ringus and browsed its collection of face jugs, handwoven shawls, quilts, and other fun doodads.
“Everything here is made here in South Carolina by a South Carolina artist,” she said as she pointed to a face jug. “I like making face jugs. They are like my children, and when I sell one, I kiss it goodbye.”
As we bade her goodbye, we checked into the Willcox Hotel in Aiken for two nights. The Willcox, an Aiken landmark, is a posh, pretty, and pleasant Colonial Revival hotel built in 1898. My room had a fireplace, but the day was too warm to even think about having a fire. Our trio then trekked to Rose Hill for dinner, where I dined on shrimp and grits, a restaurant staple found on menus statewide.
The next morning, after a stop at the Aiken County Historical Museum, we set out to do something I had never done and never considered doing, and that was going to a polo match. It’s the sport of kings and queens and princes and princesses and all manner of their kinfolk, none to which I can claim title. When I learned anyone can watch for a small entrance fee, this old peasant girl was in.
And it was at Aiken Polo Club’s Whitley Field that I finally learned why the area is called Thoroughbred Country. These folks take their horse racing mighty seriously. The fertile lands and sweet grasses of the region have drawn the thoroughbred set since the Revolutionary War, and polo has been played in Aiken for well over a century beginning with a match in 1882. Horse racing followed in the 20th century, and now a mix of stables, fields, horse parks and training tracks hosting more than a dozen different disciplines of polo—foxhunting, dressage, jumping, and arena among them—are peppered throughout Aiken and the outlying four-county area.
The match at Whitney was fast and exciting, and I was amazed the horses didn’t fall all over one another. At half-time—I didn’t know there was such a thing as half-time in polo—my friends and I followed the crowd to the field for the long-standing tradition of happily stomping the divots in a Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” moment, sans Richard Gere. It was a fine ending to our stay in Thoroughbred Country.
“Even if you don’t have horses, it’s a part of the culture of Aiken,” said a young lady from Aiken named Haven. “It’s a part of who we are.”