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History: Georgetown County Museum opens new facility

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Once the dugout canoe made it safely to the new Georgetown County Museum at 120 Broad St., Georgetown, director Jill Santopietro knew everything would be ready for the re-opening next week.

The 17-foot wooden canoe is safely displayed overhead on the first floor after museum volunteers, with help from Horry County Museum staff, carried it down Prince and Broad streets last weekend to the new museum. Visitors will get their first look at exhibits in “The History Center” on Jan. 7 with a grand re-opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony scheduled Jan. 10 from 4 to 6 p.m.

The museum, once the site of the county building and planning departments, will also be the home of the Georgetown County Historical Society and the Winyah Bay Heritage Festival. Directors of the historical society set a goal of $500,000 for a capital campaign 18 months ago to help pay for renovations to the building it rents from the county. René King, president of the historical society, said the museum was debt free at the group’s annual meeting in November.

The renovated building provides more than three times the space of the museum’s previous location, a former Masonic hall at 632 Prince St. The museum will immediately do something new by hosting an exhibit called “The Unpainted South: Carolina’s Vanishing World” by Bud Hill and Billy Baldwin of McClellanville. Hill’s photographs of old barns, dilapidated houses and pastoral scenes and Baldwin’s poems were published in a book by the same name a few years ago.

Santopietro said she plans to incorporate artifacts into the exhibit, scheduled for the museum’s new and the adjoining hallway on the second floor.

The building’s design will make it more visitor friendly, Santopietro said. “This will be the history gateway to Georgetown County,” she said. There will be a room for visitors to watch an orientation film while they wait on a docent to lead them on a tour of the Georgetown historic district. There will be information about historic sites around the county with maps and explanations about their importance, including the historical society’s newest accomplishment, acquiring scenic highway status for Plantersville Road.

Santopietro said the new Rice Trunk Gift Shop on the first floor will be “mission focused” on the museum and historical society. Debbie Thomas, former owner of Pinckney’s Exchange in Georgetown, stocked the museum with items that either portray the county’s history or are crafted within the county. “She worked as more of a curator, really,” Santopietro said.

There are exhibit galleries on both the first and second floors. The spaces are open and flexible after extensive renovations that removed walls and left beams exposed, maintaining a gallery feel, Santopietro said. Exhibit cases can move to allow room for programs or parties.

One of the challenges of the renovation was to install an elevator, required by the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. To preserve exhibit space, an elevator shaft was constructed on the back of the building. Santopietro said a grant from the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor and a match from a private donor helped pay for the elevator.

In addition to the gallery space, the second floor includes the museum’s office, a finance office and a large room that will serve as conference and classroom space. Exhibits on the second floor include a big photo of Front Street in 1914 that serves as a backdrop for commercial exhibits like spice and tea canisters from C.L. Ford’s Store and memorabilia from Atkinson’s Meat Market and the Kaminski Wholesale Grocery, recently returned to Georgetown by Walter Hill of the Horry County Museum. Harriet Grimes has donated a silver service that was reformed after being melted in a fire on Screven Street. And now there’s room for the museum’s rice tools. Santopietro calls it “a wonderful collection.” Nearby are nine documents — bills of sale or wills — that convey ownership of slaves from the rice era.

The museum has places of honor for its best known artifacts: Francis Marion’s letter to Gen. Nathaniel Green, a silver service from Mayor W.D. Morgan that was returned to the city by his sister a few years ago and a 1729 map of the city. There is a heavy influence of military uniforms and arms. William Donsbach of Murrells Inlet has donated seven rifles with bayonets attached dating from 1816 to 1870.

Santopietro pointed out an exhibit of high school memorabilia called “Growing Up In Georgetown” that she hopes to rotate by encouraging residents to dig through their attics. A mortar and pestle used by Dr. Joshua John Ward Flagg is on display. Santopietro said Dr. Ward’s bed is for sale in a Charleston antique shop, but, alas, even the new museum has its space limitations.

There is a display dedicated to Elizabeth Alston Pringle, the first inductee into the county’s Women’s Hall of Fame. It includes some of her needlework given to a cousin, Penelope Parker. Pringle is famous for writing about the South in a series called “A Woman Rice Planter” for the New York Sun under the pen name Patience Pennington. A medical display includes Dr. Frances Doyle, Georgetown’s first woman pediatrician, and Dr. Eugene Wasdin, a brother-in-law of Mayor Morgan who helped discover the link between mosquitoes and malaria.

The museum’s walls are covered with easy-to-read history lessons and artwork that guide visitors from the times of Native Americans on Winyah Bay through the formation of the United States, slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the arrival of the lumber barons, the “Second Yankee Invasion” of industrialists buying up old plantation land, the fishing industry and its demise and well into the 20th century.

There is also a collection that features every church in the city’s historic district and encourages visitors to include them on their walk about town.

Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays.

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