BEHRE COLUMN: Early notes paved way for Charleston guides

These handwritten and typed pages are believed to be Charleston’s oldest surviving tour guide notes. They belong to the family of the late Mary A. “Molly” Sparkman, who compiled them while working for the city in the early 20th century.

Shortly after Charleston released the latest version of its tour guide notes earlier this month, Jane Thornhill tracked down the first.

That Thornhill did this should surprise few: She was the second tour guide to be licensed by the city.

That was back in 1954, just two years after Elizabeth Jenkins Young received the city's first such license, and so Thornhill remains acutely aware of how the city's tourist industry evolved over the 20th century.

And she knows it's a story that should be shared.

Those who want to appreciate how Charleston's tourist trade has changed from a small-scale, personal affair to a big, booming business could start by comparing the new tour guide notes with those of yesteryear.

It apparently all began as early as the 1930s (the exact date isn't clear) with Mary A. "Molly" Sparkman, who worked as secretary to the Historical Commission of Charleston.

From her ground-floor office in City Hall, next to one of its prominent circular windows, she researched historical markers, wrote historical pamphlets and fielded public questions about the city's rich past.

She typed up brief histories of historic sites not only downtown but across the Lowcountry. Thornhill remembers her mother, who gave tours before licenses were required, having reference notes.

A 1956 news story notes that the city's Historic Commission had recently launched a school for tour guides: "This became necessary, Miss Sparkman said, when it was learned that some guides were distorting Charleston history."

Her work, later expanded by Marguerite Steadman, eventually formed the basis of a large tour guide notes volume that historian Robert Stockton and others put together in the 1970s and later reworked in 1984, forming the foundation of today's most recent rewrite.

But some of the oldest notes have sat for years on the shelves of Mary Rhett Webb's West Ashley home -- interesting because it's obviously such a first draft.

Some pages are typed, but there are still some that are handwritten. A few clippings from The News and Courier are folded in.

"I can find nothing definite as to the exact place of Col. Isaac Hayne's execution," one entry begins.

Another entry -- for "The John C. Calhoun Monument on The Citadel Green at Charleston, South Carolina" -- begins with these lines:

"Dah! Where have you been with the children?"

"Miss Gus, I been tak' 'em up to de Green to see Mis-ter Cal-houn an' he fo' wife."

The entry then explains how Calhoun's current statue is the second to be erected. The first, which had a female figure who represented a virtue, often was the butt of local jokes about her being Calhoun's wife.

Most are tied together with a three-ring binder, but there are other notes in a folder. It obviously remained a work in progress during Sparkman's lifetime. (Her job at City Hall ended in 1956, and she wrote a few historical columns for this newspaper until her death in 1972 at age 85. Many of her files reportedly were donated to the South Carolina Historical Society).

The good news: Webb says she intends to donate her aunt's notes to the Charleston Library Society, so others can appreciate them.

"I think they need to be in some safe place," she says.

They promise to remain a source of intrigue and curiosity because they show how Charleston began to set its story straight for telling to its growing number of visitors.

Since Sparkman loaned the notes to Thornhill, she has started in on their faded typed pages to remind herself of her early tour guide days.

"My eyes have been hurting ever since."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771 or