ST. GEORGE – Just three years after the Dorchester County Archives & History Center started collecting the county’s past under one roof, it will open its new museum Saturday to showcase its work so far.
“This is why it all began, because of this,” said Anne Irick, gesturing toward the fire- and flood-proof room on the first floor of the former county courthouse here. The room stores more than 100,000 documents, some dating back to the 1600s, that were loaned or donated by area residents.
“We wanted this,” she said. “Now we want people to know about this, so what better way than to have a museum?”
The museum's opening event Saturday will include a marketplace on the front lawn that includes artists, authors, cultural demonstrations, home-baked goods and more. The hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The opening also marks the debut of a Smithsonian traveling exhibit, “The Way We Worked,” which will be on display through March 12. St. George is the first of six sites in South Carolina that will host the presentation this year.
Made possible by South Carolina Humanities, the exhibit traces through photos, audio and artifacts the changes that have affected the workforce during the past 150 years, and explores how work became a central element in American culture.
The Dorchester County Archives and History Center was chartered in 2014, and since May 2015 has been housed at the old courthouse at 101 Ridge St. in St. George.
Shortly after the group signed a five-year lease in 2014 for $1 annually, it returned to County Council to ask for additional space for the museum, buoyed by both an outpouring of donations and loans from residents and the promise of the Smithsonian exhibit.
“The idea was to always establish a museum,” said director and archivist Christine Rice, who has so far digitized more than 20,000 documents for use by researchers.
Construction on its exhibits, done mostly by volunteers, has been under way since last summer.
These exhibits will take visitors on a chronological journey through the area’s history starting with the Kusso-Natchez and Edisto tribes in the 1600s to 1940s Main Street, complete with a one-room school house, post office, store and more.
Dorchester County, carved from Colleton and Berkeley counties, has been around only 120 years, but the area’s recorded history goes back more than three centuries, when Congregationalists moved south from Dorchester, Mass., and formed a new settlement called Dorchester.
Many folks in the area had family records dating back generations.
Irick, a Reevesville native, was the keeper of her family’s 300 years of records, stored for years in a safe that dated to the mid-1800s and several wooden barrels.
“My aunt inherited the family jewels,” Irick said. “And the jewels are every scrap of paper that you can imagine.”
Left the papers by her aunt, Irick wanted to preserve and share them, but she also wanted to retain ownership, an option not offered by many archives. That was when she and her distant cousin, Linda Baker, had the idea for the museum.
So far, many of the groups who plan to visit the site are school classes, groups from assisted living facilities and civic organizations. They also hope to draw researchers and casual visitors.
“Because this is a very poor, rural area, a lot of these kids are never going to get to go to the bigger museums in the larger cities, whether it’s because of distance or finances," Rice said.
Organizers hope to bring in several traveling exhibits each year to keep the content fresh.
“But it’s that chance to learn their backyard history that will help tie it in to other history for them,” Rice said. “Maybe a battle didn’t take place here, but there were other things going on here at that time.”
The center is open 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays with extended hours until 7 p.m. on Thursdays, during which special programs are planned. It is also open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays, with the marketplace out front.
Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and teens and $3 for children 6-12.