“How many ‘greats’ is this one?” asked my 12-year-old son, Theo, as my family crowded around a faded black-and-white photo of a young couple in 19th-century clothing.
“That would be your four times great-grandparents,” I said, quickly doing the calculations in my head before tucking the photo back into the envelope. “And they lived right here in Sumter.”
I had recently begun researching my family’s heritage and found that some of my ancestors hailed from Sumter County, South Carolina. So, my husband, Mark, and I brought the kids along for an investigative trip into our family history.
An American plantation in Sumter County
Our first stop was the Millford Plantation, an antebellum plantation home near Poinsett State Park. Built between 1839 and 1841, the stately home is touted as one of the best examples of Greek Revival architecture in America.
“Wow, is that a palace?” Annie, my 10-year-old, asked in awe. It was easy to see why she would think so. After driving over miles of dirt roads beneath a canopy of live oak and beside magnolia trees, we came upon the classical home with its six grand white Corinthian columns looming large atop a bright green lawn as if it had appeared from thin air. It seemed mysteriously out of place, like something from another time.
As we walked through the gorgeous interior, taking in the floor-to-ceiling windows and elegant circular staircase, Annie reiterated her earlier assessment. “It’s definitely a palace.” As I admired the marble mantles and massive plate-glass mirrors, I was inclined to agree.
My favorite part, though, was when we learned that Millford Plantation survived the Civil War because the Union officer who seized the home turned out to be the brother of the architect, Nathaniel Potter. So he protected the home from being destroyed. I’m grateful that generations later, families like mine are able to enjoy the stunning architecture and learn more about our nation’s history here.
We will always remember
Mark, who served in the Army, was especially excited about our visit to The Military Museum in Sumter County. The curator, Sammy Way, was there when we arrived, and his enthusiasm for the area’s military history was contagious.
Mr. Way showed us around the 4,000-square-foot museum packed with war memorabilia going back to WWI, all donated from local Sumter residents. He was quick to point out that it was less of a museum and more of a display honoring military veterans. I got the sense that Sumter was a very patriotic community, with many of its sons and daughters proudly serving our nation. And as a military family ourselves, we were certainly able to appreciate the sacrifice.
We browsed through photos, medals, uniforms, flags, shell casings, and more. The kids were fascinated by how young a lot of the soldiers looked in the pictures.
“They were only, like, six or seven years older than me,” Theo said with a hint of reverence in his voice. Mr. Way let the kids try on an old WWII helmet and look through binoculars that were used in the war. And Mark was in awe at the oldest artifact, a 1797 sextant, a device using the stars to navigate, which is basically the original GPS.
We thanked Mr. Way on our way out. Our hearts filled with pride and gratitude at having been able to touch and feel the experiences of some of this country’s heroes.
Finding another piece
I double-checked my purse to make sure that the envelope with the picture of my ancestors was where I’d placed it. The final stop on our trip was the Sumter County Museum, which housed an archive of more than 30,000 photos, letters, maps, and other records. I was hoping to find more information about my relatives.
First, we explored the main house, an elegantly restored Edwardian-era home built in 1916. We lingered in the military-history exhibit, and then investigated the rooms decorated in period style. The kids were excited to see the Carolina Backcountry Homestead next, which is a re-created homestead that includes original buildings built between 1812 and 1836. We discussed how difficult life would’ve been for people living without the benefit of electricity or indoor plumbing.
“Woah,” Theo said, “Your ultra-great grandparents lived in a place like this, didn’t they?” The reality suddenly clicked with him.
“Oh, definitely!” Annie responded.
Sumter County finds
We were all excited to head to the archives to see what we could discover. At the Heritage Education Center, I came across more interesting stories and tidbits than I could count. One story that stood out was about the Sumter Iris Gardens at Swan Lake. They came about by horticultural failure. A local businessman, Hamilton Carr Bland, tried growing Japanese Irises at his home, but the conditions weren’t right, so he discarded the bulbs at his property on West Liberty Street—where they flourished in their ideal environment.
After about an hour of searching, Theo shouted that he’d found something.
“This is the picture, Mom. Look!” he said, pointing to a copy of the same image I had in my purse.
“There’s something else here,” I said as I looked over Theo’s shoulder. It was another photograph of my three times great grandfather dressed in a Civil War soldier’s uniform. And beside the photo was a letter. The slanted and looped script on yellowed paper began, “My Dearest Ellen.” I was surprised that my eyes misted. Right in front of me was the actual handwriting of my third great grandfather.
Armed with copies of all that we found, we headed to the car. With a thoughtful look on her face, Annie said, “Mom, can I take your picture to school next week for my history class?”
I nodded with a smile, appreciating that our entire family was able to connect to the past. I couldn’t wait to dig deeper and learn even more.