Sweet As a Peach: The Small Towns of Old Ninety Six on South Carolina’s Freshwater Coast
The Palmetto State of South Carolina gets a lot of love from tourists — golfers flock to Myrtle Beach and the lowcountry of Hilton Head, and of course the city of Charleston is the quintessential southern city. These are all fun places to visit. But the next time you plan your South Carolina itinerary, head in the other direction — west toward South Carolina’s freshwater coast and the district around historic Ninety Six, SC. You may not be familiar with this historic district and chain of freshwater lakes unless you hail from SC, Georgia or you’re a Revolutionary War history buff. But there are so many other reasons to consider a visit to the Old 96!
Anglers may be familiar with South Carolina’s freshwater coast, so named for the string of Army Corp of Engineers’ lakes created in the 1920’s and 30’s along the western South Carolina/Georgia border that fan out along the Savannah River like expansive craggy fingers. The lakes are renowned for their excellent fishing for species like striped and largemouth bass, crappie, catfish, bream and bluegill. It’s truly an anglers’ paradise. But South Carolina’s rich history is a big draw too — the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and Civil Rights era history can be found in museums and historic sites dedicated to telling these stories. And of course, the most interesting places along the Old 96 District are the charming small towns where locals welcome you with a smile, a great meal, fresh peaches, and a genuine desire to get to know you and your story.
Where is the Old 96 (Ninety Six SC) Historic District?
The Old 96 Historic District is located in the northwestern part of South Carolina, between Augusta, GA and Spartanburg, SC, a rural landscape dense with woodlands, wetlands, peach trees, historic sites and charming small towns just begging to be explored. Towns with Mayberry-sounding names like Greenwood, Abbeville, Edgefield, and McCormick. Or romantic names like Promised Land and Calhoun Falls. The namesake village that’s actually a number spelled out, Ninety Six, is a US National Historic Site known as Old Ninety Six or Star Fort. Prior to visiting Old 96 and the nearby Olde English District outside Charlotte, my only travels to South Carolina was for a wedding in Hilton Head, and driving I-95 back and forth between up north and Florida. My husband had a Marine buddy from Due West, another small town in South Carolina that was more of a directional landmark than a town (“go Due West, young man!”) How funny to learn it too was located in Old 96, land of sweet small towns with interesting names!
Then there’s the big question…
Why is it Called Ninety Six?
During the American Revolution, the second attempt by the British to conquer the South in 1781 resulted in what’s now known as The Siege of Ninety Six. The small hamlet of Ninety Six was garrisoned by 550 American loyalists (those who remained loyal to England) who built a unique star-shaped fort to protect against the American patriots and militia who layed siege to the Fort that lasted nearly a month. But more on this later.
Why again was it called Ninety Six? There may be several explanations, though the Park Ranger was honest and told us there’s no definitive reason for how Ninety Six got its name. There is historic evidence that in 1730 the Surveyor General made a map that marked the area as Ninety Six, referring to this area believed to be 96 miles from the lower Cherokee Indian town of Keowee (near where Clemson, South Carolina is today). One romanticized legend revolves around an Indian woman (don’t these legends always refer to them as maidens?) named Cateechee who supposedly learned of an Indian attack and rode to warn her British beau. As she traveled she named the streams & found her boyfriend at a trading post at the 96th stream. Hmm…not sure about that — most people in a panic would probably lose count after the first few — but it’s a nice story just the same!
Things to See and Do in the Old 96 District
The Food! — Sure, South Carolina does BBQ and southern comfort food really well. But the pizza and Greek I had were off the charts good too, so check out these places in Greenwood and Abbeville below.
Fish Your Heart Out — on Lake Greenwood or along the Saluda River
Inspiring History — From inspiring African-American and Civil Rights history at the Benjamin E. Mays Historical Preservation Site to Revolutionary War history, South Carolina has so many stories to tell.
Vibrant Arts Scene — Whether you love local art, theater, performing arts, or the rustic stoneware unique to Edgefield, the Old 96 District has something for lovers of art and culture.
Outdoor Adventure — Learn about conservation and preservation efforts of America’s wild turkey, then get out and explore the abundant nature opportunities here, from canoeing and kayaking, to cycling, hiking, and camping
PEACHES — Cobbler, crisp, pie, or right off the pit, these South Carolina peaches were huge and juicy. SC produces more peaches than Georgia (the most in the USA outside of California), and 60% of those are grown right here in the Old 96 District. That’s a lotta peaches!
Year ‘Round Festivals — From summertime BBQ & Blues and flower festivals to Oktoberfest and holiday parades, you’ll find fun festivities all year long.
Family Fun — There is so much for families to enjoy in the Old 96 District, and Emerald Farm is a great place to start!
Small Town Charm — You’ll find so many quaint small towns in the Old 96 District — perfect if you love slow travel — but here are some of our new favorites!
Stepping out of the car in the town of Edgefield is like stepping back in time to a black and white town, the anti-Wizard of Oz dream sequence where everything including the yellow brick road turns from black and white to color. Here in Edgefield, the Mayberry-nostalgic feel belies the color and charm you’ll find like the music playing in the town square (did they know we were coming or what!) and folks on the street asking us where y’all from? It’s a warm, lively, and friendly place for sure, with oversized painted turkeys on just about every corner to honor the town, their traditions, and nearby Alma Maters like Clemson University.
South Carolina is known for having three unique folk-art traditions: sweetgrass basketry, Catawba pottery like we saw in the Olde English District, and Edgefield pottery. If you love local art and pottery, your first stop in town should be the well-known Old Edgefield Pottery, where local artist and master potter Justin Guy creates works of art in the centuries old tradition. For more than 200 years, the Edgefield area of South Carolina has been known for producing a unique type of pottery called "stoneware." Strong and non-porous, stoneware is usually glazed and fired in a kiln at very high temperatures. Justin uses a blend of blue clay from Savannah, Kaolin clay from China, and the iron rich clay from Edgefield area. Visit his studio and museum and see if you can tell the difference between his original work and the antique pots he has on display.
Back on the square and right on the corner, stop for lunch at the Park Row Market No. 1, which looks like an old general store inside. They make a very good panini! Several other restaurants in town get high marks like Nonna’s Italian Kitchen, Chef Bob’s Cafe, Patriots’ Smokehouse, and The Old Edgefield Grill, though some are just open for dinner. Also on the square is a place for beer, wine, & spirits lovers — the Carolina Moon Distillery — a fun place to try locally distilled rum, vodka, gin, and moonshine. And since you’re in the land of peaches, you know what that means — peach moonshine (reminds me of my days with Moonshiner Chuck Miller in his test kitchen). But that’s not all that’s peachy. Their light and flavorful Peach Rum is fantastic! They also produce an aged whiskey (moonshine aged in bourbon barrels) and a 192-proof single barrel aged bourbon that’s super smooth. More than several tastings later (and bottles purchased), we left with a spring in our step.
Just down the road from the town of Edgefield is the National Wild Turkey Federation — no, not Wild Turkey as in our distillery tasting above, sorry. Rather, this non-profit organization is the world headquarters for the conservation of the American wild turkey. This isn’t just an interesting place to visit, we think there’s an educational value that’s even better. You’ll learn all you ever needed to know about the beautiful, if awkward, turkeys native to North America. But more importantly, the NWTF is also dedicated to the preservation of America’s hunting heritage — a heritage that in my opinion is getting somewhat muddled among all the political misinformation of our day. Their mission isn’t about guns (for or against), nor are they making a political statement. They help restore and manage North America's population of more than 7 million wild turkeys, improve habitat on public, private and corporate lands, and help people learn to understand the importance of wildlife management and appreciate hunting as an honorable pursuit. If you’re a hunter or looking to learn more about it, take a self-guided stroll through the museum or wait for a guided tour. They’re only open during the week, so call ahead to plan your visit.
When you’re done exploring for the afternoon, stop at Cook’s Farm Stand on your way out of town for a basket of the juiciest local produce around. Summertime is peach season, and these ginormous peaches were so sweet and delicious! They also sell homemade jams, jellies, and other locally grown farm produce.
Greenwood is the largest town in the Old 96 District, with so much history, art, and culture to explore. You’ll never be at a loss for great restaurants and if you time your visit around one of their many seasonal festivals, you can try even more of the great food all in one place. We happened to visit during their award-winning Festival of Discovery — BBQ & Blues — when the town of Greenwood closes its streets and makes way for food vendors, live music performances, and one of the biggest Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) sanctioned competitive cook-offs in the country! Holy cow, if you love BBQ… well, then I’m sure you already know about Greenwood. But if you’ve never been here, your piggy is waiting! And you must go :-). I can’t remember having as much fun, and it didn’t hurt that we were asked to help judge a portion of the food competition too. Yum!
Where else should you eat in Greenwood if you’re not here during the BBQ & Blues festival? The Mill House Brick Oven Pizza (and Good Times Brewing) is a great place for pizza and beer. The menu offers pizza, sandwiches, pastas, salads, and wraps, but their individual Margherita and Fungus Amungus pizzas were insane — and their craft beer is really good.
Greenwood has a thriving farm-to-table scene with places like the Uptown Market offering seasonal produce and a chance to talk with the local farmers and producers about their farm-fresh businesses. You’ll also find some pretty cool shopping in downtown Greenwood at the Vintage Vault Marketplace, Fig, and Main & Maxwell for really cool hand-crafted art, pottery, and jewelry
If it’s family fun you’re looking for, pack up the kiddos and head to Emerald Farm outside of town, a working dairy farm that offers a chance to step back into the basics of farm life. Owners Paul and Kathy Zahn have crafted a menagerie of sheep, llamas, ducks, cows, peacocks, geese, chickens and honey bees, along with other fun activities on their 75 acres of beautiful rolling pasture. The animals include a herd of 14 white Saanen goats who love to be fed and reward her mightily with the milk she needs to craft her luxurious goat’s milk soap — the lemongrass soap not only smells great, but is magic for your skin!. Her soap-making studio has dozens of batches in various stages of progress and she even creates signature soaps for special events. In several other outbuildings around the property, you can browse through an authentically vintage store and find treasures that haven’t been seen for 60 years. Upstairs is another treasure altogether at the Emerald Farm Railroad, the area’s largest layout of O & HO-gauge model trains — an entire room set up like it was Christmas. Outside, you can channel your inner Trainiac with a ride on their Emerald Farm Express which runs around the Farm and through the large sheltering oak trees and fruit trees. It’s a great place for kids, and open Tuesday through Saturday.
One of the places in Greenwood I was so inspired by was the Benjamin E. Mays Historic Site, and if you’ve never heard of the extraordinary life of Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, sadly you’re not alone. Neither did I. But after briefly hearing Dr. Mays’ story (we spent an hour but could have stayed much longer) beautifully told by Chris Thomas, Director of the Historical Site, I want to find out more. Dr. Mays was the son of ex-slaves and tenant farmers in this part of South Carolina. From seemingly impossible beginnings, he grew to become — among many lifetime achievements — President of Morehouse College in Atlanta, advisor to three sitting US Presidents (Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter), and spiritual advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King. The influence Dr. Mays had on the Civil Rights era is unparalleled. Today, not only can you visit the historical site honoring Dr. Mays, but his birth home is also there, which sets the stage well. The site has been established on the campus of GLEAMNS (Greenwood, Laurens, Edgefield, Abbeville, McCormick, Newberry and Saluda) Human Resources Commission which is located in the old African-American Brewer Hospital before desegregation.
The Ninety Six National Historic Site is a compelling visit for Revolutionary War enthusiasts, and even if you’re not. What remains from the original Star-shaped Fort at Ninety Six is on display for you to explore at your leisure or on a guided tour. Start at the Visitor Center for info, maps, and to watch the short 20 minute video about the site. The Park offers a variety of trails, including a 1-mile walking tour where you’ll see earthworks, historic roads, a reconstructed stockade, sites of the 1781 siege and battle, and site of the Ninety Six village. NOTE: Please do not climb or walk on the fragile remains and earthworks. Please stick to the walkways and follow the interpretive trail.
The town of Abbeville is another great town to explore — with a pretty village green surrounded on four sides by fun shops, restaurants, a distillery, historic monuments, and a lovingly-restored Opera House that is bustling with activity, especially when it’s showing films like the day we visited. That little Opera House looked like a real community gem! Just one block from the town square is the beautiful and historic Trinity Church which looks to be close to finishing renovation. Isn’t it amazing? We stopped for lunch at The Village Grill, an Abbeville favorite for 28 years, and I can see why. The service was so friendly, it almost seemed part of the afternoon’s entertainment, and the food was delicious. My Greek salad was delicious and I must say a nice break from all the BBQ piggy I’d been eating! We stopped by several cute little shops selling everything from hand-crafted organic soaps and cosmetics, to home decor, and the cutest women’s clothing store and antique emporium where I was almost tempted to buy myself a Hey y’All hat — Come on, who says a damn Yankee can’t have a little fun too! This is such a cute town, I can see Abbeville being a lot of fun for a Girlfriends Getaway!
We write a good deal about slow travel — experiencing more when you travel by actually slowing down and spending more time in one place. Whether you visit small towns around the country or around the world, there’s really no other way to experience them — these places beg you to slow your pace and get to know the history, the local culture (and of course, the food), and the folks who live there. Slow traveling allows you to make connections that stay with you long after you’re home, and this part of South Carolina was perfect for that. Small towns are unique and interesting places, with stories that come alive when told by the people who’ve not only lived them but are passionate about telling them.
So go explore small town America, and when you’re near the Old 96 — or Ninety Six — slow down and spend more time!
Where to Stay in the Old 96 District
Inn on the Square, Greenwood
Since it opened in 2015, the Inn on the Square has offered southern hospitality and boutique lodging in the heart of Greenwood in an elegantly designed historical building. The original buildings of the Inn on the Square date back to the early part of the twentieth century when it was a two-story building, an adjoining one-story structure, and a small alley dividing the two. After extensive renovation, today the hotel features 48 rooms, a beautiful open atrium to the upper floors, and space for special events. I stayed in one of their King bridal rooms (this time, without my groom of 34 years!) which was spacious and comfortable. The enormous bathroom had an amazing surround shower with a river-rock floor, dual sinks, and a giant jacuzzi tub (where is a husband when you need one?)! There was even a pull out bed — great for small families. The complimentary cooked-to-order hot breakfast every morning was delicious and much appreciated. But if you go on a weekend, stay for their Sunday Brunch. It was incredible. I’ll let the photos do the talking, while I sit and remember the several trips I made finding more deliciousness with every trip!