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Columbia’s mill village on the brink of change

Olympia's problems are many, say long-time residents, including flooding, a migration of USC students, and railroad tracks. The majority of residents are often-rowdy University of South Carolina students living in the converted mills or a mishmash of houses cut up and rented by the room. But efforts are underway to address the problems while honoring the mill village's history.
Olympia's problems are many, say long-time residents, including flooding, a migration of USC students, and railroad tracks. The majority of residents are often-rowdy University of South Carolina students living in the converted mills or a mishmash of houses cut up and rented by the room. But efforts are underway to address the problems while honoring the mill village's history. tdominick@thestate.com

When Sherry and Jake Jaco lined up for their first day of first grade at Olympia School in 1951, Columbia’s mill village was a very different place than it is today.

It was self-sufficient, with its own company store, community center, swimming pool, ball field and churches. People lived in distinctive “saltbox” houses, worked in the Olympia, Granby, Richland and Capital City textile mills, and had a sense of community unmatched in Columbia’s history.

“It was utopia,” said Jake Jaco, who, along with his sister Janet, owns the landmark Jaco’s Corner tavern – which opened in 1912 and is believed to be the city’s oldest.

Today, the village near the University of South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium is struggling. The majority of residents are often-rowdy USC students living in the converted mills or a mishmash of houses cut up and rented by the room. The village is split by busy railroads. It floods. And its nearest neighbors are a rock quarry and two baseball stadiums, one abandoned.

The village is divided between Richland County and the city of Columbia, so there is no uniform zoning, codes enforcement or police protection. And a plan has been floated to divert Huger Street though the village to Assembly Street, further dividing the community.

“It’s a mess,” said Vi Hendley, president of the Olympia Residents Council.

To solve those problems and more, Columbia and Richland County, in a show of united planning, have funded and launched a yearlong effort to develop a master plan for the village. The effort promises to smooth out the transportation issues, unify codes, crack down on absentee landlords, deal with drainage issues and, perhaps most importantly, build and capitalize on the village’s rich heritage and close-knit community.

“The residents there love Olympia,” said Latoisha Green, a Richland County neighborhood planner. “They love their history. We need to build on that.”

The goal is to reunify the village with a vision that bubbles up from the residents.

“We’re now a collection of contradictions and contrasts,” said Sherry Jaco, sitting in the front room of the first Olympia School at 1170 Olympia Ave., built in 1909 – itself a former saltbox home that she and Jake are turning into a museum.

“But we know that change is coming,” she said, “and we want to have a voice in shaping that change.”

The New South

The four mills were built between 1894 and 1899 by W.B. Smith Whaley, the scion of a prominent Charleston family who graduated from Cornell University. He was an engineer who had learned the textile trade in New England before returning to South Carolina in 1892.

Textile mills – newly powered by electricity rather than water, freeing them from riverbanks – were a pillar of the post-Civil War New South, aimed at making the region less dependent on agriculture through manufacturing.

“Leaders wanted, in effect, to make the South more like the North,” according to “Olympia Mill and Village, Upper Richland County, South Carolina, Historic and Architectural Inventory,” commissioned in 2002 by the Richland County Conservation Commission and the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.

The four mills were collectively known as the “Whaley Mills.” And although Granby and Olympia mill villages had separate identities, as they do today, they shared many benefits provided by the company, including free housing, recreational and social amenities and a school.

Their houses were of a similar design – sloped-roof saltbox homes based on mill houses in New England, which could be divided into duplexes for two families, or used as single family dwellings. They are the hallmark of the village today.

Granby, initially constructed in the late 1890s, was the second Columbia mill built by Whaley (the first was the Richland Mill, finished in 1895). Granby represented Whaley’s first major technological improvement in mill design. It was the first in the state to be powered by off-site hydroelectric power.

The mill village dates from the opening of the Olympia Mill by Whaley in 1899. At the time, it was the largest textile mill under one roof ever constructed.

 

“Olympia was the biggest and best in the world when it was built,” said Joby Castine, author of “Gamecocks and Lintheads,” a humorous history of the mill village and Gamecock football.

“Everybody knew everybody”

Castine, 62, has lived in Olympia his entire life. Every year he portrays Whaley at the annual Olympia Community Festival.

While Whaley was a brilliant mechanical engineer and author of numerous mill patents, he eventually lost the mills in 1903 because he couldn’t pay his debts. In 1915, Pacific Mills of Massachusetts purchased the mills for $3.2 million and controlled them for nearly 40 years.

By the 1920s, Olympia had a YMCA, five churches, a medical dispensary, and playgrounds, athletics fields, parks, a community center and a school “that were the envy of Columbia,” according to the historical survey. “But most Columbians looked down upon their ‘linthead’ neighbors.”

The mill workers – mostly uneducated former farm workers of humble means – got the moniker “linthead” because after a 12-hour shift at the mill (they worked only eight hours on Saturday), their hair would be white with cotton lint from the looms.

But then as now, there is disagreement about whether the term is one of endearment or derision.

“The answer to both is yes,” Castine said. “It was a term of endearment inside the village and a derogatory one outside.”

But the derision and their close-knit village created a spirit of brotherhood in the village. Villagers stuck together and began wearing the label “linthead” proudly.

“Everybody knew everybody,” Castine said. “If I did something wrong at school, my mother knew it before I got home.”

Decline and rebirth

By the 1930s, the textile industry entered hard times as the nation – and particularly the South – devolved into the Great Depression. Rather than provide free housing, Olympia’s directors joined other companies that were selling their villages. Olympia’s houses, communal garden plot, recreation facilities and pastureland were sold.

The houses were mostly two-story, six-room, side-gable saltbox homes.

Selling prices were very affordable, according to the historical survey. A three-room house, for example, cost on average $250 and could be had for $45 down and $3 per month. Occupants had the right of first refusal. By 1941, 75 percent of the occupants owned their homes.

From then until the 1970s, the village increasingly was home to retirees – presumably, retired mill workers – and nontextile workers.

By 1980, less than 50 percent of the residents were homeowners. During the previous 10 years, the number of vacant buildings had increased by 36 percent. Textile workers made up less than 6 percent of the village population.

The mills closed in 1996, leaving two enormous, abandoned monoliths dividing the village community in two. There was even talk that the mills and their surrounding saltbox houses might be razed and redeveloped.

But a decade later the village had a rebirth.

▪  Gravel trucks from the Vulcan Quarry that used to rumble down Heyward Street were rerouted to a new road along the Congaree River.

▪  Developer Richard Burts and Robert Lewis purchased and lovingly restored the old Pacific Community Center at the corner of Whaley Street and Olympia Avenue into an arts and event venue.

▪  Philadelphia developer Ron Caplan bought and renovated the Granby and Olympia mills along Heyward Street into apartment buildings.

▪  And village churches and residents established the Olympia Community Festival, which spotlighted the mills’ history.

“It was a rebirth,” Castine said. “Many of us were afraid (the mills and community center) would be torn down and all that history would be lost. It was a big lift for the community.”

‘Out of control’

Although city and county planners and their consultants have yet to nail down the demographics of the village today, village boosters estimate that the majority of the homes are owned by absentee landlords and rented to USC students by the room.

“There are hidden gems in here,” said Irene Dumas Tyson of The Boudreaux Group, the consultants on the master planning process. “But it’s heartbreaking how some of the rental properties have deteriorated.”

Hendley, president of the Olympia Residents Council, moved to the mill village 32 years ago.

“I love the diversity,” she said, noting the village has always been an eclectic mix of former mill workers and their families, students, artists and others.

But recently, she said, the students have become more populous, more boisterous and more of a problem. “And it’s the fraternities,” she said.

USC’s student population has grown from about 23,000 in 2001 to nearly 35,000 today, according to the university. And with USC officials increasingly clamping down on on-campus drinking, Hendley said, some fraternities rent all the rooms in a mill village home and turn it into a party house.

For example, last month, members of the Tau Kappa Epsilon and Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternities held a party at two adjacent houses on Olympia Avenue. It concluded with someone burning a couch in the backyard.

“They tarped off the backyards,” said Hendley who lives behind the houses, two doors down. “They had a blow-up pool and a bounce house. They were busing people in and charging a $7 ‘donation.’ They partied until it got out of control.”

Tsunami of students

Wes Hickman, USC’s spokesman, said the university is concerned about off-campus student behavior and is taking steps to minimize problems.

“We’re especially focused on enhanced programming in the freshman year as they adjust to life on campus and then again as students prepare to move off campus,” he said. “In addition, we have undertaken an effort to explore a campus-wide social compact that will address abusive behaviors and the inherent expectations that we have of all our students as members of our Carolina Community.”

He added that USC officials have introduced an off-campus incident report form that area residents can submit to the university electronically, alerting them to off-campus incidents and allowing them to investigate.

In the case of the burning couch party, both fraternities were disciplined. But partying isn’t the only problem with the students. Tau Kappa Epsilon received education sanctions and Alpha Epsilon Pi was placed on probation until Dec. 31.

While turning the Olympia and Granby mills into apartments in 2005 and 2006 was a blessing, it also brought a tsunami of students into the neighborhood. And the construction of a new apartment building on Heyward Street by the same Philadelphia developer who renovated the mills has added even more students to the mix.

“They planned to rent to young professionals,” said Leigh DeForth, a comprehensive planner for the city of Columbia. “As it turns out, it is mostly students.”

 

The result has been a parking crunch and increased traffic, said Bob Guild, president of the Granby Mill Village neighborhood association. He has lived on Pall Mall Street in Granby since 1972.

Guild, an environmental attorney, advocates expanding the city’s greenway system along Rocky Branch Creek to better link the village to Assembly Street and the university beyond, while simultaneously tackling flooding problems.

“This was the original walkable community,” he said. “But the students aren’t leaving their cars at home.”

He added that a planned Kroger at the site of Capital City Stadium and other development on Assembly Street should also fit with the neighborhoods.

Game-changer

Many of the problems, however, are not just caused by more students, residents say, but rather the governance that fails to control their influx and behavior, as well as the landlords who rent to them.

The village above Heyward Street – north of the mills – is in the city. South of the mill – which makes up the majority of the village – is in the county.

The city has tighter property codes and more effectively enforces them, residents say. County laws have to be workable in rural areas as well as urban neighborhoods.

“The city is more aggressive” in enforcement, historian Castine said.

City police respond more quickly, they say.

The master planning process is intended to iron out some of those differences, improve police responses and crack down on absentee landlords. So far, the effort has included several focus groups and two public meetings. More sessions will be held, including another public meeting in late June. A final report is expected in spring 2017.

Also to be included are flooding issues, traffic flow and strategies to encourage young families with children to move in to the area. But central to the new vision will be the village’s history, planners say.

“This district is so important to the fabric and history of the city of Columbia and Richland County and it’s got so much potential,” consultant Dumas Tyson said. “The fact that the city and county are coming together on this is a game-changer.”

About Olympia

The Olympia community is a former mill village created at the beginning of the 20th Century to house workers in the four Whaley mills. It is generally bordered by Whaley and Assembly streets, Rosewood Avenue, and the Congaree River.

An effort to improve the community is focusing on eight major topics:

▪ Managing the behavior of large numbers of USC students who rent houses and apartments in the area

▪ Preserving the area’s historic homes

▪ Attracting young families

▪ Improving traffic flow and parking

▪ Unifying codes enforcement between Richland County and the city of Columbia

▪ Building on the area’s rich history

▪ Expanding the retail and service base

▪ Controlling flooding

Olympia by the numbers:

$16,000 - Donations needed annually to maintain Olympia cemetery, off Granby Lane near the Congaree River.

3,800 Approximate number of people buried at the cemetery; most of them worked for years in the mills.

1,158 - Acres in the village

7 - Churches

6 - Apartment complexes

4 - Former mill buildings

2 - Parks

2 - Restaurants - Village Idiot and White Duck

1 - Arts and event venue

1 - Convenience store

1 - Moped shop

1 - Tavern

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