Olympia Mills, Columbia, SC

Major Hall sat by the window in the school house and stared out into the world beyond.  The teacher droned on and on as he dreamed of something else, something that was more “hands-on”.  The 9-year-old was physically present in that clapboard schoolhouse, but his heart was in the mill with its whirling spindles and long corridors of excitement.  Like the resurrection celebrated in the churches, Major broke free on the third day to a new life as he left the school behind.  He grew up and worked long and hard in the mill where the cotton fibers swirled like snow around his head.  He married and had children who all grew up in the same community.  His grand-daughter would receive her Doctorate in Education and become one of the founding members of the museum dedicated to the life that he made a living at, that of the “Linthead”.

The stories of the “Lintheads” are fading with time.  The obituaries that appear in the local newspapers across the south have paid homage to this hallowed group of citizens.  Authors such as Alvin Byars and Rick Bragg have memorialized their lives in print for the inquisitive learners of our time.

The families that can trace their roots to the mill villages have moved on and many have moved up. The mill was a launching point for the evolution of those families.  Many of the children and grandchildren are now lawyers, businessmen, teachers, judges and revered leaders in the communities.  Mrs. Jaco would slyly add that quite a few became scoundrels as well.

At its inception over 1000 workers were needed to run the mill on Columbia’s southern border by the river. They came from across the country to a mill that advertised houses, good wages, schools, medical facilities and a promise to only hire Americans.  The poor came in from the rag tag farms in the hills, swamps and out of the way places for a better life.  Illiterate and impoverished they were a cast apart from the regular townsfolk.  That disparity was magnified and the term “Linthead” became both a moniker of scorn and a badge of honor, depending on the accuser.

Staci Richey of Access Preservation is credited for helping to bring the Olympia story to life.  Located at 1170 Olympia Avenue in Columbia, SC, the Olympia Mill Village Museum is professionally laid out to draw the visitor through the years of one of the oldest communities in the capital city.  With her guidance the community has birthed a gem of historic proportions. 

The benefactors for the museum include many of the old families of the community.  Their childhood memories are literally a part of the displays.  Pictures, newspaper articles, baseball memorabilia, uniforms, old desks and tools are treasures to the inquiring enthusiast. They recall a time repeated all across the south where a child would start and graduate from school in the same building, in the same community in which they lived.  A place where the parents dreamed, worked and encouraged a better life and education for their children.

A visit to this museum on a Friday or Saturday is liable to lead to long talks about yesteryear, remembrances of cork-ball games or the smell of fat-back frying in the pan.  Former mill-village children may drop in and one might overhear conversations about the nearby YMCA or the drive-in that used to be across from the fairgrounds. 

Dr. Sherry Jaco beams with pride as she eloquently speaks about her memories in Olympia.  We gathered in the small school house turned museum where her grandfather, Major, had jumped out of the window and into the mill.  She knows where she came from. She understands how she was able to succeed.  Her life started here in Olympia!

 “Everyone has a story!” she exclaimed.  “The museum has become a gathering place.  We are celebrating those stories.”

For more information about the museum be sure to visit: https://www.olympiagranbymillvillagemuseum.com/

For more information on the Textile Writing Project visit: https://www.ekbarnes.com/textile-writing-project/

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