Cokesbury – Cokesbury, South Carolina
South Carolina | SC Picture Project | Greenwood County Photos | Cokesbury
The once-thriving community of Cokesbury in Greenwood County is named for America’s first two Methodist bishops – Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury. However, it was originally called Mount Ariel and is said to have been one of South Carolina’s first planned communities. Not only that, but it may be the only planned community in our state designed around a school.
The history of Cokesbury actually begins two miles down the road in the now-vanished village of Tabernacle. Tabernacle was founded in the latter half of the eighteenth century by the Methodist preacher Thomas Humphries, but its residents – seeking higher elevation and healthier soil – eventually decided to move. They established their new town on July 4, 1824 – at the highest site between Augusta and Greenville – and aptly named it Mount Ariel.
In 1834 strong alliances with the Methodist Church prompted residents to adopt their new portmanteau. Cokesbury itself has also faded with time, though the area is still recognized as a Census Designated Place. It is home to Cokesbury College, built in 1854. Its 65-acre campus now functions as an event venue maintained by the Cokesbury Historical and Recreational Commission.
In its prime, Cokesbury was the celebrated home of many prominent South Carolinians. In fact, Confederate President Jefferson Davis is said to have spent the night here while traveling from Richmond, Virginia, to Georgia in May of 1865.
Education had been important in Tabernacle and the community there organized a school. Tabernacle Academy was originally housed in a small, windowless log cabin under the oaks next to the church. During this time, it was taught by a New Englander named Doolittle, but by 1820, a new building, which would double as a church, was under construction and the trustees had taken out an advertisement for a teacher. They found their successful candidate in a young man named Stephen Olin, whom they hired for $700 a year. Olin was not a Methodist when he arrived, but he converted to Christianity during his service at the school and eventually went on to become a minister and the president of Wesleyan University, the renowned Methodist college in Connecticut.
The new building, constructed in a frame style, did not have plaster or ceilings, but it did have a fireplace at each end. After Mr. Olin left to join the Methodist conference, he was succeeded by another Northerner, named Tilden, and then by one of his former students, Adam Crawford.
Mount Ariel Academy
In making the transition, the old schoolhouse was abandoned and then sold to a local farmer who used the wood to build a barn. The new school, which originally served only boys, opened in March 1826. It was called Mount Ariel Academy and within a year had grown substantially. Not only did its trustees have to erect a larger building, but a girl’s school was added as well.
Mount Ariel Academy was founded in 1825 when the community of Tabernacle migrated to the newly-planned community of Mount Ariel two miles away. The residents of the new community quickly re-established its school as Mount Ariel, which included a male and female academy. Meanwhile, the South Carolina Conference of the Methodist Church became concerned that there were so few Methodist institutions of education in America. South Carolina Methodist minister and proponent of education George Dougherty led the charge to develop a Methodist school, and when the South Carolina Conference aligned with Randolph-Macon College in Virginia in 1832, the Conference appointed a committee to establish a preparatory school that would feed the Methodist college.
The residents of Mount Ariel campaigned to be the location of this new school and offered the South Carolina Conference $6,000, both the male and female academies, and land if it would choose their community as the site of the new school. The Conference accepted the deal, and the Dougherty Manual School, named for the Reverend George Dougherty, opened in 1835 and met temporarily in extant buildings while a new school was constructed. Students were required to labor at the school for three hours per day in exchange for tuition credit, also giving the school its name. By 1836 a two-story brick building to house the school was complete, and a female academy was established within the school, though there is no evidence that the labor program was also offered to female students.
By 1853 the school building had deteriorated and was condemned as unsafe. It was demolished, with materials from the building used to construct a chapel (see below) flanked by two classrooms. In 1856 the school was renamed the Cokesbury Manual Labor School of the South Carolina Conference, also known as the Cokesbury Conference School.
Also in 1853, the Bascombe Lodge No. 90 of the Ancient Freemasons developed a plan to construct a school for women within the same community. As a result, Cokesbury College, pictured here, was built in 1854 as the Masonic Female Collegiate Institute, a school for women that was considered fairly progressive during its time. The Masonic Female College worked closely with the Cokesbury Conference School.
According to the Cokesbury Historical and Recreational Commission, the school was completed, “and on June 27, 1854, ceremonies for the laying of the cornerstone were held. It was a big event, and people came from miles around. Special trains were run from Abbeville and Newberry to Cokesbury Junction. It was reported that over 2,000 people attended the ceremony at Cokesbury, which included many dignitaries.
“Tuition for the college was $40 for a freshman, $45 for a sophomore or junior, and $50 for a senior. Greek, Latin, or one of the modern languages was another $20. Music was $40, and the use of instruments for practice was another $20. Drawing or painting was $20. The college had no dormitory, and the young ladies attending the college had to board with local residents in Cokesbury for $10 a month.”
Long-term financial struggles led to the school’s demise, particularly during the Civil War, and by 1876, the Masonic Female Collegiate Institute had transformed into the Cokesbury Conference Institute after the South Carolina Conference exchanged properties with the Masonic Women’s College. It operated until 1911 and was sold to the city of Greenwood in 1918. From 1918 until 1954 the building was used as a public school; the Methodist Conference resumed ownership later that year.
In 1971 the Conference deeded the property to the Cokesbury Historical and Recreational Commission Restoration, which restored the building in 1974. The Commission continues to maintain the property and its surrounding historic buildings, including a replica of the Mount Ariel Chapel (see photograph and info below), the post office and general store, and two houses. (Note: These homes were sold in June, 2014 to a man from Atlanta who intends to restore them; they will remain in place.) Today the building is called simply Cokesbury College and is a popular event site as well as an historical landmark that anchors the Cokesbury community.
Old Cokesbury Settlement
Cokesbury was a planned community and included several business, including the general store pictured here. As was common during the time, this store also housed a small post office. Built in 1850, the building is now used for storage. There was also a church, called Mount Ariel Presbyterian Church (see below).
Mount Ariel Chapel
The shell of a replica of Mount Ariel Presbyterian Church (seen below) stands in Cokesbury today. The original, built from remnants of the Dougherty Manual Labor School in 1854, was destroyed many years ago, but the Wilbur Smith Company began efforts to build a new one bearing the likeness of the original in 1973. Sadly, it was never completed and has fallen into disrepair. The Cokesbury Historical and Recreational Commission is hoping to secure funding to restore the chapel in the future.
The buildings of Cokesbury occasionally open to the public for tours. They are listed in the National Register, which says the following:
The Old Cokesbury College building was built in 1854 in the Greek Revival style. It has a bell tower, four square columns rising from ground level to pediment, and a double-door entrance at the second floor level. The Masonic Female College of South Carolina, an effective though brief experiment in education for young women (1853-1874), represented ideas that were rather advanced for the times. This institution is said to have furthered the charm, character and influence of the town. From 1876-1918, Cokesbury Conference School was celebrated for the high caliber of its education—first operated as a school for boys, co-educational from 1882, and a public school from 1918 to 1954, when the property reverted to the Methodist Conference. The village of Cokesbury was laid out in 1824 and is one of South Carolina’s earliest planned communities. As a testament to the community’s emphasis on education, the town was developed for and around the school. The village was initially called Mount Ariel, but in 1834 residents changed the name to Cokesbury in honor of Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, the first two Methodist bishops in the United States.
Reflections on Cokesbury
Rob Jones of the Cokesbury Historical and Recreation Commission shared much of the above information with the SC Picture Project. He goes on to say, “The existing [church] building was built to be a replica of the original Mt. Ariel Presbyterian Church that was destroyed many years ago. It was built but never finished in 1973 by the Wilbur Smith Company. May 16th marked the 180th anniversary of the areas name being changed from Mt. Ariel to Cokesbury. The Church is in very bad condition due to years of vandalism. I am on the Cokesbury Historical and Recreation Commission and we do hope to restore and finish it when we are through with the repairs on the college building. All it takes is money which like most non-profits we are woefully short of.”
The Conference deeded the property to us in 1971 when the legislature enacted the Commission. The building was fully renovated and opened in 1974. But it has been 40 years and it needs a little TLC. We have a 65-acre campus and own the church, post office and general store, and two houses original to the Cokesbury/ Mt. Ariel. In fact we are selling the houses through the Palmetto Trust to someone who will restore them.”
Address: College Drive and Asbury Road, Cokesbury, SC 29653
Cokesbury Add Info and More Photos
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