Horses and history in Aiken, South Carolina
It’s well known that birds fly south for the winter, but the Vanderbilts did too—and when they went south, they went to Aiken.
In the 1870’s, Aiken, South Carolina was already beginning to make a name for itself. The equestrian lifestyle the city is now known for—polo, racing, and show jumping—this is when it all began. Thomas Hitchcock, Sr. and William C. Whitney established it as the Winter Colony. Horses in tow, it became a welcome respite from the frigid northern winters for many of history’s famous families. Eugene Grace, president of Bethlehem Steel, Seymour H. Knox II and his sister Dorothy Knox Goodyear Rogers, heir to the Woolworth fortune, the Rockefellers, and many others relished in the freedom Aiken provided.
They weren’t the only ones who fell in love with the equestrian lifestyle. In 1882, polo arrived in Aiken. By 1930, the Aiken Steeplechase Association was formed, bringing in over 30,000 people to the city for annual horse races that continue to this day. By 1942, the Aiken Trials were created to offer younger horses a live racing experience.
With each passing year, the equestrian culture continued to grow until the entire community was completely immersed—so much so that horses have the right of way on the roads. The city is also home to the largest urban forest in the United States, and it’s full of sandy trails for horseback riders. Outside of the forest, there are trails that will take you past some of the stunning winter colony estates. The historic homes are architectural beauties, ranging in style from Victorian to Classical Revival. When you visit, you feel transported back in time.
In fact, the whole city of Aiken feels like a time capsule. You can still catch a polo game on historic Whitney Field every Sunday afternoon during the polo season.
Horse farms are situated right in the middle of the city, and inside the horse district the city maintains dirt roads. You can sit down for a classic southern breakfast at Track Kitchen, which has been serving riders, trainers, locals, and tourists each fall, winter, and spring since 1957. Current owner, Carol Carter, has been cooking every plate since 1978. Decades old photos line the walls, a peek into the past lives of equestrians who sat in the same slat-backed chairs for a hearty post-training meal. Everywhere you go, you’re steeped in history.
The atmosphere of friendly contesting builds a close community that loves celebrating together as much as they love competing with each other. Another time-honored tradition, a well known affair for most southerners, is tailgating. But it’s not for football—the elevated tailgate experience is for polo matches, and it’s not uncommon to see chandeliers in canopy tents, sparkling over cocktails and finger foods. Though it feels fancy, all folks are welcome to eat, drink, and enjoy the sporting spirit.
Each March, Juilliard School’s best musicians and dancers come for Joye Aiken, a season of performances across town that bring people together from near and far. Named for Joye Cottage, a 60 room mansion that hosted prominent families in its early days, the week long festival brings entertainment that used to be accessible to only a privileged few, and introduces it to all.
It’s not the Live Oak trees that make the city special—you can find those all across the state—it’s the city’s roots. Nowhere is historical tradition tied more closely to today than Aiken. The early infusion of wealth, art, and culture cultivated a southern experience you can’t find anywhere else. Travel through time in Aiken, home of history, hospitality, and natural beauty.