A writer once said of Aiken, “It is, perhaps, the one town in America, where the stables and not the garage are the shrine of family life.” Few have better encapsulated the character and living history of Aiken, South Carolina—its heritage of the horse.
Aiken’s story is one of love for horses and a keen appreciation of understated luxury. The original members of the Winter Colony, those who every year left Long Island for the longleaf pine, sought respite not only from harsh winters, but also from the ailments and stresses of busy lives. The Hitchcocks, Whitneys, Vanderbilts, Mellons, Astors, Graces and others grew to establish more than just a yearly pilgrimage.
They built a way of life—combining the ease of a Southern town with the cosmopolitan graces of their worldly backgrounds—that is still enjoyed today.
Polo was first played in Aiken just a few years after it was introduced to America, and the Whitney Field has seen 133 years of continuously played matches since—the longest in the country. Aiken has been home to some of the greatest figures of the game: Thomas Hitchcock Sr. and Tommy Hitchcock Jr., G.H. “Pete” Bostwick, Devereux Milburn, and others.
The Whitney Field is just blocks away from the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum, which commemorates Aiken’s rich history of horse racing. While Aiken’s first steeplechase was held in 1930, the town was a top location for thoroughbred training for decades before, with its mild winters and ideal soil conditions. Progenitors of Aiken’s horse racing tradition such as the famed sportsman F. Ambrose Clark, or “Uncle Brose”, also supported the growth of a diversity of equestrian sports, such as showing, fox hunting, and carriage riding.
Aiken’s sporting heritage is not just limited to horses. Early enthusiasts and sponsors Thomas Hitchcock Sr. and William C. Whitney formed the Whitney Trust “for the promotion of all kinds of sports and pastimes in the City of Aiken and its vicinity.” In addition to operating the field and grounds of the Whitney Polo Field, the trust maintains the nearby Palmetto Golf Club, founded by Hitchcock in 1892. Aiken also boasts one of ten active Court Tennis courts in the country, located at the Aiken Tennis Club, a private club founded by William C. Whitney in 1898.
Speaking of the impact of the famed Winter Colony, local historian Vivian Milner wrote,
"there is the imprint on the character of Aiken: the healthful love of horses, golf and the outdoors; the cosmopolitan exposure to the graces… bestowed by Aiken’s Winter Colony.”
Today Aiken enjoys its healthy growth as a modern town, yet effortlessly maintains the tradition of its unique heritage.
The Whitney Polo Field, Palmetto Golf Club, and Aiken Tennis Club remain popular draws for Aiken’s renaissance sporting interests. The beautiful Hopeland Gardens attract numerous visitors, and the Hitchcock Woods are an ever-increasing draw for outdoor enthusiasts, offering hiking, running, and riding trails, and having just played host to the 99th Annual Horse Show in the Woods.
Many of the historic estates of the Winter Colony have been preserved, and several which are not still inhabited have been entrusted to civic ventures such as the Aiken County Historical Museum, Rye Patch Reception Center, and others.
Downtown Aiken is home to a vibrant cultural scene, with boutique shopping, dining, and nightlife attractions drawing visitors from all over the region. Events fill up the yearly calendars, with music festivals, craft fairs, and the renowned Lobster Races rounding out the lists. Historic hotels provide accommodation in the heart of downtown, and an easy, inviting pace pervades the cosmopolitan yet relaxed atmosphere.
For more information about our unique community, please visit visitaikensc.com.