Aiken County, SC (WJBF)- The Savannah River Site has been a huge part of the CSRA for nearly 75 years. Most of us can’t imagine the area without it.
But, in 1950 when it was announced the plant would be coming to Aiken, thousands of people were forced to move from the only homes they had ever known.
In January’s Hometown History, Kim Vickers takes a look at one of those towns.
Even today, people still talk about the town of Ellenton. Not only do they still talk about it, there is a reunion held every year for the families that lived there.
Ellenton was a tight knit community and though there aren’t many left alive who lived there, to this day they still mourn what they lost.
Families lived on the land that would become Ellenton for centuries. One of those was the Dunbar family who settled there in the late 1700’s.
The Port Royal to Augusta Railroad wanted to lay tracks through the Dunbar property in 1870.
George Wingard, Coordinator for the Savannah River Archeological Research Program, said the railroad birthed many towns along its route.
“A Mr. Stephen Millet, who came from Port Royal, traveled along this route. He would visit families who owned property along the railroad and would discuss with them the option of being able to lay the railroad across their property line,” explained Wingard.
Millet stayed with the Dunbar family and convinced them to give land to the railroad to lay tracks and build a station.
Legend has it that he became enamored with their 9-year-old daughter, being struck by her beauty, and vowed to name the town around the station after her.
“And while staying with the Dunbar family he, met their daughter. The story goes that she was 9-years-old and he was infatuated with the young daughter, whose name was Ellen. And the town became known as ‘Ellen’s Town’ or Ellenton,” said Wingard.
Later research shows the age difference between Ellen Dunbar and the 32-year-old Millet was exaggerated.
“Later, census records indicate that Ellen was actually around 26 years-old. So, a little bit different story there,” Wingard smiled.
Families began settling in Ellenton in 1873 and in 1880 it was officially incorporated as a town.
“It was an agricultural area. Soybeans, watermelons, cotton, rice was grown in the area. And so agriculture was really the main staple for many of the families that lived there,” Wingard said.
Farming wasn’t the only industry in Ellenton.
“The major large industry there at the time was a company called the Leigh Banana Case Company which grew up in the 1920’s,” said Wingard. “And what they did, is they would go into the swamps of the Savannah River. They would cut the cypress and the sweet gum trees and they would veneer that at their facility, the Leigh Banana Case Company milling plant and they would make banana cases.”
When the company came to the area in 1926, an employee made an eerily prophetic statement to the newspaper.
“He says, you know, we were able to lease and buy property that, we should be able to have a great business here for at least 25 years. Which is really ironic, because when you add 25 years to 1926 it brings you right to the 1950’s. So, it was almost like he was predicting that within 25 years, there was going to be a major upheaval to their company,” Wingard explained.
Ellenton was the first town in South Carolina to have an automatic telephone dialing system and after the Great Depression, it has the first cash depository.
Many families that still live in Aiken and Barnwell Counties trace their roots to the town of Ellenton.
The Buckinghams, the Ashleys, the Dunbars and the Bushes are just a few.
One family had a big impact on the community.
“One of the most prominent families in town was known as the Cassels Family. The Cassels came in as early as the 1920’s, were a very entrepreneurial family. Mr. Cassels actually owned, they owned a large dairy, they owned both the black and the white funeral homes. They actually had an ESSO gas petroleum franchise in the local area. And they had probably what most people know as the Cassels long store,” said Wingard.
The Cassels family is credited with bringing electricity to Ellenton in 1929.
H.M Cassels Sr built a hydroelectric plant on his pond after not getting a response from South Carolina Power company when they put in a request for electric service in town.
“As part of that hydroelectric plant, he furnished lights to the town of Ellenton. There were 26 lights in the town of Ellenton in the 1920’s. And he felt it was more cost efficient to just leave the lights burning all day than it was to have someone go around and turn them off every night.”
Ellenton was known for it’s community spirit. Many historians believe it’s what got them through the tough times, like the Great Depression.
“The town itself had about 600 people. And everybody knew everybody. You had two main doctors. You had Dr. Culbreath, was one of the main doctors,” Wingard said. “Dr. Brinkley was the other doctor. These two doctors, small town doctors would do anything they could for their patients, both black and white.”
In the post Civil War/Jim Crow era, Ellenton was not immune to the racial tension.
Segregation was observed, having separate schools, separate sides of the movie theater, and even separate funeral homes.
Some of those tensions boiled over on September 19, 1876 in what is known today as the Ellenton Riot.
“Two African American gentleman were, again loosely the story is, they were running through a yard, knocked over a lady, which of course just turned the town upside down.”
Other accounts of the incident claim that the two men were attempting to rob the woman and knocked her down several times. Those accounts also say that she scared the men away with a shot gun.
Once word got out about what happened, people went crazy.
“So the area really just kind of exploded with anger on both sides, both black and white. We do know of two deaths. We know there was one white killed and one black killed. One man was brought to Aiken County, but no charges were pressed against anyone in this situation,” explained Wingard.
Stories claim that hundreds died during the riot, but Wingard said the records he has found don’t support that.
“Supposedly there were hundreds killed at the time, hundreds of people were arrested, but for the most part all we’ve ever found were the two deaths that occurred during the Ellenton Riot.”
People returned to their daily lives, tensions eventually easing somewhat.
Then in November of 1950, an announcement was made that would change the lives of ALL of the townspeople forever.
“The SRS, or the Savannah River Site, which was formally known as the Savannah River Plant, was built in response to the fact that, at the end of World War II, the Soviet Union was able to successfully detonate its own atomic bomb. Which meant that the US was ready to up their nuclear power and create hydrogen bomb,” explained Kelly Brown, Director of the SRS Museum.
Out of more than 100 potential sites for the new plant, President Harry Truman chose South Carolina.
Brown explained that there were several reasons why the president chose the location.
“This area was specifically chosen for several reasons. One of them being that it was close to the Savannah River, which was where they were going to use a lot of water to draw into the reactors. It also was pretty isolated. So, by pretty isolated, that means that there weren’t huge cities nearby. But there were small communities in the area.”
Those small communities included Ellenton, Dunbarton, Hawthorne, Myers Mill, and Leigh. All of those communities, between 6,000 and 8,000 people, would need to be evacuated.
Rumors that something big was coming had been floating around, but the people of Ellenton were shocked when they learned that they were going to be forced to sell their land and homes to make way for the new plant.
“A week after the announcement, which was November 28th, 1950, they gathered all these people from the community and basically let them know exactly what was going to happen. There was going to be a nuclear plant in the area and they were all going to have to pack up and leave,” Brown said.
According to Brown, the people were devastated at the news.
“Well as you can probably imagine, if someone told you you needed to pack up and leave the home you’d been living at for, you know, generations, a lot of people were really upset.”
One young man felt the need to write his reaction down and display it on a sign. The photos taken of the sign became a symbol of grief to the families of Ellenton.
“A young man named Bonner Smith. He was working at the Leigh Banana Case factory. And he left work one day and got shoe polish and he wrote a very emotional reaction and put that up on the Ellenton incorporated sign,” said Brown.
Part of the original sign is now housed in the SRS Museum.
While everyone was upset they would have to leave, Brown believes there was also some pride in sacrificing for the greater good.
“So there was a lot of hurt and anger, but I think also, interestingly, there was a current of patriotism. People were like ‘Well ok. We’re gonna leave, but you know, in the end it’s for the good of the country. This is going to help us win the Cold War.'”
Folks were given 18 months to get out. Those who didn’t own property were expected to just leave. The government did pay the property owners for their land.
Some say they were underpaid by nearly 10 million dollars. Wingard disagrees.
“From what I can see from the records, they were paid fair market value for their property. They were paid for– they were paid for the acreage, which appeared to be fair. They were paid for structures– all the improvements.”
The living weren’t the only ones to leave Ellenton. More than 6,000 graves were relocated as well. Though today there are still graves in the cemeteries on site.
“We still have over 30 cemeteries on site- about 700 individuals. 130 cemeteries were moved. About 6,000 individuals were moved,” said Wingard.
The people of Ellenton all eventually left their lives and their homes behind to make a new start elsewhere.
Some moved to already existing surrounding towns. Others gathered in an area previously known as North Ellenton and renamed it New Ellenton.
Those families never forgot where they came from.
Though most that lived in Ellenton at the time of the move have died, their families still mourn the town. Brown theorized as to why the defunct town is still so important to people in the area.
“A lot of people are drawn to the history of your family or where the people you love grew up and what they experienced. So, I think not really being able to go back and see what your older family members grew up with, maybe feels like they are missing out on a piece of their own personal history.”
Though the land where Ellenton once stood is off limits to the public today, SRS still does tours of the area.
Wingard explained that driving through the town and seeing what remains is an eerie reminder of what used to be.
“The first time I visited some of the towns- that was really interesting. The roads that kinda lead to nowhere. Seeing the brick stairs that step up to nowhere. It really gives you…that’s where it really hits home that people lived here and are no longer here.”
And there is one area on Highway 125 where anyone can stop and pay homage. A historical marker set up in 1993 to commemorate Ellenton and the people who lived there. It was erected by the Ellenton Reunion Organization, a group that still meets today.
“Those folks still get together just to reminisce about what was and what could have been. They get together. They talk about the stories there,” Wingard said.
The Ellenton Reunion for this year has already been scheduled.
It will be held on Sunday, June 11 at St. Paul United Methodist Church’s Family Life Center in New Ellenton beginning at 11 a.m.
Hey CSRA! That’s just PART of your Hometown History.
Photojournalist: Will Baker.