A venerable Aiken tradition reached a milestone in September 2009. That month, the Hitchcock Woods Foundation observed 70 years of service in managing and maintaining the Hitchcock Woods, making it available for the enjoyment of this community every day of the year … free of charge.
The Foundation was established as a nonprofit organization in 1939. That year the Hitchcock family committed 1,191 acres to be transferred to the Foundation over a period of years. In recent decades, the Foundation acquired more than 900 additional acres through the purchase or donation of adjoining tracts. With more than 2,100 acres today, Hitchcock Woods is likely the nation’s largest privately owned urban forest.
Many generations of Aiken’s families and visitors have taken great pleasure in visiting the Hitchcock Woods. Sensitive to this heritage, the Foundation has ensured that future generations will enjoy the same benefits. Most of the acreage now is protected in a South Carolina Heritage Trust conservation easement signed in 1997 to ensure that the natural character of these lands will be preserved in perpetuity.
Over the years, scores of Aiken residents have served on the Foundation’s board of trustees, ten of them as chairman, but all of them as committed volunteers who have collectively shouldered the tremendous responsibilities that come with the stewardship of this land. In the early decades, the board of trustees personally funded all operating expenses and managed the small handful of men who served as caretakers over the years. Among them was a woodsman who retired in 2007 after nearly 50 years of faithful service.
Until the early 1990s, for the most part, there was a single person on staff at a time. Today the Foundation has a staff of four, three full-time and one part-time. Clearly this is a modest workforce given the significance of the Woods and the value of its uses. Hitchcock Woods offers environmental and recreational resources that help to define the Aiken community. These characteristics distinguish Aiken even on a national scale.
Hitchcock Woods is a mixed use forest, so the Foundation has a diverse mission … to protect and preserve the Hitchcock Woods in a natural and ecologically healthy state; to maintain and manage historic and traditional equestrian and pedestrian uses; and to foster education and research on the history and resources of the Woods.
Even more ambitious is the organization’s vision to maintain and restore the ecological integrity of the Hitchcock Woods, and to serve as a model for sustainable urban forestry, balancing stewardship of forestland natural resources with compatible human uses.
The Foundation cannot accomplish this mission and vision alone. Preserving the Hitchcock Woods in the center of Aiken’s growing population is an effort that requires the commitment of the greater community and the consistent involvement of the Foundation’s financial supporters. From the first gift of land in 1939, the Hitchcock Woods has been a labor of love.
In the mid-1800s, Aiken was recognized as a place with healing qualities, attracting sickly patients from the coast and elsewhere who benefitted from the warm, dryer air. One of these visitors was a frail little girl, Louise Eustis. She was brought to Aiken by her Aunt Celestine Eustis, who hoped the girl’s health would be restored by Aiken’s climate. Realizing Aiken’s glory was its stand of magnificent longleaf pines, Miss Eustis bought some of the land.
Although Louise Eustis spent most of her winters in Aiken, her Aunt Celestine made sure that she was properly inducted into New York society. It was at one of these occasions that Louise met Thomas Hitchcock, a prominent Long Island sportsman, whom she married in 1891. Louise persuaded her new husband to spend just one winter in Aiken and he quickly discovered that the sandy soil here was ideal for training his horses. The Hitchcocks would continue to return to Aiken each winter.
In 1892, the Hitchcocks invited William C. Whitney, the former Secretary of the Navy in the Grover Cleveland administration and an avid horseman, to visit Aiken. Whitney also fell in love with Aiken, and by 1898, Hitchcock and Whitney had made many contributions to sporting life in the Aiken area. One of their greatest contributions was the joint purchase of an eight thousand acre tract of pine forest that also interested Celestine Eustis.
From the first days of the Whitney and Hitchcock land purchases, equine sport was prevalent in the Woods. The Aiken Hunt, a live hunt in pursuit of wild fox, was founded in the late 1890s. In 1916, Mr. & Mrs. Hitchcock started the annual Aiken Horse Show. After a lapse due to World War I, the Hitchcocks replaced the live fox with a scent that was manually applied to the trails, and founded the Aiken Drag in 1919. Today known as the Aiken Hounds, they are the oldest continuous hunting hounds in the country.
Tragedy stuck Aiken on December 26, 1933, when Louise Eustis Hitchcock was fatally injured. Riding the front line of the children’s drag, her horse went down and she suffered two broken vertebrae in her neck. She was gently moved to her home, “Mon Repos,” and died there on April 1, 1934 … Easter Sunday.
After her death, the future of the land that had brought pleasure to Louise and her friends and family for so many years came into question. In 1939, Thomas “Tommy” Hitchcock, Jr., and his sister, Helen Hitchcock Clark, established The Hitchcock Foundation as an eleemosynary corporation. The first donation received by the corporation was 1,191 acres of this vast woodland. Additional purchases and generous gifts through the years have brought the total to about 2,100 acres. The corporate name was changed to “Hitchcock Woods Foundation” in 2006 to better reflect the organization’s commitment to the Woods.
Without the efforts of the Foundation, one of the largest urban forests in the United States would have been lost to mining, timbering, and residential development. Established to protect and maintain the Woods for the recreational use and enjoyment by the people of Aiken, the Foundation is committed to this cause in perpetuity.
The Hitchcock Woods Foundation Board of Trustees has had ten chairmen over the years. Mr. Thomas Hitchcock, Jr., was elected as the first chairman in 1939. After his death in 1944, Helen Hitchcock Clark was elected chairman and served until 1957. Seymour H. Knox, Samuel A. Cothran, Harry E. Shealy, Jr., Ph.D., John M. Seabrook, Timothy W. Simmons, Peter L. Gray, and Gail B. King have also served as very capable leaders of the Foundation. The current chairman is Randolph A. Wolcott, who was elected in 2008 after ten years of active service on the board and its many committees.