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 three 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 at the highest site between Augusta and Greenville and aptly named it Mount Ariel. The date was July 4, 1824.
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. This 65-acre campus now serves 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 Northerner 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, a noted 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. Some sources say Tilden was in turn succeeded by one of Olin’s former students, Adam Crawford, though others say he was the last teacher to serve at the school . In any case, Tabernacle Academy had by then earned “a great reputation for thoroughness of scholarship and spirituality of religion,” according to the South Carolina Methodist Conference, which decided to appoint one of its members to serve as a rector. Upon receiving this honor, the school and its surrounding community moved “three miles to the north to a beautiful location on an oak-covered, sandy ridge known as Mount Ariel.”
Mount Ariel Academy
The new school, named Mount Ariel Academy, opened in March of 1825 and within a year had grown substantially. Not only did its trustees quickly have to erect a larger building, but a girl’s division was added as well. The boys’ academy was particularly successful and entered seven students into Methodist itnerancy between the years of 1825 and 1831 alone.
This accomplishment was not lost on South Carolina Conference, which had grown concerned that there were too few Methodist institutions of education in America. By 1832, South Carolina Methodist minister and education proponent George Dougherty had begun efforts to develop a Methodist preparatory school that would feed Randolph-Macon College in Virginia.
The residents of Mount Ariel campaigned for this new institute to be established in their community, and they offered the South Carolina Conference $6,000 in cash as well as both their male and female academies. The conference accepted the deal, and on May 16, 1834, the board of trustees held their first meeting in Mount Ariel. This same day, residents voted to change the name of their village from Mount Ariel to Cokesbury, an appellation suggested by board-member William Wrightman.
Dougherty Manual Labor School
The Dougherty Manual School of the South Carolina Conference – or Cokesbury Conference College as it was commonly called – took its formal name from the Reverend George Dougherty and opened in 1835. Classes continued to be held in the buildings inherited from Mt. Ariel, but Dougherty purchased an additional 1,000 acres on which to expand. In March of 1836, the new campus officially opened with “a two-story brick structure fifty feet square with a wing thirty-four feet by forty feet, a rector’s house, a teacher’s house, a steward’s house, six cottages for students, a mess hall, and a barn.” An infirmary was built in 1837, and the male academy from Mt Ariel was transformed into a temporary chapel.
This arrangement lasted nearly two decades, but in 1854 the school ceased boarding. The dormitories had been condemned as unsafe and needed repairs. In lieu of this expense, local citizens were asked to shelter students in their homes. The abandoned buildings were dismantled for materials, with some going to the construction of a new chapel and others going towards a brand new college, this one dedicated to the education of young woman.
At this time, Dougherty constructed a permanent chapel of brick which was flanked by two classrooms. According to the Reverend Dr. C. E. Peele, the chapel and classrooms were placed “in the midst of beautiful oaks on a knoll in the center of campus.”
At Dougherty Manual Labor School, male students were expected to labor at the school for three hours per day in exchange for tuition credit; it is unclear whether the exchange program was also offered to females.
Masonic Female Collegiate Institute
In 1853, the Bascombe Lodge No. 90 of the Ancient Freemasons developed a plan to construct a college entirely for women – a progressive idea during its time! As a result, Cokesbury College – which today stands as the symbol of the Cokesbury community – was built in 1854. Then called the Masonic Female Collegiate Institute, it partnered closely with the Cokesbury Conference School.
According to the Cokesbury Historical and Recreational Commission, 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.
The commission also provides these details about life at the college: “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.”
The interior of the school was divided into four rooms for music and four rooms for recitation — the act of repeating something in a public or group setting. On the second level there was a chapel and on the third level, Masonic Lodge headquarters. Two of the four recitation rooms can be seen in the photos above and below.
Long-term financial struggles led to the school’s eventual 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.
The institute 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 of 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). The historic postcard below shows many of the landmarks that occupied Old Cokesbury.
The shell of a replica of Mount Ariel Presbyterian Church 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:
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.”
More Pictures of Cokesbury College