William Gregg and Aiken’s First Peaches

wm greggWilliam Gregg was born in Monongalia County, West Virginia in 1800. William’s mother died when he was four years old, and his uncle Jacob Gregg took him in. William’s uncle made both watches and textile spinning machinery. What may have seemed like two entirely different skill types were, in fact, a perfect match for the young William Gregg. 

As an adult, William made his fortune in Charleston from his success as a watchmaker, a silversmith, an importer, and from his inheritance. He wrote a series of articles that appeared in the Charleston Courier. These articles outlined ways in which men of business in the South could invest in manufacturing. Gregg wrote about his belief that the area should stop depending on plantation agriculture as the only means of commerce. These articles eventually were consolidated into a pamphlet called Essays on Domestic Industry and made Gregg the leading advocate for industrialization. 

A Move From Charleston

It was his personal involvement with a Vaucluse mill, less than three miles from downtown Aiken, that spurred him to move from Charleston and begin work on his most deeply held dream of helping poor, southern people prosper in a structured mill village. 

By the time Gregg made Aiken his permanent home in 1845, he was quite wealthy. He was ready to prove that his ardent belief in rescuing the economy of the South from a reliance on plantation agriculture could become a reality. Many people who didn’t own their own land found it difficult to provide for themselves and their families. These people often could not read or write, and they had no specific skills other than working on other people’s farms. The Graniteville Manufacturing Company Mill and village were constructed on the banks of Horse Creek – then Edgefield County and today, Aiken County – six miles from the City of Aiken. Gregg’s project was named “Graniteville” because the main material used to construct it was granite mined from a local quarry. 

Graniteville had a huge cotton mill at the center of the town. Gregg had houses built that were affordable for the workers to rent and that were maintained by the company. There were village doctors to take care of illness. Parents were responsible, as employees of the mills, to make sure their children attended the school in the village. Many children of that era were forced to work by the age of eight or nine, but Gregg’s “compulsatory school” meant that parents could not work for the mill unless they made sure their children attended school regularly. Shortly after the mill opened in 1849, with the village in place, Graniteville became one of the most successful textile factories in the southern United States. 

Highest Hill in Town

While Gregg watched so many of his personal theories of industrialization thrive, he made his home up the hill from Graniteville in a house called “Kalmia.” It was built on the summit of the highest hill in the town of Aiken on which hundreds of Kalmia bushes grew. His large house stood on the corner of what today is Richland and Summit. The house was one of the first in town to have “illuminating gas” that provided light, rather than just candles or oil lamps. 

Above all other interests, William Gregg enjoyed gardening. And as a very energetic man on the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, he approached gardening with the same enthusiasm as he did everything else in his life. In 1857, he planted 2,000 peach trees in front of his house on the 100 acres on which it stood. Gregg regularly attended meetings with Governor James Hammond at the Beech Island Farmer’s Club to confer with other growers and apply what he’d learned to make his crop flourish. He also got advice from his good friend Henry William Ravenel, the famous botanist who lived and did his research in Aiken. 

Gregg wanted his peach orchard to demonstrate the success that could be accomplished by South Carolina farmers, and soon he began shipping his fruit, each peach individually wrapped and packed, by night train from the nearby Kalmia Station. The peaches traveled to Charleston, where they were transferred to a steamer ship and taken directly to New York City. People there bought the fruit as soon as it arrived. Gregg’s Aiken-grown peaches had the reputation in New York as being the freshest peaches available. A mere three days elapsed between the time the peaches were picked off the tree in Aiken and when they could be eaten 800 miles away. 

Right before the start of the Civil War, Gregg planted 6,000 more peach trees on terraces that sloped to the east behind his house. Entries from his personal diary show that he mostly grew the Tillotson variety of peach. He also mentions that he “grafted Chinese peaches.” All told, Gregg had a combined orchard of 8,500 trees. He was the first commercial peach farmer in South Carolina, as well as the “Father of the Southern Textile Industry.” 

So less than two hundred years ago, on land that today hosts hundreds of private homes as well as businesses such as Walmart, Aiken Regional Medical Centers and the University of South Carolina Aiken, thousands of peach trees once stood, supplying fruit to both local and national consumers.  

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Graniteville

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The Graniteville Manufacturing Company Mill and village were constructed on the banks of Horse Creek—then Edgefield County and today, Aiken County—six miles from the City of Aiken. Gregg’s project was named “Graniteville” because the main material used to construct it was granite mined from a local quarry.

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