Books. There are venerable collections of history in Charleston. One of my favorite places is the Charleston Library Society on King Street, a charming library that is open to the public, that backs up to the garden behind the Gibbes Museum of Art. The path from the side of this building over to Meeting Street on through the graveyard of the Circular Church is one of my favorite walks. The wide steps that lead up to the Charleston Library Society’s building are an inviting place to sit, and on either side are two of the city’s largest ginkgo trees. They symbolize the unity of opposites, the yin and yang. The trees are known as bearers of hope and of the immeasurable past. In the fall, the golden leaves glitter like coins, like change itself.
Established in 1748, the Charleston Library Society is the South’s oldest cultural institution and the third oldest library in the United States. (The Library Company of Philadelphia was founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin and the Redwood Library and Athenaeum of Newport, Rhode Island was founded in 1747). The library is a delight for those of us who love this city’s history; it’s full of of rare books, periodicals, manuscripts, clippings, maps, directories, and almanacs, and you can climb up into second floor stacks or sit at an antique desk downstairs. During the Piccolo Festival ’09 during Spoleto USA, May 22- June 7, there are readings here by Cassandra King and Ron Daise and others.
There is a family connection to this library, too; that of John Colcock (b.1744) who practiced law (and was counsel to the Revolutionary War martyr Issac Hayes, they say) and was Secretary and correspondent of the Library Society. It was he who collected the few books from the collection that survived the great fire of that year that destroyed so much of the city. Over 250 dwellings were lost, and only 15 houses on the Bay, from Queen Street south past Tradd Street, survived the blaze. John’s father was a mariner who had arrived and married in Charles Town in 1732. In the third generation, Judge Charles Jones Colcock (b. 1771) married Mary Woodward Hutson. Their children and Hutsons and Colcocks remain interconnected for the next century.
It explores the the lives and law practices of five generations of South Carolina Colcock-Hutson lawyers. According to the site and exhibit put together by Pamela Rogers Melton, “In August of 2007, the Law Library received a donation of 419 books that had been part of the library accumulated by five generations of Colcocks and Hutsons, lawyers who lived in Beaufort, Jasper, and Hampton Counties from 1744 to 1939… The books had survived several wars and a great depression. The books provide a vehicle for examining the practice of law from the eighteenth, through the nineteenth, to the early twentieth century. The Colcock-Hutson collection exhibit is in the South Carolina Legal History Room.”
These two photographs were taken during the Prince Williams Parish Tour of 2005 when Mr. Maner Bostick and his wife graciously opened the old Hutson house in McPhersonville to us. The charming law office in the yard, which still stands as a small outbuilding, is a little house with infinite charm. The idea of the office as cottage in the yard, of walking just steps home for lunch, has contemporary appeal in today’s culture: the lesson of the smaller, slower life perhaps. There is a movement afoot to live in houses this small, and I am quite tempted. Ah, how much history can teach us!