We Are Aiken County: The Aiken Institute, one of the area's first modern schools

Mar. 12—Editor's note: We Are Aiken County is a series of articles that will run through March 16. It celebrates people, places and events that shaped Aiken County.

On Sept. 12, 1891, the Aiken Institute opened its doors. It was a three-story brick school building, much different from the traditional one-room schoolhouse.

It was Aiken's first step toward providing a structured curriculum starting with the elementary basics and continuing through the advanced subjects of secondary school.

What is now the Aiken County Public Library was then the Aiken Institute. Before its construction, there was Aiken Academy, a one-story wood-frame house where grades 1-9 were taught in the early 1880s. Aiken Academy would go on to be absorbed by the Aiken Institute when it was constructed.

Allen Riddick, president of the Aiken County Historical Society, said that part of Aiken Institute's significance is "the fact that it was such a modern school building. Back then everything was much smaller, a lot of small, wooden buildings ... when they built the original part to [Aiken Institute], that was a pretty big deal. It was a beautiful school building."

The new school was financed with public funds, in addition to a small tuition charged to students outside the city limits. In 1896, the Aiken Institute raised nearly $50 for a formal school library, which opened on Jan. 25, 1897, with 200 books.

Aiken Institute became Aiken Elementary in 1936 after a referendum to construct a new high school on Laurens Street was passed. When Aiken Elementary School was relocated to Pine Log Road in 1986, the building became the Aiken County Public Library, with renovations complete in 1990.

Aiken County Public Library Manager Jessica Christian said that many people who live in Aiken went to school in the building when it was Aiken Elementary, and some even before then.

"There's older people who were here when it was still Aiken Institute," she said.

"People are very attached to this building because they went to school here," said Christian, adding that visitors to the library often share with the staff which rooms were their classrooms. "The Aikenites, [the] people who grew up here and still live here, they're invested in the building because it was their school at one point in their career."

What is now known as the North Wing of the Aiken County Public Library was the Aiken Institute; in 1913 another wing was added, which is the building that the library now operates from.

The North Wing remains unused since it was closed down in the 1980s. However, according to Christian, there are future plans to convert the North Wing into a storage building for the Aiken County Historical Museum. Additionally, it will house the county's historical archives and will include a research area.

A historical marker commemorating the Aiken Institute was erected in 1999 by the Aiken County Historical Society, and can be seen at 314 Chesterfield St. in Aiken in front of the North Wing of the Aiken County Public Library.