Originally created 01/04/01

Artifacts' prognosis unknown



AIKEN - A week after fire damaged the museum which honors thoroughbred racing champions that trained in Aiken, 200-year-old race records and other irreplaceable artifacts still are drying out.

An insurance adjuster has looked at them and left with no clear idea about what can be salvaged, Parks and Recreation Director Terry Rhinehart said Wednesday.

What is clear is that no amount of money can buy replacements. Most of the items that got wet when a sprinkler system kicked in to douse the attic fire are one of a kind, Mr. Rhinehart said. The key to saving them is how well they dry.

"The weather just hasn't been conducive to getting anything dry," said Mr. Rhinehart, whose department oversees the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum. "It's just going to take time, and we're just waiting and hoping for the best. It would be a shame to lose any of these things."

"These things" are items that chronicle Aiken's long love affair with thoroughbred racing, and many of them are related to 38 champion horses, their owners, trainers and jockeys in the hall of fame. Some of the racing records in the museum date to the early 19th century.

The racing journals, logs and other artifacts taken out of the museum are spread to dry on tables and countertops in a locked room at the Odell Weeks Recreation Center on Whiskey Road.

Among items that have dried sufficiently to assess their condition are racing silks that recently had been put under glass as part of a refurbishing project. They got wet when city maintenance personnel whisked them out of the building as smoke poured from the eaves.

"The silks were in pretty good shape," Mr. Rhinehart said. "They were not damaged nearly as bad as we thought at first."

As items gradually dry, the city is consulting experts at the South Carolina State Museum about how to salvage them.

The building itself needs a new ceiling, and some rafters are charred.

Closed for refurbishing before the fire, the hall of fame and museum had been scheduled to reopen this month. That won't happen now, and a new date has not been set.

"When you have a fire in a place like this, it's not like any other property," Mr. Rhinehart said. "We're taking it one step at a time."

Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.