The Blessing of the Hounds before the drag hunt in Hitchcock Woods on Thanksgiving morning is a longstanding Aiken tradition.
The Thanksgiving custom and April's annual Aiken Horse Show are the premier events held on the property.
The preserve of almost 2,100 acres, which is open daily from sunup to sundown, is frequented by Aiken residents who ride their horses or walk their dogs.
"The history of Aiken is always tied to this parcel of land," said Harry Shealy, the president of the Hitchcock Foundation. "People move here just for those woods."
Thomas Hitchcock and his daughter, Helen Clark, established the Hitchcock Foundation in 1939 with a donation of almost 1,200 acres. They founded the organization to protect and maintain the woods for recreational purposes.
The property originally was part of a larger tract of land that belonged to Mr. Hitchcock and Wiliam Whitney.
The foundation purchased an adjacent 230-acre tract of land in 1985. In the spring of 1991, Aiken Preparatory School gave a neighboring 270 acres to the foundation.
The foundation later acquired 198 acres that bordered the donated 270-acre tract.
The largest U.S. urban forest is 2 times the size of New York City's Central Park and is an integral part of Aiken's history.
"I think the woods are what separates Aiken from any other small, charming Southern town," said Gail King, the Hitchcock Foundation chairwoman.
Hitchcock Woods includes jumps, bridges and almost 70 miles of trails. The preserve is home to numerous plant and animal species.
"We haven't changed them all these years. I don't know how many people can go back to the woods that they played in as children," Mr. Shealy said. "It's like having 2,000 acres of backyard."
Ms. King said the woods are a reminder of the Hitchcocks' contributions to Aiken.
"Their name is on everything in the city. They were the ones that certainly put Aiken on the map for people that were not from the South," she said. "I think the legacy ... of the woods is something we just can't be grateful enough to have."
Reach Betsy Gilliland at (803) 648-1395 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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