In 1968, the town started a festival, Wagons to Wagener, as a play on the town name. Although the festival no longer takes place, the celebration brought fame and excitement to the town for many years. In 1987, South Carolina donated an original Conestoga wagon in honor of the celebration.
Wagener has always taken good care of the historic wagon and the town's history. The first museum, founded by Maradelle Ray, opened in 1990 in an old jailhouse, circa 1905. In 2004 the back of Town Hall was renovated for the growing museum.
Now the town has reached another milestone. It has come up with a clever idea to build a 24-hour museum that will include what's in the current museum, the Conestoga wagon and other vehicles, such as the town's first fire truck.
Gloria Collum, the owner of the Claridge House Bed and Breakfast in Wagener, came to me with the idea, and I immediately thought of the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor. Gloria is a representative on the Aiken County Accommodations Tax Advisory Board. Knowing that a grant deadline was approaching in a few days, I notified the heritage corridor's director of field services, Elizabeth Harm, and she, along with Sam Smith of the Wagener Garden Club, worked night and day to put together the winning grant proposal.
The town was awarded a South Carolina National Heritage Corridor grant of $20,000 to help get started. It has also designated $125,000 from its local option sales tax for the project. It's wonderful to have the community embrace tourism as the residents of Wagener have. They just get it. They truly understand the benefits of tourism.
Their first priority is to get the historic wagon in a location where it can be viewed by everyone. Many residents are coming forward with donations for the new museum. It is a fantastic example of what a small town can accomplish by working together.
Robbie Bellamy is the tourism director for the Aiken County Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department.