Sherry Jaco hopes the Olympia-Granby Museum she’s building helps capture the culture of the mill villages she knows from decades of living there. But even as she builds it, museums like this are becoming a part of the very past they aimed to preserve.
By Mark Manicone
March 15, 2017
Sherry Jaco has lived, worked and breathed all things Olympia. And for the last four years, she has been trying to preserve the history that’s on almost every street – the regulars, the locals, the characters woven into a neighborhood that give it life.
“There’s something about the mill village culture that just ties everybody together. In fact, if we talked to you long enough we’ll probably be cousins before dark,” Jaco says.
Now, the retired school teacher is slowly coaxing the old Olympia Schoolhouse on Virginia Street into new life as the Olympia-Granby Mill Village Museum.
Jaco said she bandied about the idea of a museum for years. And then, in 2013, she sat down to talk with her husband, Jake, a co-owner of the neighborhood’s iconic bar, Jaco’s.
“I remember we had that conversation, you know, ‘When is someone going to build a museum?’” Sherry Jaco said.
The idea seemed to touch a nerve. Within months, the museum foundation the Jacos created had raised $50,000 of its $100,000 goal, much of it, she said, in $50, $100 and $500 checks from those with deep roots in the community. Richland County provided the rest.
Mason Yates, who works at Builders Specialties on Whaley Street, likes that Olympia and neighboring Granby are drawing renewed interest. It’s partly the result of turning the old mills across the street from the flooring store his father founded in 1975 into apartments that have attracted restaurants and other businesses.
He’s not against gentrification if it means some of the old saltbox houses are restored. “But it’s also important to preserve what’s part of the area,” he said.
But Jaco says gentrification is complicated among those with Olympia-Granby roots.
“They want to see it preserved, but yet at the same time people who grew up here live out in the suburbs,” she says.
Jake Jaco, an equal partner in the museum project, says that after Olympia High School closed in 1970, many left the neighborhood in search of better schools. The Jacos, whose children are now grown, moved to Lower Richland.
But, Sherry Jaco said, like she and her husband, “they still feel that tug this way.”
Traffic that has come along with gentrification is one of the big complaints, said Darla Oldham, community relations officer for the We Are Olympia neighborhood association. Parked cars clogging streets, a lack of sidewalks and loud parties by USC students who have moved into the neighborhood also frequently surface at community meetings, she said.
The old Olympia Schoolhouse Jaco is working to restore, built in 1901 as a mill house but designated as the schoolhouse, embodies what the mill district means for her. She remembers walking to school every day past the old schoolhouse. Olympia is where she met her husband of 49 years. It’s also where they bought their first house, an old saltbox on Texas Street.
They moved to the Lowcountry, but after a couple of years, that tug she referred to brought them back.
But even as Jaco’s vision for a neighborhood museum becomes reality, small museums are becoming a part of the very past they strive to preserve. “People just don’t walk into museums like they used to,” said Ewell G. “Buddy” Sturgis Jr., founder and director of the South Carolina Military Museum.
Their mission statements must appeal to younger generations to keep the doors open, said Sturgis, a 40-year veteran of the museum business.
Even before they are founded, museums must outline their mission statement and purpose in serving the surrounding community, said Dik Daso, an adjunct history instructor at USC and curator of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum for 10 years. Then they have to figure out how to pay for the continuing costs of staff, administration and restoration, he said.
“Small museums around the country are collapsing,” Daso said. “They just don’t have the funds to last long term.”
Stacie Richey, a senior planner for Columbia who has helped Jaco find grant funding, hopes people’s strong ties to the commnity mean the museum has “a built-in audience.”
Still, she said, “It’ll be a challenge to keep it fresh.”
Jaco, who expects to begin installing exhibits this December, said it’s costing $450,000, much of that also from Richland County, to buy and renovate the approximately 1,800-square-foot schoolhouse.
Jaco said she plans to dedicate part of the schoolhouse as a community meeting center, an alternate to the current community hub at 701 Whaley St. And she wants to have an educational program that meets state standards and reaches out to younger generations.
She estimates the museum will cost $12,000 a year to run and hopes that money will come from loyal donors. For instance, Oldham, who also is plant administrator at the nearby Vulcan Materials quarry, is trying to get Vulcan to help out.
“We’re confident,” Jaco said, “that people with roots in the mill village will step up and help us with that.”