AIKEN, S.C. -- You sense something different about this tiny town in the middle of nowhere when you notice all the street signs have pictures of horses' heads on them and the main thoroughfares have buttons at the corners for stopping traffic so that riders on horseback can cross.
Most of the houses have attached stables, or at the least a horse trailer in the driveway. Then there are the bumper stickers: "I brake for horses" or "Save gas; ride a horse." All the open fields have training, flat, harness, and steeplechase tracks, or polo fields. The woods have signs saying "no motorcycles or bicycles" because they make horses nervous.
In Aiken, horses have the right of way, always. Here, horses rule.
This may be the only town in the country where people don't want more roads paved. They ask to keep them unpaved, in fact, because the soft, sandy Carolina clay is much easier on hooves -- and it seems as if everybody in town, at one point or another during the day, rides a horse.
When they're not on horses, they're talking about them. At the Track Kitchen, the local breakfast hangout where trainers, jockeys, and owners gather for eggs, grits, and gossip, we overheard one woman say, "Since the Germans aren't supporting us in Iraq, I'm against Germans . . . even though I've got German horses."
From the Track Kitchen we moved out to the track to watch trainers put thoroughbreds through their paces in the early light. National champions trained in Aiken include the 1981 Kentucky Derby winner Pleasant Colony; Kelso, Horse of the Year for five straight years in the 1960s; Sea Hero, 1993 Kentucky Derby winner; and Summer Squall, the 1990 Preakness winner. Horses and their related businesses bring in $16 million to the town each year.
There are 20 polo fields in Aiken, about one for every 1,200 people in town (population 25,300). The Aiken Polo Club holds matches every Sunday, September through November and March through July. A "10-goal" player is considered to have the sport's highest rank, and of the 10-15 of them in the world, seven live in Aiken.
Some call the town South Carolina's "best-kept secret." That's because most tourists head to the coast and to Charleston. Aiken is inland, southwest of Columbia, the capital, and just east of Augusta, Ga.
The Aiken Driving Club is not a car club. It's for drivers of horse-drawn carriages and carts, who meet for a drive on the second Saturday of each month. Every Tuesday afternoon and Saturday morning during the winter season, which opens with an annual Blessing of the Hounds, the fox hunt (using a drag, or scented rag) takes place in Hitchcock Woods, right in the center of town. At 2,200 acres, it is the largest urban forest in the country, bigger than New York's Central Park.
Pool and chili dogs at Aiken's City Billiards. Page D6
It was New Yorkers and other wealthy Northerners who flocked here in the late 1800s to winter their horses, and who first brought polo, and the Gilded Age, to Aiken. Louise Eustis Hitchcock, a frail granddaughter of New York banker W.H. Corcoran, founder of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., was brought to Aiken by her aunt because the air here was considered healthy. Hitchcock's husband, Thomas, a New York financier and polo player, and their son Tommy, one of only two 10-goal players in the world at the time, brought more sportsmen to the town.
William Collins Whitney, secretary of the Navy under President Cleveland, moved here for the winter and built a 69-room "cottage" with 15 bathrooms and a full-size ballroom. His grandchildren John Hay "Jock" Whitney and Joan Whitney Payson opened racing stables here. Thoroughbreds trained in Aiken continue to win ribbons in big races, and Aiken has its own Triple Crown every March.
Other well-heeled equestrians and sportsmen and women who came here to purchase or build winter homes made up what was soon called the Winter Colony. These included the industrialist-financier and diplomat W. Averell Harriman, shipping and railroad magnate William H. Vanderbilt, New York financier John Jacob Astor, and Augustus Gardner, nephew of Isabella Stewart Gardner. The Boston Cabots wintered here, and visitors included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. Aiken soon became known as the horse set's Newport, a Bar Harbor or Palm Beach with stables instead of the sea at the front door.
When we walked into the Willcox, into the curly-heart-pine lobby of the 1898 Colonial Revival-style hotel with fireplaces blazing and sweet tea or champagne offered upon check-in, we felt part of the Gilded Age. That feeling intensified later in the weekend when a carriage pulled up to the front door of the inn and offered us a ride in the manner of the turn of the last century: To the clip-clop of hooves we passed under Aiken's famous live oaks. The driver, Jean Paul, was dressed 1880s style, in a top hat and driving cloak.
We're not expert riders, but the ambience here put us in the mood to get on a horse. So on Saturday, we headed over to the Fulmer International School of Equitation, where we took a short lesson and then chose Believe, a gentle quarter horse, and proceeded into the Hitchcock Woods for a lovely afternoon ride with our teacher.
Riding in the woods is a year-round activity, as are the fox hunts sponsored by two clubs. Throughout the year, the Whiskey Road Fox Hunting Club holds live hunts Thursdays and Sundays with "car-follow" possibilities; you can follow a hunt in your car to watch it. Drag hunts are held by Aiken Hounds every Saturday morning and Tuesday afternoon. You can see the start of the hunt from Memorial Gate, the gateway to Hitchcock Woods.
Winter in Aiken brings show jumping, polo practice, and plenty of hunting for wild boar, turkey, whitetail deer, quail, and doves. The fish jump in winter, too, on both the Edisto and Savannah rivers.
If you're a golfer, you could fly to Augusta, Ga., for the Masters Tournament in April, stay 15 minutes away in Aiken, and play at the Aiken Golf Club course, the first in the country to offer women's tees.
We chose a walk in Hopeland Gardens. The former estate of C. Oliver Iselin, an America's Cup sailing champ and patron of the arts, Hopelands was bequeathed to the town by his wife, Hope, and among its 14 acres of gardenias, magnolias, and azaleas is a touch-and-scent trail.
We left Aiken planning to return soon to do all the things we hadn't managed to fit into a weekend: hunt for dove, turkey, quail, and deer; float-fish for bass and bream; bird-watch in the Silver Bluff Audubon Center and Sanctuary; watch a polo match; and rock in the chairs spread across the gracious front veranda of the Willcox as someone comes over to ask, "Do y'all want a glass of sweet tea?"
Julie Hatfield is a freelance writer who lives in Duxbury.