SUMMERVILLE — In 1905, a Jewish teenager named Saul Alexander fled religious oppression in Ukraine and arrived in South Carolina.
He opened a tailor shop in downtown Summerville and within decades had become one of the most successful businessmen in the community. He died a millionaire in 1952, leaving his money in a charitable foundation that has since helped fund nonprofits, parks and projects aiding the area’s Jewish community. His shop still stands on the corner of Hutchinson Square, though it has since become Cuppa Manna coffee house.
Alexander is a favorite character of those familiar with Summerville’s history and businesses. Now they’re telling his story, along with those of other residents and organizations, through the newly revamped “Walking the Ville” tour downtown as part of Summerville’s 175th anniversary celebration.
The walk is a self-guided tour that takes visitors from the Summerville-Dorchester Museum on East Doty Avenue to nine other stops around Hutchinson Square, plus three “bonus stops” a few blocks away. They include Alexander’s old shop, historic houses, the state’s oldest operating pharmacy and a movie theater dating back to the silent film era. The old movie house is now the primary performance venue for the community theater, the Flowertown Players.
The self-guided tour has been around for a few years, said Tina Zimmerman, director of Visit Summerville, the town’s tourism organization. But more people began taking advantage of it at the start of the pandemic.
She thinks people who couldn’t travel were looking for safe, socially distanced outdoor activities, and a self-guided walking tour fit the bill.
That gave town and tourism officials the idea to implement virtual elements to the tour. Zimmerman said she realized people were taking in sites around downtown without knowing all the stories behind them.
For example, there’s a brick arch bearing a sign welcoming people to Summerville set up in Hutchinson Square. The arch was built just a few years ago, but what Zimmerman thinks many people don’t know is that it’s an homage to a sign erected at the town’s north entrance in 1941.
That original arch went up shortly after the town developed Azalea Park.
To highlight the history of that and other sites, the tourism department worked with local nonprofit Summerville DREAM to put up QR signs at the 13 stops on the Walking the Ville tour. Visitors can scan the QR codes on their phone and pull up an audio history of whatever they’re seeing. Steve Doniger, executive director of Summerville DREAM, said the signs will be in place by the end of the month.
“Not even knowing about this tour, they could go by and they just see this sign,” Zimmerman said. “They go, ‘What’s that?’, QR it and then go, ‘How cool.'”
Those audible histories are also on Visit Summerville’s website. In addition to listening to the audio, people can see historic photos and read more about the sites online.
The group hopes to do the same with more tours in the future. But given Hutchinson Square’s centrality to many local businesses and its use as a venue for community entertainment and events, Walking the Ville was a “natural fit” for the project, Doniger said.
“Downtown is obviously the heart of Summerville,” he said.
‘Part of our story’
Ed West is a historian at the Summerville Dorchester Museum, the first stop on the tour. He knows the stories of all the stops, plus plenty more.
He sometimes gives talks and tours around town — including special guided tours of Walking the Ville to those who call the museum and make an appointment. He explains how the western part of town was settled by planters along the Ashley River before the Revolutionary War, while the downtown Summerville area didn’t become a town until 1847, after the railroad went through.
The local community formed the town specifically to keep the railroad company from cutting down the pine trees, West said.
The railroad depot, now Hutchinson Square, is another stop on the tour.
One story about the railroad that West shares is the story of James Matthews, an enslaved Black man working on the railroad “north of Charleston” in the years before the Civil War. He escaped by hiding in a hay bale in one of the train cars and riding all the way to the port in Charleston, where he boarded a ship for Boston.
His story, which West found in an archived newspaper, never mentions Summerville by name, but West determined he was at least in the area, since Summerville was the closest railroad depot to Charleston at the time.
“His story is part of our story,” West said.
West also likes to talk about the “people from off,” outsiders who came to Summerville and made it their home. People like Saul Alexander and Kitty Springs, another town businessperson and philanthropist who left her mark.
Catherine “Kitty” Smith Springs was a Charleston dressmaker and woman of color who moved to Summerville with her White husband after the Civil War. She ran two successful businesses and donated land to build schools, an infirmary for disadvantaged residents and two churches — including the Church of the Epiphany on Central Avenue, one of the tour’s bonus stops.
Kitty Springs is also one of Zimmerman’s favorite stories on the tour.
“It’s amazing what she has given to the community because she saw a need. I just think as a woman in that time to accomplish what she accomplished,” Zimmerman said.
Directly across the street from Church of the Epiphany is Timrod Library, built in 1915 and still containing an old-fashioned library catalog system. It’s one of only two remaining subscription libraries in the state, meaning it’s funded through membership fees instead of taxes. It’s open to the public and anyone can join for an annual $25 fee for their family.
Susan Overstreet, a member of Timrod’s board, loves to talk about the library’s history. It formed in the late 1800s during a national movement to promote literacy, especially for children. Taking inspiration from a movement in Chautauqua, New York, a group of Summerville women formed the Chautauqua Reading Circle in 1897. They charted the Timrod Library in 1908.
At the time, Overstreet said, there was no library in Summerville and no such thing as public funding for libraries. She thinks the fact the Timrod exists just proves how people in Summerville can come together for the good of the town.
“Without any tax monies, I believe it must have been pretty important to the community because they came together to support it,” she said.
The people who built Summerville
It’s that type of unity that Zimmerman and Doniger want to highlight on the tour, and for Summerville’s 175th anniversary.
“These type of things are great, looking at our history and understanding it,” Doniger said.
With thousands of “people from off” moving into Summerville every year, Zimmerman said the tour will be a great way for them to learn the town’s history and make it feel more like home.
For people who have lived in Summerville their whole lives, it’s more of a reminder, she said.
“The people that live and work and build their shops downtown, they’re standing on the shoulders of people who really … built Summerville, helped keep it Summerville,” Doniger said. “We have wonderful businesses, great architecture. … I think our town is in great shape, and I think people are looking at the next 100 years, 175 years, and I think you’ll see Summerville continue to grow.”