A fascination with art history lured SidneyThompson to major in art at the University of South Carolina. And, after moving to Greenville in 1971, Thompson turned her attention to Greenville history -- first as a Tours Around Greenville guide and now as executive director of the Greenville County Historical Society.
Surrounded by 20,000 photos and hundreds of books reflecting a different era, Thompson speaks of Greenville's history in reverent tones from an old building on East Washington Street that is filled with relics of Greenville County's past.
The hours are part-time, but Thompson's interest level is full-time. The result is a first-rate treat for those who find the small office in the heart of downtown. Thompson came to the GCHS in 2000, shortly after it moved into its present home at 211 East Washington St.
Thompson, whose knowledge of the city's history grew when she served as a guide for the historical tours from 1978 to 1988, describes herself as a “self-taught librarian,” a role that has enabled her to organize the thousands of photos and pieces of literature that have been donated to the society over the years. She's also responsible for the business affairs of the organization, which was founded by Laura Ebaugh in 1928 as the Upper Carolina Historical Society. The group was inactive for a period of time, but reformed in 1961.
There is much to see in the GCHS, for a newcomer or a Greenville native. The society's library includes city directories as far back as 1884, and four volumes of Sanborne Insurance maps that feature great detail of old Greenville -- noting houses, stores and buildings in any given year. It also includes many high-quality photos, many of them from the Coxe Collection. That includes hundreds of photos by the late William B. Coxe, a professional photographer and pilot who combined his life work with collections from other photographers.
From more than 100,000 old photos, the society has about 15,000 of the highest quality on display. The society generates income by selling prints of those photos. The Greenville County Historical Society's primary source of revenue is through society memberships ($35 for a family and $25 for an individual).
The society membership is around 500. Its primary goal is “to collect and preserve those documents, records and other materials which comprise the history of Greenville County and the surrounding area.”
It also sponsors programs and exhibitions pertaining to the history and culture of the region -- one of those being the statue of Vardry McBee on Main Street, across from the Poinsett Hotel. Thompson supervised the society's fund-raising campaign to place the statue three years ago. The GCHS will be part of a History Fair at Furman University in the spring. The office and gift shop are open to visitors four days a week -- from 9-12:30 a.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and from 1-5:30 p.m. Thursday.