History of Town & Museum


In 1780 Lord Cornwallis spent a hard winter here after the defeat of the British and Loyalists at Kings Mountain. At that time, the village of Winnsborough, as it was called, had about 20 dwellings. Winnsboro was incorporated as a town in 1785. By the time Eli Whitney’s cotton gin was patented in 1794, Fairfield County was well on the way to becoming one of the biggest producers of upland cotton in the state. In 1830 Richard Cathcart built this imposing townhouse in Winnsboro to enjoy the amenities of the bustling town life away from his country cotton plantation.
An early cultural impetus for the growth of the village of Winnsboro was the founding of the Mt. Zion Society in Charleston in 1777. Several well-known Charlestonians joined with Winnsboro's founding fathers to set up a preparatory school in this healthy upland environment. The establishment allowed not only the sons of wealthy low-country families to prepare for furthering their educations at the College of South Carolina, Harvard, and other early universities, but also for the schooling of the "up-country" children. By the early 1800s, Mt. Zion College had attracted as students the sons of many notable South Carolinians who would become leaders across many fields in our young nation and state.

In 1848, then well-known educator Catherine Ladd and her artist husband purchased the Richard Cathcart home and set up a boarding school for the education of young ladies. The Winnsboro Female Institute would become a counterpart to Mt. Zion College, and girls from many other places came to learn both the cultural and academic masteries necessary to develop ladies of social standing. The Winnsboro Female Institute closed just as the rumblings of war preceded South Carolina’s secession from the Union in January of 1861. Mrs. Ladd converted her efforts to the formation of the Soldiers’ Aid Association to support the cause. She put aside her pen and took up a needle, and organized the women and girls of the town into production crews for soldiers’ clothing and foodstuffs. She is known to have contributed to the designing of the Confederate flag while salvaging the village’s pots and pans for conversion to Confederate munitions. After the war, the area was economically depleted and families couldn’t afford to send their daughters to boarding school. Mrs. Ladd became a leader in bringing arts to the community, writing and publishing her poetry and plays in national magazines, and conducting theatrical and musical productions to help the townsfolk survive difficult times. In 1870 Mrs. Ladd began to teach again, but only a short while as she began losing her sight. She died in 1880.

The old Winnsboro Female Institute building on Congress St. was converted to house many decades of habitation and commercial operations. It emerged again as an educational establishment in 1976 when it was restored and converted to the Fairfield County Museum. This three-story 1830 townhouse is listed on the National Historic Registry as a late example of Federal style architecture. The 18 inch walls are made of locally fired bricks laid in Flemish bond and the large square building is three stories high. The ornate wood and plaster work of the interior were beautifully restored in the 1970s through the efforts of local preservationists.

The museum features artifacts and furnishings are connected to Fairfield County history and prehistory. Among the unusual articles is a very large granary or cooking vessel of the Mississippian era that was made in the coil-and-pinch-method before Europeans came to America. Being bounded on the west by the Broad River and its Cherokee tribal territory and on the east by the Wateree River and its Catawba and Wateree tribes, Fairfield County has yielded much archeological material for the museum’s collections. 

Also among the usual array of eighteenth and nineteenth century clothing, furniture, farming equipment, military items, and professional instruments, an unusual ancient slab chair displays the carved faces of an African-American couple. The functionality of the old-world designs of Africa is also seen in a late nineteenth-century birthing stool that was carried from house to house.