People of the 21st century who have heard about the John de la Howe School probably think of it as a residential facility for children of unmet potential or as a place where young people are placed by S.C.’s Family Court system or Department of Social Services.
That’s the modern impression.
But before there was a John de la Howe School, there was Lethe, the home and sprawling farm — plantation, in those days — of Dr. John de la Howe, the benefactor for whom this historic place is named.
The name “Lethe” comes from Greek mythology and means a “river of forgetfulness.” The idea was that drinking from this river would cause people to forget the past.
Each of us has days that we know that we will remember for many years to come. For me, one of those days was Monday when Dr. Anthony “Tony” Warren Sr., who had an instrumental role in the 1992 and 1994 archaeological digs of Lethe, came to campus. He lived at John de la Howe as a teenager and became one of the school’s and Dr. de la Howe’s most ardent admirers. He has poured his heart into preserving the history of Lethe and ensuring that the school’s past becomes central to its future.
I hadn’t met Tony before but I knew of his love for de la Howe from our staff and alumni, and I knew that some of his passion went into the writing of the book, “Lethe, The Life and Times of Dr. John de la Howe.” As an author, I appreciated his work to bring an important story to life.
When he arrived on our campus on Monday, he invited me to go to the site of the archaeological dig and to see where Lethe was established. Tony was visiting from Georgia to help clear the path to the site and to determine what other work needed to be done to make this a place where people can visit and enjoy the natural beauty around them. His goal is the preservation of these grounds and the de la Howe story.
To say that I jumped at the chance is both an understatement and overstatement. Oh, I wanted to go!
I love history, and I have enjoyed getting to know this school’s history. But I wasn’t dressed for a trek into the forest, and, well, it was humid and probably “bug ridden.” Yet, how could I say “no”!
Here was the authority on John de la Howe and Lethe, and he was offering to give me a tour. I did what any intrepid lover of history would do — I put on my athletic shoes that I now keep in my office for the times that I can go out on the farm and thought that the clothes didn’t matter. I could either get them cleaned or throw them away. I could go home and wash away the grime of the forest. This opportunity was too valuable to miss.
The original home and surrounding buildings, as well as the beautiful gardens, are lost to time. But as I discovered during my “hike,” the archaeological dig established the foundations to the buildings. Signs mark the path and placards tell the placement of buildings. With a little imagination and Tony’s expert tour, I began to “see” Lethe and understand why a man who died more than 220 years ago wanted to live here. A physician in the Seven Years War in Europe, Dr. de la Howe emigrated to South Carolina in the mid-1700s. He began a successful medical practice in Charleston, treated both Patriot and Loyalist soldiers during the American Revolution, bought land in what was the Abbeville District of the Palmetto State (now McCormick) and established his final home here.
The forest surrounding his home is a treasure — a protected treasure that will prevent future development and the encroachment of “progress.” Lush and green now that it’s spring, the trees provided a cover from the sun and an environment for the birds that were chirping and also the insects! But even I didn’t care as I climbed over logs, walked through the leaf-lined path and swatted bugs. I was living in the past and enjoying every minute.
The Lethe property slopes down to the Little River, which feeds into what is now Lake Thurmond. It’s easy to envision the beauty of a late spring day at Lethe in the last 15 years or so of the 18th century when de la Howe lived here with his companion Rebekah Woodin The physician-farmer and his guests dined on fine china, and the records of Ms. Woodin’s estate tell us that she wore silk dresses, furs and diamonds. The couple entertained lavishly and enjoyed their last years in a place of environmental grandeur.
John de la Howe bequeathed his land and fortune to establish a home for orphans and a farm where they could learn skills that would ensure their success in life. Thousands of children have benefited from his benevolence. Tony is one of them, and he is on a mission to ensure that Lethe — a part of the past — remains at the heart of our future.
Two men, separated by time, share a bond of preservation and compassion. No one should ever forget how strong this bond, which bridges more than two centuries, is in the history of South Carolina and the lives of the young people served here. Tony is the embodiment of Dr. de la Howe’s heart, and his own heart is taking Lethe into tomorrow!
Submitted by Karen Petit (Karen.Petit@delahowe.k12.sc.us)