Remembering Columbia SC
John Sherrer has written a fascinating book that explores our history. Some say it’s the perfect antidote for cultural amnesia. Others just love the step back in time.
By Rachel Haynie
John Sherrer, continually surprised by new history finds, is also continually compelled to keep stories from those finds coming, sharing them generously with the history-loving public. The storyteller in him predates the historian.
He was already into his Master’s degree in English at Clemson University, interested in the story side of life, when a writing internship took him to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. “I enjoyed my work there and realized: Hey, writing can take me on a different path than I’d considered – toward history, which I’d always loved anyway,” the Columbia native said.
Not long thereafter, he followed history’s trail back to the Palmetto State where, at Drayton Hall in Charleston, he saw more potential for merging storylines with history. His early museum work also took him to Maine and New Hampshire. To combine the written word with history, he returned to Columbia and pursued a Master’s in Public History. “I wanted to contribute to my home town,” said the 1987 graduate of Cardinal Newman High School. During his USC graduate program, he held an assistantship with Historic Columbia which, since 1961, has been dedicated to heightening public awareness of, and preserving the cultural heritage of Columbia and its environs.
That makes this new book a labor of love. “As our city changes, we can all get cultural amnesia, and I hoped as I wrote it that this book would combat that.” Over his years at Historic Columbia, he had tucked away ideas and images in his mind; when he finally could commit time to get it all down on paper, Sherrer partnered with many cultural organization and repositories in the area. “I really wanted to showcase various local collections – some readers might not know about yet.”
Driven by photographs that benefitted from Sherrer’s substantial cutlines, the book is expected to appear promptly on desks, coffee tables, bookshelves – as a resource Columbians have not had. “I tried to be thorough without being tedious,” said Sherrer, speaking of Arcadia Press’ just-released book. “I have been told by some whose opinions I respect that readers will come away from this book with a pretty sound account of Columbia and all it has been so far.”
Accounting for the surfeit of never-before-seen images of Columbia is Sherrer’s resourcefulness and connectedness. New collections, including one by a local photographer, the late John Hensel, have been accessioned by South Caroliniana Library in recent years. Additionally, Sherrer’s personal contacts with private citizens, some of them members of Historic Columbia, who offered images from their family holdings, also make this new resource inimitable.
His personal involvement in and commitment to preservation includes advocacy for the neighborhood, Melrose Heights, where he lives with his family – wife, Mary, a fellow USC public history graduate and currently a documentary editor for the Pinckney Papers Project, and children Nicholas, 13, and Katherine, 10. “Well before we moved there in 2002, others already had done the heavy lifting. The entire Melrose Heights - Oaklawn Neighborhood had been designated an Architectural Conservation District in 2003. Recently, the enduringly popular PBS television show, This Old House, named our neighborhood one of the best places in the country to buy an old house.” Sherrer’s influence in the early 20th century suburb that boomed after WWII can be noted in Historic Columbia’s creation of an architectural walking tour of the neighborhood and an accompanying brochure, which occurred in 2010.
Sherrer holds Bachelor’s and Master’s of Arts degrees in English from Clemson University, a Master of Arts in Public History from the University of South Carolina, and a graduate certificate in museum management from McKissick Museum. Now Director of Cultural Resources at Historic Columbia, he began his association in 1996. He is a past president of the South Carolina Federation of Museums. A 2014 graduate of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Columbia Class, he also has involvement with the America Association for State and Local History.
Praise for Remembering Columbia
“Remembering Columbia contains not only previously-unpublished images of Columbia's built environment, but also interesting images of the people of Columbia in a variety of settings.” Dr. Rodger Stroup, director and curator of Historic Columbia Foundation, 1974-79; lead historian and deputy director, South Carolina State Museum, 1979-97; and Director, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1997 – 2009.
John Sherrer’s diligent research and enthusiasm for Columbia’s history shine through in Remembering Columbia to create a very thorough and interesting book. I believe readers will catch a glimpse of the joy he finds in his topics, and I wish more people who study history and give lectures would take John’s humanistic approach.” Gertrude O. Seibels, currently serving on the South Carolina State Board of Review for the National Register of Historic Places, administered by the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.
"Remembering Columbia will immediately take its place among our most vital published resources about our capital city, reminding us of what we've had, what has been lost to progress. And what has been gained culturally in our growing into a unified community. To achieve this publication, John pulled from references and sources he has developed since his earliest days at Historic Columbia. Now that all these findings and interpretations are in print, we have them. They are ours to treasure." Janice Bowman, Historic Columbia docent since 1990, engaged with the Collections Committee since its inception, and spearheads Christmas decorating for the historic houses.
“John’s book differs from the typical ‘Then and Now’ format of pictures in that this book doesn’t just focus on buildings, it includes a peek into the lives of the people of the past. Those pictures, coupled with John’s excellent narratives, helps readers get an wonderful glimpse into the life and lives of yesterday’s Columbia”. Jeff Payne, AgFirst Farm Credit Bank Vice President for Human Resources, volunteer guide for neighborhood and Vista walking tours and Historic Columbia Advisory Council member.