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University of South Carolina studying history and impact of woodworking in the state

Researchers are cataloging and digitizing artifacts from the Williams Furniture Company to learn more about woodworking, a major state industry in the 20th century.

SUMTER, S.C. — The University of South Carolina is working on a research project to explore the history of woodworking in the state, an industry that researchers say really got its start in Sumter.

"That’s the thing that’s really gotten me, is just the scale of this whole thing. It’s insane how much it impacted this country," Stevie Malinowski shares. "What I'm learning is that it’s absolutely enormous and a lot bigger than I ever expected. I mean, again growing up in New York I just assumed that wood went Northeast, Midwest, Pacific, done. And coming here it’s like 'Oh my God, they all shifted down here.' It was enormous! This is where everything was coming from."

Malinowski is sifting through 27 boxes filled with information about the Williams Furniture Company, the state’s largest furniture company, which began as a unionized shop in Sumter in the 1930s.

"It’s huge that that was in Sumter and a lot of people don’t know that," Sumter County Museum Executive Director Annie Rivers says.

The museum is lending the collection to the South Caroliniana Library.

"We have over 200,000 artifacts in our collection. That includes objects and documents, which is wonderful," Rivers explains. "It's a wonderful collection but we’re limited on staff, limited on resources so were not able to give attention to everything that we have the way we would like to."

But now Malinowski is helping with that by scanning the artifacts and digitizing them to make them available to the public online.

"I just love it! I think it’s so neat!" Malinowski exclaims. "I think it’s so fun to be able to handle and see artifacts from…I mean, I was holding, looking at one today from I think it was 1869 and it’s just so neat that this stuff, you have the opportunity to preserve it."

"I think it just hasn’t been a story that we’ve told," Jessica Elfenbein, the chair of USC's History Department, says. "It’s not much in the history that we teach about the state and yet it’s really important."

Elfenbein started researching forest conservation and destruction in 2017, starting by looking at the Congaree National Park to understand human history.

"That let us to a realization that there is so much lumber-related history in the state of South Carolina and in many ways it’s hidden in plain sight," Elfenbein details.

In her three years of research, Elfenbein tells me the furniture company impacted the state — first by becoming a woodworking hub for much of the country — and then, the family it’s named after donated money to go toward building Williams-Brice Stadium.

"But [residents] have no idea in most cases that it links back to the state’s largest furniture factory in Sumter," Elfenbein explains.

Raising that awareness through building collections like this is why Graham Duncan works with the South Caroliniana Library.

"It’s an industry I don’t think that’s really well understood historically in South Carolina," Duncan says. "So the more that we can do to make materials available to researchers, to community members, students to be able to use these things to kind of explore South Carolina, tell their stories, is important."

This fall, a class at USC will begin turning these artifacts into a traveling exhibit. It’s expected that the digitization will be finished — and the community can access all the files — in about two years.

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