Judge recused, pre-seizure hearing postponed, and entire library claimed as
genealogical society plans to leave Edgefield for Johnston.
A Continuing Special to The Advertiser By Katharine Walton
The Edgefield Civic League and their ex-cohabitants at 103-104 Courthouse Square, The Old Edgefield District Genealogical Society (OEDGS), are both claiming what has been collected at The D.A. Tompkins Memorial Library since 1985.
Within this collection are the rare and one-of-a-kind—if not the history of Edgefield itself, as it’s been recorded.
In the pre-seizure claim of contents at 104 Courthouse Square, the OEDGS cited an amount of $24,000. This is not an appraisal of value, but an arbitrary number exceeding the $7,500 mark required in South Carolina to move a case from the magistrate’s office to circuit court, explained Bettis C. Rainsford, Sr., who was contacted for perspective from the Edgefield Historical Society. (The phone number on the Historical Society’s website is forwarded to Rainsford’s cell phone, which he answered.)
How to put a price on a town’s history? Reels of microfilm (church and court records, newspapers, deeds, wills, census), 5,300 creatively catalogued bound books, family files (genealogical records, lineage charts, family trees and bibles, marriage records, personal journals, handwritten family histories from England and Germany), and digitized photographs intended to be posted online when the website is back up)—these sorts of things are in our library, said Tonya Browder Guy, current president of the OEDGS. And she emphasized: “All of it is stamped with red ink: ‘Property of Old Edgefield District Genealogical Society’.”
Not OEDGS-stamped and claimed, obviously, are the 39 pieces of priceless Old Edgefield Pottery, described as being made by enslaved potters in the 1800s—and possibly including two unsigned pots by the famous poet-potter David Drake—on informal loan by Danny Timmerman to The Tompkins Library. The pottery was reported stolen on June 6.
“People want to talk about the pottery (theft), when our entire library has been stolen!” said Guy, archivist and author of Edgefield SC: District of Devils. “An entire library is locked up. This is history’s last stand.” Guy referred to the pottery theft—as a “red herring” meant to distract.
“It’s not about the pottery” is the chorus of sentiment reverberating in this mangle of seemingly irreconcilable differences over not just access and control, but exactly who (the OEDGS or the Civic League) owns what. Both sides are dug in.
Rainsford voiced concern, sizing up both sides as intractable. What’s important is that materials remain in the Tompkins Library on Court House Square with public access and someone to help with research. People really don’t know what all is going on, he said.
Concurrently, SC Law Enforcement Division (SLED) Public Information Officer Renée Wunderlich, who March 16 described the pottery investigation as “active and ongoing” has not been able to update if in fact the search is still going on.
Ancillary news did come from the SLED-Crimestoppers’ coordinator Anna Bailey, who worked with SLED Special Agent Russ Padgett in charge of the pottery case. Her news release was sent out with photographs of Old Edgefield Pottery and generated some television spots in Aiken and Augusta.
Then within a month, on January 1, 2023, Edgefield County was dropped from Midlands Crimestoppers’ coverage area due to “downsizing,” said Bailey. This could explain to the perplexed why the pottery theft is no longer listed on the website’s Unsolved Crimes page, when to public knowledge the pottery has not been found. Bailey assured that any tips that do come into the call center will be forwarded to Edgefield Police, through an automated e-mail.
Police Chief Ronnie Carter is still in touch with SLED and could confirm widespread talk about people taking polygraph tests. “Two people took the test and two would not,” Carter said.
“George and Beth Thornton (of the Civic League) drove to Columbia to SLED’s offices to take a polygraph test, about one and half hours long, and they passed it with flying colors,” Carter said. The other two, Justin and Tonya Guy, with the OEDGS, declined taking the polygraph, Carter said.
“We had legal advice not to take the test,” said Tonya Guy. “It’s against our civil liberties. And it’s not even admissible in court. I can assure you Justin didn’t run down the steps, prop the door open, or pick any locks.”
Legal documents—since Justin Guy called the police on June 6 about the theft/larceny at 104 Courthouse Square—omit mention of the pottery theft.
Even the Civic League Answer to the OEDGS, posted on public index April 5—surprising some by claiming the entire contents of the Tompkins Library—mentions “artifacts” as inventory but not pottery.
The missing pottery seems guarded and buried like so much Civil War silver.
“It’s likely in storage somewhere,” said Chief Carter. And Tonya Guy said she heard from three volunteers that a call came into the library saying someone in Acworth, Georgia has it. She wondered what happened to that lead.
A Day in Court
“People need to stop with the rumors and wait to see what happens in court,” said Clerk of Court Charles L. Reel, who was with Edgefield Sheriff’s office for 22 years before his appointment and then two-time-elected position at the County Courthouse.
Reel has what he would describe as the second-best collection of archives in the state, second only to those in Columbia. The Clerk of Court serves as Register of Deeds (land transactions, plats, mortgages, power of attorney’s and liens). Reel manages the climate-controlled archive and also, he said, works with Tonya Guy, archivist of records before 1913.
Of all the objects at the Tompkins Library, Reel would like the original defendants box and clerk of courts desk that’s currently, he said, on loan to the Tompkins Library. “I would put them in the Court House with a plaque so people could see them. Though it’s probably not a good time to ask for those things back.”
It is Reel who explained why the hearing in Court of Common Pleas, on the schedule since November for March 27—titled Old Edgefield Genealogical Society (OEDGS), plaintiff, et all VS Edgefield Civic League (ECL), defendant et al—was postponed, officially continued, until the next session, until the week of September 4.
Judge Keesley, like so many others in Edgefield, knows the people involved. He looked at the docket and recused himself, said Reel. Still, that this first hearing scheduled March 27th wasn’t happening seemed news to many that Monday morning. Rainsford said that he and those with the Civic League showed up at the Court House that day. The plaintiff, the OEDGS, knew about the postponement and was not there.
The judge’s recusal for this mediated hearing in the Court of Common Pleas was “filed early, in fact March 17 at 2:12 p.m.,” Reel said, checking the public index.
“We sent out electronic notices to the lawyers,” said Reel. We didn’t know the defendants (the Civic League) lawyers at the time. So, we sent out a certified letter to the defendants’ post office box in Edgefield. The letter wasn’t opened and returned. Reel said this happens often.
The week of September 4 is the first possible week that Edgefield again will be hearing complaints this year, explained Reel. That is unless the attorneys ask Judge McCaslin to hear it early in another court, and if in another 11th District court, possibly in McCormick, Saluda, or Lexington, in which case the hearing could be earlier. “And this is just the pre-seizure hearing on this case,” said Reel. “It could be many more.”
Tonya Guy said their attorney Theodore Von Keller said they might be able to be heard by Judge McCaslin in McCormick County on April 17, but the Civic League didn’t accept. “We keep trying to move the library and they keep stalling,” Guy said.
Public Court Records
Here’s what’s news in actions, as posted to the public index at sccourts.org under case #2023CP1900058
- Posted March 28: March 27, Tonya Guy, for the OEDGS, signed an amended Plaintiff’s Bond in Claim and Delivery of Personal Property, with a surety bond for double the value of $24,000, estimated cost of the property in question.
- March 28: Tonya Guy submitted an amended list of property “wrongfully withheld or detained.”
* April 5: The Civic League’s attorney’s registered as Reginald Wayne Belcher and Hannah Davis Stetson of Turner Padgett Graham & Laney P.A.
* April 5: The 26 defenses filed as Civic League’s answer to the OEDGS request for claim and recovery of property, included:
“ECL owns many, if not most, of the documents, materials, artifacts, and/or other items that Plaintiff identified…” And because “the ECL formally employed Plaintiff’s current or former President, Tonya Guy….. the ECL exclusively owns all historical, genealogical, and.or educational documents, materials, and/or other items that Ms. Guy (or Plaintiff under Ms. Guy’s direction) acquired, collected, preserved, archived, maintained, and/or stored on ECL’s premises…
“Defendant pleads justification… as many, if not most, of the historical documents, materials, artifacts, and items in its possession are aged, fragile, delicate, and would be harmed or destroyed if moved off the premises and/or not stored in a climate-controlled environment.”
Location, Location, Location
For the Civic League, proof of ownership would mean the Tompkins Library collection would stay at 104 Court House Square, as a vital part of the town—its eclectic rooms in eye view for tourists picking up maps at The Welcome Center or heading to the archives at the County Courthouse. All of this activity right in front of Pottery Studio, which is always a draw and now more so since The Met museum exhibit, showcasing David Drake and young artists inspired by him, called Hear me Now: The Potters of Old Edgefield, will travel to Atlanta, GA February 2024. (Updated 5/16/24)
For the OEDGS, proof of ownership of the library contents would mean they could relocate and their plan is to Johnston. Genealogists are drawn to where the records are, noted Carol Hardy Bryan of the OEDGS. “We will be just eight miles out of Edgefield and a ten minute drive, said Tonya Guy. “People coming to see us would see peach trees on the way. The town of Johnston has showed us a number of places and one is in an old cotton mill with a library and arts center and is rent-free. The Civic League had started wanting in January 2022 $1,400 a month and by June they had locked us out, she said.
“Edgefield is just really unfriendly for us. We’d like to go in peace, not give Edgefield a black eye,” said Guy. “We keep getting sidetracked by all these stallers.”
If the OEDGS moves out of town, it will take two or three people, two to three months to copy all of the documents and purchase copies of the books to outfit the Tompkins Library, said Rainsford. (Guy opposes the idea of copying the OEDGS records.)
“For the OEDGS to move to Johnston is, in my view, a horrible decision for them and their clientele,” wrote Rainsford in a letter to Beth Thornton of the Civic League.“Without a doubt, this would be the biggest blow to downtown Edgefield that we have suffered in modern times…Prior to last year, this was a well-run institution which has provided enormous help to thousands of people searching for their roots over the years.”
In Edgefield, history is a natural resource—as much as peaches and wild turkeys.