Robin Spaniel and her husband were doing yard work outside of their home in Cottontown when an elderly lady approached them.
“She had her grandson and she saw us outside and she said, ‘Do you mind if I show him around? I grew up here,’” Spaniel said.
Cottontown is a small historic district surrounded by Bull Street, Elmwood Avenue and Main Street with homes that date back to the early 1900s.
The lady appeared to be in her 80s or 90s, said Spaniel. She began sharing stories about her childhood in the same one-story home that Spaniel moved into three years ago.
During her conversation with Spaniel, the woman recalled waking up on chilly mornings and getting dressed in the living room because the house was heated by a single coal fireplace. She walked around and noticed some aspects that were still the same, like the wooden doors, Spaniel said.
“She remembers being a child and buying the numbers for the house,” Spaniel said. “I still have them, so I think I might put them back out front since they’re that old.”
Even though Spaniel was somewhat familiar with the neighborhood’s history, she was unaware of the story of her home until that day.
Other residents in Cottontown may not have the opportunity to hear firsthand accounts of the history of their homes, but Cottontown itself is a window into the past. The neighborhood is listed in the National Register of Historic Places due to its collective style of architecture, said Rusty Sox, Cottontown resident since 1992.
Cottontown is one of Columbia’s first organized suburbs. The bungalow-style homes are arranged close to each other and are commonly characterized by a front porch. The neighborhood’s structure has stayed relatively the same throughout the years, said Sox.
“The houses are small, but they’re interesting architecturally,” Sox said. “They got that sort of historical charm about them.”
Owning a historic home comes with certain rules that are not always popular.
Will Thrift, president of the Cottontown Neighborhood Association, said residents often want to replace windows or make changes to the exterior, but that’s not an option for homes in Cottontown.
Thrift moved to South Carolina in 2007 and was especially attracted to Cottontown because of his affinity for historic homes. He quickly realized the community was special, too.
The first night in their new home, Thrift and his wife popped open a bottle of champagne on their front porch to celebrate the occasion. Thrift said, Several neighbors introduced themselves to the new family that evening, “We felt the closeness of the community right away.”
This led to Thrift becoming involved in the neighborhood association. He has held several positions on the board and is serving his second term as president.
Sox has been a resident for over 25 years, but he’s reluctant to call himself an old-timer. He describes Cottontown as having a “Mayberry quality” to it because of the close-knit community.
“I thought it would be my first house and then I would move to a bigger house somewhere in a different neighborhood, but I’ve stayed right here because it’s got everything I need,” Sox said.
Oftentimes, he’ll go on a walk in the evening and won’t make it back home for 2 hours because he’s been chatting with his neighbors on their front porches.
“A lot of people go home and they walk in and close the door and they never talk to the people that live on either side of them,” Sox said. “It’s really not like that in Cottontown.”
Many residents participate in community-wide events. The neighborhood association has turned its meetings into social gatherings, said Spaniel. The association hosted a chili cook-off last fall and are planning a Cinco de Mayo party for this spring.
Julie Seel, Cottontown resident since 2006, is planning Cottontown’s first Art Crawl. She created the event to support her artist friends because she does not think they receive enough recognition.
During the event, residents will host an artist on their front porch and attendees will have the opportunity to buy local art as they interact with the artists.
“Some of the artists are Cottontown residents and some are friends of Cottontown residents,” Seel said. “All of them that will be there have some type of connection to the community.”
Seel calls Cottontown “front porch living at its finest” and she wants to use the Art Crawl as an example of the neighborhood’s supportive community.
The aged neighborhood is experiencing a season of change as new developments open in the area.
Indah Coffee Co., Cottontown Brew Lab and Cittá del Cotone are a few of the local businesses that have open recently in the area. Some are in the backyards of Cottontown homes.
Sox said he’s open to new developments, but he understands residents who are apprehensive about what change could bring.
Ever since he moved to Cottontown, Sox has dreamed of coffee shops in walking distance and local restaurants around the corner.
“Right now, we’re really enjoying sort of a golden age for the neighborhood,” Sox said.
Some developments would not be welcomed by the community, said Thrift. There was a proposal for a charter school to open in the middle of the historic district that would bring in students from surrounding areas, like Lexington and Irmo.
Thrift opposed this development because it would bring traffic to an area that doesn’t have adequate space for busy carpool hours. Thrift said he will face similar challenging decisions in the future as Cottontown’s popularity grows.
Spaniel enjoys the stillness of life in Cottontown. She says it feels like an escape from the city, even though it’s less than a five-minute drive to downtown.
“You’ll sit on this road and I mean if you have two cars go down the street you have a lot,” said Spaniel, admiring the view from her front porch.
Like many residents, her favorite aspect of the neighborhood is the front porches. To her, the porches represent what the community in Cottontown is all about.