Finlay Park rebirth, fires in downtown Columbia SC and other oddball facts

Finlay Park Columbia SC

Finlay Park is a major part of the downtown scene today, but for more than a century, it fell to disuse. (photo: Andrew Peeler/WLTX-TV)

DealChicken spends a lot of time hunting and pecking around downtown Columbia SC in search of the best things to see and do. So it’s no surprise that he’s come across a fair share of interesting facts. Check out the round up, covering everything from a blazing history to a rebirth in Finlay Park.

Flames destroyed at least 30 percent of Columbia’s buildings on Feb. 17, 1865. The destruction came at the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman as he led Union troops through the southeast during the Civil War. Legend has it that Columbia’s First Baptist Church, which was the site of the Secession Convention, was spared from torching when a church custodian reportedly lied and directed soldiers to a nearby Methodist Church.

It took well over a hundred years, but a park in the heart of downtown Columbia returned full circle to what it had been originally. The park was first dedicated as Sidney Park in 1859 to honor Columbia city councilman Algernon Sidney Johnson. It fell to disuse during the Civil War and then became a site for commercial ventures for decades. In 1990, it was reopened and named Finlay Park to honor former Columbia Mayor Kirkman Finlay. It’s a thriving part of the downtown area today.

A historic home in Columbia known as the Mann-Simons Cottage—which is open for tours—has a significant place in the city’s African-American history. A former slave and respected midwife, Celia Mann, once owned the home and her ancestors continued to live there for more than a hundred years. She was living in the house during the Civil War fires in 1865 and also was present at the birth of many of Columbia’s citizens. The Columbia Housing Authority bought the cottage in 1970.

The South Carolina State Museum in Columbia boast 70,000 artifacts, but its most unique holding is its venue. The museum is housed in a former textile mill that originally opened in 1894. This mill was the first completely electric textile mill in the world, and it ranks as General Electric’s first major industrial installation. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The majority of people entering the U.S. Army will spend some time in Columbia. Fort Jackson, encompassing 52,000 acres, provides initial entry training to half of all soldiers and 80 percent of women entering the Army every year. There are more than 3,900 active-duty soldiers assigned there, and they make their home with 14,000 family members.

Actress Mary-Louise Parker made her entry into the world on Aug. 4, 1964 at Fort Jackson. Her dad, John Morgan Parker, served in the U.S Army as a judge. The star of Showtime’s series “Weeds” didn’t spend a lot of time growing up in Columbia, though. Her dad’s career took them to Tennessee, Texas, Thailand, Germany and France. She went on to major in drama at the North Carolina School of the Arts.

Columbia is home to the oldest community theater building in continuous use in the U.S. Built in 1924, Town Theatre is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The mission of the theater is to provide quality plays and musicals for the community. Each year, more than 30,000 attend performances. Local actors are encouraged to try out at open auditions for every performance.

Singing in the dorm showers at the University of South Carolina in Columbia led to the formation of the band Hootie and the Blowfish. Mark Bryan was impressed hearing the voice of Darius Rucker echoing from the shower. They were both freshmen at the time. They met two other freshmen, Dean Felber and Jim “Soni” Sonefeld, and formed the band. They became an overnight success when their 1994 debut album “Cracked Rear Window,” sold 16 million copies. They won two Grammys after that album came out—Best New Artist and Song of the Year by a Duo or Group for “Let Her Cry.”

More than 2,000 wild animals roam in Columbia without any bars or cages. The Riverbanks Zoo and Garden use psychological barriers—things like moats, water and light—to keep the creatures inside their natural habitats. This zoo opened in June 1995 and encompasses 70 acres adjacent to the Saluda River. Attendance ranges from 950,000 to 1.15 million people every year.

During World War II, the Japanese were caught off guard when Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle led 16 B-25 bombers off the U.S.S. Hornet for a raid of Japan. The Japanese never expected bombers to be able to lift off from the short deck of a Navy carrier, but Doolittle and his team proved them wrong. They had been training for the mission at what is now Columbia Metropolitan Airport. President Roosevelt later presented Doolittle with the Medal of Honor.

Did you already know these facts about Finlay Park? Check out some Macon history.