Happyville was a short-lived agricultural colony settled in 1905 near Montmorenci in Aiken County by Jewish emigrants from Russia. The venture was encouraged by the state’s new immigration bureau, headed by E. J. Watson, a Columbia newspaperman who was secretary of the city’s chamber of commerce. Concerned that the South had not benefited from the massive influx of emigrants from Europe, Watson set out to attract industrious newcomers to spark the state’s depressed economy.
Watson’s campaign was seconded by Jewish leaders in New York, who saw an opportunity to help Jews escape persecution in Russia and to disperse Jewish immigrants around the country. A brochure published in Yiddish and German by the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, Commerce, and Immigration described the state as “the Garden Country of America,” ideal for the “Home-seeker, Farmer, Mechanic, Orchardist, Dairyman, Stockraiser, Businessman, Manufacturer, Healthseeker, [and] Tourist.”
Opening an office in New York City, Watson courted Charles Weintraub, who had been a piano polisher in Russia before coming to New York, and Weintraub’s business associate Morris Latterman. Weintraub and Latterman purchased a 2,200-acre tract known as the Sheffield Phelps Plantation, seven miles from Aiken, along with livestock, farm implements, and several buildings. By January 1906 some ten families and fifteen individuals had taken up residence.
Most of what is known about the colony comes from an essay by the historian Arnold Shankman, who concluded that the majority of colonists were “free thinkers” and socialists, city dwellers unfamiliar with farming. Shankman’s portrayal of the colony has been challenged by the researcher Lawrence M. Ginsberg. Although some contemporary news releases stated that the colonists “have named their location ‘Happyville,’” Ginsburg found no single instance in which the colonists themselves used the term. Ginsburg argued that Watson, a man of driving energy and shrewd advertising sense, had himself dubbed the colony “Happyville.”
On one point all are agreed: the colony’s first year was a disaster. A late frost and heavy rains ruined crops. The rain also washed away a dam the settlers had built to run a grist mill, a saw mill, and a cotton gin. The second year they fared better, their optimism fueled by plans to construct a depot in nearby Montmorenci and a school for immigrant children. The small Jewish community of Aiken welcomed the colonists, though the South Carolinians must have puzzled over the Russians’ inexperience with farming and their intellectual and socialist proclivities.
Financial miscalculations, internal dissension, and another harsh winter undermined the prospects for success at Happyville. In May 1908 the residents auctioned off some of their equipment and livestock, and in July they sold their land. By then virtually all the settlers had left Aiken, most returning to New York or New Jersey, some remaining in the South in nonagricultural jobs.
Ginsburg, Lawrence M. “Deconstructing a Frivolous Misnomer along with an Enduring Array of Compounded Historical Innaccuracies.” Unpublished typescript, 2005. Special Collections, College of Charleston Library, Charleston.
Shankman, Arnold. “Happyville, the Forgotten Colony.” American Jewish Archives 30 (April 1978): 3–19.