Located in McCormick, the John de la Howe School originated on land bequeathed by John de la Howe, a wealthy physician who died in 1797. His will left $6,000 dollars in cash and personal property and nearly three thousand acres of land called Lethe Farm in Abbeville District to create a school for the practical education of rural boys and girls. Apathy and mismanagement among the first trustees, however, delayed the implementation of Howe’s plan for decades. The school opened as Lethe Agricultural Seminary in January 1832 with twenty-four students. During the antebellum period, students spent equal time in studies and manual labor. Entry ages were set at twelve for boys and ten for girls. The school, though not totally self-sufficient, taught every aspect of farming common in the state.
Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Lethe school suffered financial setbacks, which forced its closure from 1882 to 1894. Declining enrollments caused a second closing from 1911 to 1913, which prompted a reorganization, converting the school to a state agency. In 1918 the General Assembly renamed it the “John de la Howe Industrial School” and appointed a managing board of directors. To expand statewide services, the school was relocated to the town of McCormick and larger buildings constructed. The school became one of the first recipients of grants from the Duke Endowment. It began accepting disturbed and disabled children in 1969, and integrated without fanfare shortly thereafter. The administration of superintendent John C. Shiflet (1979–1999) shifted the education focus from college preparatory classes to both college and vocational programs.
The John de la Howe School continues as a state-funded group childcare facility that houses both residential and wilderness programs for approximately 150 school-age children per year who come from families in crisis and are placed for nine to twelve months. Students live in family-like settings in cottages, eat in the central cafeteria, and attend classes at the school until they reach eleventh grade, when they are transported to the nearby high school. Funding is received from the Duke Endowment, the state of South Carolina, student tuition, and fundraising activities. The 135 acres of land surrounding the school, called the Museum Tract (designated a National Natural Landmark in 1976), contains the largest shortleaf pine stand in the world and is the only virgin forest of its kind remaining in South Carolina.
Historical Sketch of the John de la Howe School. Anderson, S.C.: Anderson Printing, 1939.
Still Caring, Still Dreaming: The First Two Hundred Years at John de la Howe School. McCormick, S.C.: John de la Howe School, 1996.