I’ve come across the term “old field” in place names several times recently. Our put-in on one of our Enoree trips was at Mas Old Field Landing. At the Owings History Museum last week there were references to the Ora Old Field Church (pictured above) and the Riddle Old Field School. This got me thinking about the term and whether or not it was just a generic geographic term, or if it held deeper meaning.
After my visit to the Children’s Graveyard in Greenville I started re-reading Dr. A. V. Huff’s “Greenville: A History”. Huff describes the early landscape of Upper South Carolina as covered in forests and canebrakes. Huff notes certain exceptions by quoting Nineteenth Century historian John H. Logan describing these “old fields.”
But the landscape was not entirely dominated by forests and canebrake. There were vast prairies “destitute of trees, and as luxuriant in grass and flowers as any prairie of modern times.” Many of these open areas, later known to the white settles as “old fields,” were created by the Cherokees who burned large areas of the forests for hunting herds of wildlife.
I did a GNIS Name Server query for the phrase “old field” and came up with fifteen instances of the phrase used as a place name. These range from the coast all the way to the Upstate, and cover geographic features such as churches, cemeteries, and schools. Many were indicated as “historic” on the nameserver, meaning that the feature so named is no longer there.
A Google search on the phrase turns up many place names, the most prominent of which is Old Field, New York and a lighthouse in the that area. I also searched Flickr for the phrase and found a photo taken by Kevin Borland in the Shenandoah Valley which matches Huff’s description.
In the three hundred or so years of settlement in our state I doubt that much remains of the old fields. Most, like the settlement farms that came after them, have been carved up into housing tracts by developers. However, I’d like to find such a plot and take a walk through one of the “old fields.”
UPDATE: Apparently there is such a thing as an “old field school” that is not necessarily related to the Cherokee old fields. The term was used to refer to small, one-room schools spread across rural areas, typically in the South and Applachian regions. Through various searches I found multiple references to historical figures who attended an “old field school”, but nothing to actually describe those schools and how they got their names. I was able to find a photo of South Carolina’s “oldest schoolhouse” on Flickr, taken by photographer Angela Kneece..
I finally found something through SIRS Discoverer that says that the schools received their names because they were typically built on worn-out, unfertile farm land, or “old fields.” The term came to be used generically for any rural school, similar to the way “chapel-of-ease” was used to refer to remote parishes along the South Carolina Coast.
I’m sure that the phrase “old field” as used in a place name could have originated in a variety of ways, depending on context. Still it’s interesting to contemplate what might be so old about these old fields.