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John Osteen shared his home, love of history with the community

October 9, 2018

In the early 1980s, John William Osteen Jr. started a fall tradition that became an anticipated community event.

Every weekend before Thanksgiving, Osteen invited the public to visit his log cabin and one-room schoolhouse to learn about life in South Carolina in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

On those cool fall mornings, Osteen often sat by the authentic six-eyed, wood-burning cook stove, which kept the cabin toasty warm, and offered his guests baked sweet potatoes and fluffy biscuits made from scratch.

To sweeten those Southern treats, Osteen served cane syrup, but it came with a warning label: “Can be fatal to Yankees.”

Osteen had a love for the South and a sense of humor, and he loved to share both. Wearing a wide-brimmed wool hat and with a full grey beard that reached to his chest as he sat by the stove, he could have been a portrait of a Confederate general.

Osteen, 91, died Sunday. The funeral will be at 1 p.m. Thursday at Shellhouse-Rivers Funeral Home at 715 Pine Log Road. The visitation will be from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday at the funeral home.

“People enjoy looking back at the past,” Osteen said said in a story in the Aiken Standard in 2014. “Young kids are fascinated, and it carries some of the older country people back to the way of living they knew when they were younger.”

The log cabin became the genesis for the living-history museum Osteen created behind his home in Couchton. He built the log cabin from materials he rescued and recycled from a log house in Belvedere.

“They were about the pull the house down and burn it,” Osteen said in the story. “I told them if they’d give me five weeks I’d tear it down and use the materials. When I first built it, I split out 4,400 wooden shingles and put a wooden roof on it that lasted more than 20 years.”

The one-room, country schoolhouse was a replica of Reid Schoolhouse, which his mother attended in rural Sumter County, South Carolina.

Over time, Osteen built a barn, a privy, a chicken coop, a sugar cane mill, a syrup cooker and a smokehouse to round out the farmstead and collected vintage tools and artifacts to add detail. He also built a Confederate museum to display pictures of ancestors who fought in the Civil War and letters that described accounts from different battles.

After leaving his home for an assisted living facility in 2017, Osteen donated his log cabin and one-room schoolhouse to the Sons of Confederate Veterans Brigadier General Barnard E. Bee Camp No. 1575. A lifetime member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, he was a member of the General Joe Wheeler Camp No. 1245.

In January, movers transported the 13-foot by 22-foot cabin from Osteen’s former property on Wagener Road to the Battle of Aiken park off Powell Pond Road. Two Aiken County Sheriff’s Office patrol cars escorted the move.

In February, cannons, mortars and rifles rang out to salute Osteen on his special day at the Battle of Aiken. Organizers of the Civil War re-enactment proclaimed their annual School Day as Mr. Osteen Day in honor of his gifts.

Surrounded by hundreds of school children and re-enactors wearing period uniforms, S.C. Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, read and presented Osteen with a copy of a resolution adopted unanimously in January by the S.C. House of Representatives.

Reading from the resolution, Taylor said the cabin and schoolhouse “will continue to serve as an educational tool for thousands of Aiken County school children, their parents and other visitors and tourists. These historical buildings were visited by thousands of school students and now will be forever available for visitors to view during the annual Battle of Aiken, allowing visitors to step back in time and experience pioneer life in South Carolina.”

Commander Danny Francis of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Brig. Gen. Barnard E. Bee Camp No. 1575 said the log cabin has been a “great addition” to the Battle of Aiken. He added he believes the cabin once had been owned by a Confederate veteran.

“We have it fixed up just like it would have been when the Confederate solider lived there: table, chairs, cook stove and all kinds of artifacts,” he said Monday. “Schoolchildren loved it. I imagine thousands of pictures were taken, particularly of the log cabin.”

Francis called Osteen “a true historian.”

“He was friendly to everybody,” he said. “There were a lot of people who loved him – still love him. He’s going to be missed.”

Also in February at the Aiken County Historical Society winter meeting, Allen Riddick, the society’s president, awarded Osteen a proclamation from Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon and the City of Aiken in recognition of his 31 years of hosting an open house at his log cabin.

“Mr. Osteen’s passion for history was exceeded only by his love for his family and its history,” Riddick said Monday. “Hundreds of people went out each November to visit the pioneer homestead behind his house. It was great fun to go each year and eat a biscuit and a sweet potato and listen to him tell people about his family’s genealogy and talk about the old days.

“His legacy will live on through his generous donation of his pioneer cabin and the remade one-room schoolhouse to the Battle of Aiken park. He was a great man who will be greatly missed by everyone.”

In the Aiken Standard story, Osteen attributed his love of history to his seventh-grade teacher at a little schoolhouse in Pinewood, South Carolina, in Sumter County.

“She was a descendant of six family members who had been governors of South Carolina, so you can imagine how she felt about history,” he said. “Looking back, I realize that what she was teaching me then governs what I do now to a degree. I’ve always loved history and old stuff.”

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