Thursday, October 15, 2015

Thornwell: A home for War orphans

William Plumer Jacobs
William Plumer Jacobs
Our series on Laurens County, SC, during Reconstruction continues with an home for War orphans in Clinton.
In the midst of Reconstruction Laurens County, SC, Dr. William Plumer Jacobs was sensing God’s leadership in other new areas. Seeing the great need of post-War orphans abounding across the South, Jacobs wrote in his diary in July 1872, " If one dollar is offered me for the Home of the Fatherless this month or one child is tendered me I will take it as God's call to this work, and if I enter upon it then my lot is fixed for life in Clinton."

Jacobs did not come to this matter of establishing an orphanage haphazardly or suddenly. It was the product of a long period of God’s preparatory work in his life.
Jacobs' mother, Mary Elizabeth Redbrook Jacobs, had been orphaned as a child, and a pastor adopted her, Rev. William Swan Plumer. In gratitude, she named Dr. William Plumer Jacobs after her adoptive father. His mother in turn died of pneumonia in 1845, when Dr. Jacobs was three years old, helping him identify with those who had lost their parents.

One of his earliest memories growing up in Charleston was passing the Orphan Asylum. Jacobs was haunted by the way orphans were viewed and treated. He had long thought of the need for drastic reform in orphan homes. He read widely on orphan reform and was impressed by the common sense, but at the time drastic, reforms advocated by the German Immanuel Wichern.[1]

On Christmas morning, 1872, a little homeless boy named Willie Anderson from a nearby community appeared on his doorstep looking for a warm place. He noticed his hand clutching something tightly, and he opened it revealing a 50 cent piece. When asked what it was for, the boy said, "I am going to give it to you to build that home for orphans." Jacobs refused the money, but the boy left it anyway. There were no contributions for a month. Then his young daughter Florence gave him her life savings. Jacobs now had a dollar and only a thousand to go. 

That same night Jacobs received five dollars from a man in Charleston. An Illinois woman sent five dollars more, and a Clinton woman gave three dollars. He was on his way.  In 1873, Jacobs raised $1360, and he quarried the granite for the first building from a nearby quarry. On January 6, 1874, Jacobs bought and staked land for an orphanage. Construction began May 5, and the cornerstone was laid the 28th.[2] The first building of Thornwell Orphanage, the Home of Peace, was completed and opened on October 1, 1875.[3]

[1]              “Dr. Jacobs’ Desk,” Blue Notes blog (Clinton, SC: Presbyterian College Archives and Special Collections, June 2015),, Accessed  Oct. 6, 2015.
[2]           Jacobs, Life, 100, 120; Literary, 81.
[3]           Nancy Parks, "Thornwell, Tribute to Founder, William Jacobs," Laurens Advertiser, June 10, 1970.