By MacKenzie Ryan
“Olympia was where everyone wanted to live but after three years in that building, I can’t wait to get out. No place has ever given me the creeps more,” said current resident Rylee Merger,
“The worst was the feeling of always being watched, no matter what room in the apartment you were in it was always like someone or something was there with you.”
Olympia Mills luxury student apartments are a staple of South Carolina’s capital city. Located just south of downtown Columbia in the historic Olympia Mills Village, Olympia Mills exterior remains as it was over 110 years ago when the building was first constructed. Instead of running looms and the hustle and bustle of an operating mill, the building is now home to a new kind of noise. Roughly 1,100 University of South Carolina students now call it home, after renovations turned the old vacant textile mill into upscale college style apartments in 2007.
According to the South Carolina Historic and Architectural Inventory, Olympia Mills finished construction in 1899 shortly after her sister mill Granby Mills in 1897. Both mills are located close relation to the Congaree River. These textile mills were the creations of architect and engineer William Burroughs Smith Whaley in an attempt to move South Carolina toward a New South economy following the collapse of the state’s agriculturally dominated infrastructure by the end of the Civil War.
Olympia Mills was Whaley’s masterpiece. The most technologically advanced of all of Whaley’s owned and operated mills, Olympia was at one point the largest textile mill under one roof in the world, housing over 2,400 looms, 104,000 spindles and employing hundreds in the Columbia area.
Whaley hoped Olympia would help establish Columbia as the cotton manufacturing powerhouse of the South. Olympia along with four other South Carolina Mills owned and operated by W.B. Smith Whaley and Company brought prosperity to the capital city as well as the poverty that accompanied the surrounding mill villages.
Following the collapse of the South’s predominantly agriculture-based economy, Southern families would often migrate from the rural countryside’s to cities in search of a better life. Along with better jobs with better pay than on the farm, mill employment meant free housing. A select few were even provided some form of education in exchange for labor.
However, Olympia Mills, like many other textile mills during that era exploited its workers with long hours and low wages. On average, Olympia Mill employees earned 60 percent less than that earned by mill hands in other parts of the country.
Another dangerous practice also took place. Used for their small size, children often were used to keep mills running. Children sometimes as young as 7, from sun up to sun down, would work in extremely unhealthy conditions alongside their parents for wages equaling less than $1 a week.
The hardship and neglect in the mills didn’t just pertain to dangerous working conditions. Many mills weren’t above corporal punishment and the belittlement of their employees, Whaley included. And during a organized mill workers strike in the early 20th century, Olympia Mills let many workers go, evicting them from their homes when they refused to show up for their shifts in protest of unfair working conditions.
The dangers of working near machinery were an ever-present threat. Children, commonly used to go into the looms to make adjustments or replace a bobbin, often ended up dead or maimed.
Some 110 years after Olympia Mills opened for business as a leading innovator in textile mill design and production, the building is home to a different generation of children. But many of the college students who live at Olympia today nsist the mill’s child employees never clocked out — even though Olympia closed textile production permanently in 1996. Paranormal occurrences have been reported by students since the mill was turned into apartments.
Current resident Rylee Merger has lived in Olympia Mills since the start of her sophomore year. Now a senior, she couldn’t be more excited to graduate and leave the mill behind.
“It’s such a fun place to live and just about everyone tries to get a place here but, just like with everything it has its cons,” said Merger, “I just wish I knew before signing my lease I was signing on for more than two other roommates.”
Merger and her sophomore year roommates, Alex Ravins and Emily Williams, lived in Olympia for different periods of time, in multiple apartments. Still, all three women said they experienced supernatural phenomena and unexplained occurrences.
“Being (in) the South I knew just about every building had a history, I just didn’t think one of those places would be my apartment,” said Ravins, who after her sophomore year requested a new apartment following a frightening experience.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. It was just too weird. There was no other explanation other than ghosts,” said Ravins.
Awake well into the early morning hours Ravins was preparing to leave for the weekend on an early flight when she decided it was time to shut down the television and head to her second-floor bedroom.
“I vividly remember turning the TV off with the volume very low because everyone else in the apartment was asleep. Not even 5 minutes after my head hit the pillow, our TV turned on with the volume full blast and the channel had switched to Ghost Hunters or something spooky like that,” said Ravins.
Williams remembers the night just as vividly. “I was asleep in my room and all of a sudden I woke up to our television blaring so loud out of nowhere I was frozen in my bed,” said Williams. “It felt like an eternity until our other roommate Rylee’s boyfriend finally gained enough courage to shut it off.”
This was hardly the last time the ladies of apartment 332 experienced a ghostly encounter. Ravins and Williams recalled another chance encounter with the supernatural that drove home their reasons to switch apartments come the end of the semester.
“I’ve never been more genuinely terrified in my entire life. We weren’t remotely close to the kitchen or even using anything in there but, somehow one of the top cabinets came flying open and immediately shut again scaring Emily and I half to death,” said Ravins.
“We couldn’t believe what was going on right in front of us. I didn’t think it was really happening but, I’ll never think twice about the existence of ghosts again,” Williams said.
“We just grabbed each other in shock as two more cabinets swung open, after that I couldn’t really sleep right in the apartment. Too many weird things were happening that had no explanation.”
Reports of the paranormal at Olympia continue. Leasing office manager Zach Kiritsy never leased an apartment in complex while he was USC student. But that didn’t protect him from experiencing some ghostly encounters while working within the building.
“It’s not something we publicize within our leasing office but ghosts and things that go bump in the night defiantly come along with living in such an old historic place. I don’t think many college kids realize that when coming down to school in an area so heavily affected by slavery and the Civil War,” said Kiritsy.
Olympia Mills remains standing today as a member of the National Register of Historic Buildings, known for bringing prosperity and a working population to the city. Today the building represents a new wave of the Columbia community, housing college students during their four-year journey through university.