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Junk-shops, Jesus and Dead Deer: Dispatches from McCormick, South Carolina's lakeside frontier

Online magazine

In this beautifully observed, often lyrical article, Stephen Kenny presents a very personal observation of small town life in South Carolina.

 

McCormick, where is it? How and why is it?
Sights, sounds and thoughts from the heated fishbowl of a red pick-up-truck
Further comments and observations
Bibliography
Miscellany

For many white people in McCormick, the Civil War still rages, Yankees remain the enemy and 'Dixie' will forever be the national anthem. Abraham Lincoln never was THEIR president and everybody knows that Martin Luther King, Jr., was a communist agitator. J. Edgar Hoover said so, and that's' good enough for most folks.

For blacks, the war never ended, either. To most whites they are still considered 'niggers' and both races are enslaved by a nineteenth-century mentality that traps them equally in the past. It continues to blow out any flames that flicker with hope for a better future.

And even though neither race will admit it, many people in McCormick are modern-day sharecroppers in the Old South that still exists amid the scrub pines, red-clay hills, beer joints and rusty, junked cars that dot the roadways.

Their 'massa' is ignorance. Their debt is unpaid.

Their crime is cynicism. Their sentence is despair.

Progress is a word that is looked upon with distrust. Progress, you see, means people. And people means newcomers. And newcomers mean new ways, new ideas, new thinking.
(Ken Fortenberry, Kill the Messenger: One Man's Fight Against Bigotry and Greed, 1988).

True to Ourselves, Our Neighbors, Our Country and Our God
(weekly legend of the McCormick Messenger).

The conversion of agricultural lands to residential and commercial use and the introduction of icons announcing the presence of national chains - the back-lit plastic commercial signs, the generic building and canopy designs, the billboards, and the ubiquitous readerboard signs - are affecting the quality of the landscape. New development following suburban conventions is a growing concern. (Savannah River Scenic Highway Corridor Management Plan, 1997, p1).

It is more and more difficult for us to imagine the real, History, the depth of time, or three-dimensional space, just as before it was difficult, from our real world perspective, to imagine a virtual universe or the fourth dimension. (Jean Baudrillard, 'Disneyworld Company,' reproduced in CTHEORY, 1996, http://www.ctheory.com/e25-disneyworld_comp.html#bio).

What follows is a short exercise in observation. A loosely connected series of narrative fragments are offered as an attempt to convey something of the flavour of a place and communicate certain peculiarities that, when blended, enumerated and articulated with an equal measure of fascination and loathing, describe one particular small-town in the American South.

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McCormick, where is it? How and why is it?

Geographically speaking, McCormick County lies in the northwestern foothills of the South Carolina Piedmont and borders Lake Thurmond and the Savannah River. McCormick is South Carolina's smallest county, yet it has the greatest proportion of forest land in the state, totaling something like 90% of all available acreage.

Distance, both geographic and mental, historically and down to the present-day has played a major role in the county's fortunes and character. Twenty miles distant from the nearest significant towns of Abbeville, Greenwood and Edgefield, over forty miles or more away from the cities of Augusta and Aiken, and upwards of sixty miles from the liberalising influence of major urban cultural centers with colleges (such as Greenville, Columbia, Athens and Atlanta), McCormick remains a remote and detached world, outside the main currents of modern technological and educational development.

McCormick has made a serious attempt to capitalize on its history as a former gold mine and the existence of the remaining old pits and tunnels scattered around the town. Gold was first taken in the area sometime between 1847 and 1852, when, as legend has it, while out hunting, local planter William Burkhalter (aka 'Fool Billy') Dorn's fox hounds discovered the vein close to the site of the present-day town. Using slave labour to work his mine, Dorn reputedly extracted somewhere between $900,000 and $2 million profit in less than ten years. With his fortune in gold, Dorn was able to dramatically increase his slaveholdings and according to legend would exclaim, 'Here's another nigger!' every time a new blast was set off. When a 56 year old Dorn married 16 year old Martha Rutledge in a grand social event, to the disappointment of the wedding guests, he gave the minister a pair of kid gloves. However, each finger of the gloves was found to hold $500 worth of gold nuggets. During the Civil War, it was claimed that Dorn used his gold-mining profits to outfit an entire regiment of Confederate soldiers. The settlement that developed alongside and above the mines was initially known as Dorn's Gold Mines and later as Dorn Mine Post Office. In 1871 Cyrus McCormick, the "father of farm mechanization," bought the mines for $20,000 and spent the remainder of his life, despite extensive capital outlay for new mining equipment, trying to realize a profit. However, McCormick did give the town shape and a new direction. First, by ordering that forty acres be surveyed and laid out in squares, auctioning the 30' by 90' lots and donating property for churches, a school and a cemetery. Second, by bringing the town into the railway-age, purchasing stock in the Augusta and Knoxville Railroad in order to encourage a rail spur to his mines. Acknowledging this invaluable legacy, the Dorn's Gold Mines settlement was chartered in 1882 as the town of McCormick with three unique features: built over a gold mine; a planned town; and the first village to be incorporated as a 'dry' town in the state, effectively prohibiting the open sale of liquor for a century. However, as recent exposes in the McCormick Messenger confirm, prohibition never did curtail the popular demand for liquor and tipplers in the County took to supplying their own and the needs of others by building ingenious, but illicit stills.

Today popular legend and industrial archaeology are performed and explored in the town's Gold Rush Days festival. This is just one of countless similar heritage events in the region (including Catfish Stomps, Chitlin' Struts and Hog Jogs) that suggest the South's determination to preserve and remember select and marketable versions of regional history and to maintain a distinctive identity in the face of culturally lethal contemporary maladies, such as suburban sprawl and Wal-Mart. In the case of McCormick, literally sited above four and a half miles or so of tunnels, with old mine shafts, early cuts and workings and a feast of local lore ripe for the tourist eye and ear, cashing-in on the town's history offers the opportunity to reverse decades of economic decline.

Together with the diminishing importance of mining in the early twentieth-century, McCormick County's once prosperous cotton economy was devastated by the double-blow of the boll-weevil and the Great Depression. Federally administrated public works projects sought to address the worst of the county's major problems, including massive population loss and soil erosion, through the planting of pine trees (some 48,000 acres that now form the nucleus of the Sumter National Forest) and community-building programs (for example, the WPA built a sturdy town-hall from pink granite). With the trees came the timber processing industry and, following the Second World War, textiles mills came to the county and remain major employers.

Three blocks long and bisected by railway tracks and US Highway 378, downtown Main Street is the commercial center of both the town of McCormick and the county. Main Street is architecturally distinguished by the old train depot (the geographical center of the town), two renovated railway hotels (one of which is now home to the McCormick Arts Council and the other to Fannie Kate's Inn and restaurant) and assorted retail and financial business located in two-story brick buildings. The facades of these buildings are being renovated in the style of the early 1900s. Although slow to join the Southern region's historic preservation movement, McCormick's politicians and planners now embrace the idea of heritage tourism as an important source of future revenue and employment, especially as more traditional economic activities are rapidly disappearing in the county. For example, the town of McCormick's Dorn Mill Center for History and Art is a bold attempt to move away from the fixed-in-aspic antiquarianism and segregationist nostalgia that characterizes many preservation efforts in the South. This National Register historic site, which comprises a steam-powered grist mill, a cotton gin mill and a weigh station, seeks both to remember the agricultural, industrial and commercial heritage of the town and to create new opportunities for the development of local artists by providing workshops, residencies and a commercial outlet for traditional and contemporary handcrafts.

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Sights, sounds and thoughts from the heated fishbowl of a red pick-up-truck

The noise of a mile-long CSX freight-train, loaded with wood-chips, sawdust, or chemicals, passing through the center of town stops the traffic - the clang (and clang, clang, clang!!!) of the crossing warning signal joining the resounding blare of an air horn and the heavy foundation rocking rumble of endless loaded tank cars, boxcars and hoppers.

Single wide and double wide trailer homes dot the clearings between the scrub pines. Decrepit wooden 'cropper's cabins' with exposed crumbling brick chimneys tilt at unlikely angles and fail to fight-off the smothering choke-hold of the prolific kudzu vine ... weathered remnants of the South's long plantation era, slave-based labour and the peonage (or sharecropping) that followed Reconstruction, that can still be seen from the highway in McCormick County. Abandoned rusting vehicles, sprawling shards of trash and plastic chairs litter lawns and driveways. Occasional homemade signs hail the hungry eye, adopting the instantly recognizable, regionally specific, typeface and spellings, advertizing collards, okra, peas, sweet potatoes and tomatoes for sale.

Checking the odometer, an animal body-count is made. Over the distance of three-miles, an attempt to tally the endless splattered, ruined, mangled bodies of foxes, raccoons, squirrels, cats, dogs, deer, opossums, skunks, rabbits and frogs is made without success. Life is expressed and exterminated in petroleum motion, dynamically and tragically on the road, where lies the carcass menagerie, a fusion of skin, rubber, steel, stone, glass and bone, slick layers of the disarticulated, a sediment inarticulate and red in blood.

The Light of Life church, like fifty or so alternative places of worship in McCormick County, fills with song every Sunday, indeed for almost all-day Sunday long. People spend the entire day at church, back and forth between church and home, talking about church, giving and spreading The Word between breakfast, lunch and dinner. Religion binds Southerners and focuses them on the ideology of the family (and extended relations). Indeed, church is the bedrock of community and culture, and, together with traditional regional food, is one of the last truly distinctive features of the American South.

Three wooden crossesThree rough-hewn wooden crosses stand on the United Methodist church-lawn. These mute sentinels provide a symbolic doom-watch to the tune of drunken electronic bells announcing midday, as the Christian clock-consciousness ticks and sparks a Millennial ammunition sales boom at Wal-Mart, a canned goods and dry beans bonanza at Piggly Wiggly, and a .com record .consumption. WWJD? Meanwhile, children walk the streets in T-shirts stenciled with the holy logo, "Jesus," and middle-age women sport baseball-caps proclaiming, "Christ, the real thing," in the advertising style of that infamous Atlanta beverage, and elderly men in Sunday-best clothes are buying meat from Food Lion, climbing into mammoth SUV's and leaving to go to Church.

Headlights, switched on full-beam, glare savagely on the near empty highway. It is a night filled with eyes ... of deer frozen in ditches by the roadside, of hunters and their prey in the pine forests, of the watchful and the threatening, of innumerable insects and birds and endless stars. The dead eyes of dead deer lie still in roadside ditches, while the glinting coal dark eyes of buzzards bob and weave as gory beaks nip and tug at meat and bone.

Two new 'communities' have added an additional two thousand residents to McCormick County's population in the course of the last decade. McCormick Correctional Institution (MCI), a maximum security state penal facility, houses over 1, 100 inmates, while around 800 people live in Savannah Lakes Village TM . The latter complex is a planned recreational and retirement community, themed around golf and sentimental visions of the Old South (the names of the six residential neighborhoods that constitute Savannah Lakes Village are Tara, Southwind, Magnolia, Monticello, Savannah Point and Shenandoah).

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Further comments and observations Strom's Drug StoreIn the era of railway travel, a favorite pastime of the people of McCormick used to be watching the hubbub surrounding the eight or so passenger trains that would stop in the town. Travelling salesmen would display their wares in hotel "sample rooms," hoping to attract orders from the town's merchants. With the advent of the automobile, the center of attention switched to Strom's Drug Store on Main Street.

People would park along Main Street to see who came to town and to visit. When curb service was available, Strom's was a good place to check on the current dating couples. Today, Strom's is best known for it's soda fountain and coke floats (four parts ice-cream and one part coke, so its the coke that actually floats!), but the old-timers still gather there to exchange local news and gossip over a morning coffee.

 

 

McCormick made the national news in 1935 when lumber in the ladder used to kidnap the Lindbergh baby was traced to the town's Dorn Mill.

In the clean and well-lit grocery store large and furtive, mumbling men sporting Old Testament beards move awkwardly between the aisles. Clothed in camouflage or deep-blue denim dungarees, they're searching the stacks for beans, beef jerky and Budweiser beer. In their cross-hatched sights are customer-service assistants stacking Campbell's soup-tins without irony and refuelling refrigerators with 'fat-free' TV dinners. How do you field-dress a shelf-stacker? Would a cashier fit on the hood of a pick-up truck? Would anyone complain if you left their lifeless bodies in the parking-lot?

McCormick County has major problems affecting health, quality of life and concerning cultural issues. These include illiteracy, teenage pregnancy, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, inadequate healthcare and educational services and facilities and a low paid and under-skilled labour force. In a 1982 U.S. News and World Report featuring disappearing small-towns and communities, it was observed that; "McCormick illustrates the vicious cycle that plagues dying communities: hard times and apathy breed more of the same. Industrial developers take one look and run." Unfortunately, beyond mere cosmetic manipulations of signage and street architecture, little has changed in the town.

 

Strom Thurmond, the oldest living and longest serving senator in United States history, worked as a schoolteacher in McCormick between 1923 and 1925. In a letter to the weekly McCormick Messenger in 1924, he offered "to teach any white adults who have had poor opportunities for an education the fundamental principles, even the alphabet itself ... at any time, day or night, when not engaged in my duties at the high school." Thurmond's educational legacy can still be felt in the town today. As Ken Fortenberry noted in Kill the Messenger, "For about two decades, McCormick County has been an educational wasteland, caused in part by racial imbalance and the community's reactions to it." Fortenberry's novel was published in 1989 and little has changed since then. McCormick still ranks at the bottom of the state's various indices of educational performance and the schools are as racially divided as ever. In March of 2000, a $10.4 million school bond referendum for new public school facilities was defeated at the polls. Sadly, the decisive NO vote was cast the new Savannah Lakes Village TM community. One wonders what the outcome of the referendum would have been, had the majority of the public schoolchildren been white.

 

Antique ShopHeritage tourism's ascendancy in the regional economy has spawned some strange offspring. With the worship of the past, has come the cult and popular coveting of historical bric-a-brac or, more optimistically, antiques. In the case of McCormick, this trend is witnessed in the busy trade in Native American artifacts and arrowheads (much of it conducted at flea markets and on the internet). There are also at least half-a-dozen antiques shops in the town of McCormick, and this pattern is repeated throughout the towns and cities of South Carolina's Heritage Corridor - reaching an apotheosis in Charleston, where, to quote a venerable Southern voice, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." A man walked into the McCormick County Library recently and asked me how much a Charles and Diana Royal Wedding commemorative coin was worth. I was brutally honest and told him about fifty pence. It's clear the Georgia Public Television re-runs of the BBC's Antiques Roadshow have a lot to answer for!

 

Bibliography

Jack Bass and Marilyn W. Thompson, Ol' Strom: An Unauthorized Biography of Strom Thurmond (Longstreet Press, Marietta, GA, 1998).
Bobby F. Edmonds, The Making of McCormick County (Cedar Hill Unlimited, McCormick, SC, 1999)
Ken Fortenberry, Kill the Messenger: One Man's Fight Against Bigotry and Greed (Peachtree Publishers, Atlanta, 1989).
McCormick Messenger (various 1999 and 2000 editions)
McCormick County Homepage (http://www.mccormickcountysc.com)
McCormick Memories (McCormick Centennial Committee, 1982).
Savannah River Scenic Highway Corridor Management Plan (1997).
Thomason and Associates, The Historic Resources of McCormick, South Carolina (Nashville, Tennessee, 1995).

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A McCormick Miscellany

Jail Log

The following people were arrested and held at the McCormick County Jail:

Reginald Lemon, 38, no driver's license on 3-26, released 3-26
John "The Mash" Whiskey, 67, six counts distillery operation, 3-30, released 3-30
Billie Applesteak, 45, probation violation on 3-31
Vyrone Monks, 34, public drunk, assaulting a police officer on 4-2, 4-2.
(from the McCormick Messenger, while the names have been changed the charges are as published)

McCormick County is designated a 100% rural county, but barely ninety independently-owned farms remain. The County has a seasonally variable unemployment rate of between 10 and 14%, compared to a South Carolina state level of roughly 4%. McCormick County has a total of sixty churches, in the following denominations: Baptist (24), African Methodist Episcopal (12),United Methodist (4), Methodist (3), Church of God Holiness (3), Pentecostal (2), Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Jehovah Witness, Evangelistic, Church of God and Associate Reformed Presbyterian.
There are just two sets of traffic-lights in the entire county of McCormick.

School Menus Breakfast menu for Sept. 8-10

Tuesday Cereal choices, muffins, juice and milk
Wednesday Cheese toast, grits/butter, juice and milk
Thursday Steak biscuit, juice and milk
Friday Sausage biscuit, orange wedge, juice and milk
(from the McCormick Messenger, Sept.2, 1999)

The major employers of McCormick County are as follows:

South Carolina Department of Corrections (294)
McCormick County School District (230)
McCormick Health Care Center (126)
Georgia Pacific Wood Yard and Timber Office (80)
Milliken Textiles (180)
John De La Howe School (133)
Riegel Textiles (116)
McCormick County Local Government (91)
Food Lion Groceries (40)
South Carolina Highway Department (33)
Carolina Health and Dental (20)
Strom's Drug Store (21)
Commission of Public Works (14)

Between 1992 and 1997, there were 350 traffic accidents in McCormick County. 99 of these accidents were recorded as the result of an "Animal in the Road."

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