by Anne Blalock

A trip to Abbeville is a visit not only to a place, but an era. This Piedmont town of nearly 6,000 exudes the kind of charm and gracious hospitality that once characterized the Old South. With a history dating back more than 200 years, the townspeople of Abbeville are proud of their heritage and have incorporated the manners and customs of an earlier time into modern life.

The first settlement here was established in the 1720's by Patrick Calhoun, father of statesman John C. Calhoun. The town itself was founded in 1758 by a group of Huguenots led by Dr. John de la Howe, who named it for his hometown of Abbeville, France. Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, Abbeville was host to the first organized meeting to adopt an ordinance of secession in the South. And the last meeting of the Confederate War Council was held by President Jefferson Davis at the home (now the Burt-Stark Mansion) of his friend, Maj. Armistead Burt. Thus, Abbeville is known as the "birthplace and deathbed of the Confederacy."

The town proved resilient. During the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, Abbeville saw growth and economic development with cotton and railroads, and it became a cultural center whose theatrical heritage continues today.

The opera house and Eureka Hotel were built in 1903 to accommodate theatre companies travelling by rail from New York to Atlanta via Abbeville. The opera house hosted performances by such notables as Flo Ziegfeld, Fanny Brice, Jimmy Durante and Groucho Marx. With the advent of silent movies, the theatre companies no longer came, and the opera house became a movie theatre which later closed.

The economy lagged, and it was said, "You could stand at one end of the town square and fire a shotgun and not hit anybody."

Under the leadership of George W. Settles, executive director of the Abbeville County Development Board, Abbeville received matching grants from the Department of the Interior for restoration in 1978 and 1979. Additional grants were received from the Economic Development Administration of the Department of the Commerce, the Settles estimates private investment at more than $3 million. Abbeville had been designated as a National Model for Small Town Development and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Renovated in 1968, the opera house now boasts a rich decor of red and gold and an intimate theatre with a balcony and three tiers of box seats on each side. Home to the Opera House Players, the theatre draws audiences from miles away to its year-round , critically-acclaimed productions.

Trinity Episcopal Church was built in 1860 and is graced by a large, stained-glass window brought from England and smuggled through the blockade at Charleston Harbor during the Civil War.

Trinity, renovated in 1974, is one of several churches in the area dating to the 19th Century.

The Burt-Stark Manison had been maintained exactly as it was when it was donated to the town by Mary Stark Davis in 1976. Built in the 1830s, the house is furnished with ante-bellum pieces and graced with paintings, rugs, china and silver reminiscent of the days when gentle ladies entertained lavishly, serving such delights as "gypsy" (also known as "tipsy parson" or "trifle") from heirloom cut-glass bowls.

The Burn-Stark Mansion is open for tours on Saturdays from 1 to 5 p.m., or by appointment. Admission is $2.

In 1984, the Eureka Hotel was restored to its turn-of-the-century elegance and renamed the Belmont Inn. It has 24 beautiful sleeping rooms, conference room, and provides the ultimate in Southern hospitality.

Shops on the town square, which had been modernized with false facades during the 1950's, have been restored to their original styles and painted with authentic colors. The casual observer might be reminded of Charleston's Rainbow Row, but these stores have personalities all their own.

Strolling along the square and browsing through boutiques, craft and antique shops is a delightful pastime.

Abbeville merchants and homeowners have caught the spirit of restoration , and the entire town is alive with Southern charm. Shopkeepers open their doors to all who pass by. Playgoers sit in big wicker chairs on the veranda of the Belmont Inn, awaiting curtain time.

Abbeville beckons travelers who want to escape from a hectic world to a place and time of serenity.

But there is much to see and do in Abbeville. The opera house presents a variety of plays year-round. (Weekends usually are sold out, so reservations are recommended. Call 459-2157.)

The Abbeville Spring Festival is held in early May and includes a tour of homes and building, an auction, a street dance, crafts, shows, concerts, food and souvenirs.

Throughout the year, visitors can enjoy the sightseeing tours and horse and buggy rides.

The Savannah Lake region comprised of lakes Hartwell, Russell, Thurmond and Secession, provide for fishing and water sports on 153,000 acres of water surface and 2,700 miles of shoreline. The Sumter National Forest and Little River Plantation provide some of the best hunting in the southeast. Nearby Hickory Knob State Park offers camping, swimming, horseback riding and golf.

For visitors enticed into an extended stay in Abbeville, the Belmont Inn offers a weekend package for two which includes two nights accommodations, dinner with a glass of wine each night, continental breakfast the following morning, theatre tickets to the opera house and a complimentary cocktail in the Curtain Call Lounge. The price is $220 (gratuities not included). The inn offers elegant dining with white tablecloths, lace curtain, crystal and French cuisine. For reservations, call 459-9625.

Another lodging is the Painted Lady, built in the 1880's. It has been converted to a small inn with three available rooms and serves continental breakfast. There are several other bed and breakfast inns in Abbeville. For more information, call the Chamber of Commerce at 459-4600.

The town's dining choices include Deny Corner and the Dutch Kitchen on the town square, offering country cooking and lighter fare such as sandwiches, quiches and salads. Yodel's, located on Highway 72 between Abbeville and Greenwood, specializes in Dutch cooling and provides a plentiful smorgasbord.

Abbeville is a town with many complexions and ample appeal for a broad range of visitors. (It even attracted Hollywood producers for the shooting of a feature film.) Take a look around the town square, though, and one aspect of Abbeville is quickly obvious: Here is a retreat from the bustle and stress of suburban living, a haven with a sublime heritage.

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