The Magazine of South Carolina

South Carolina's Electric City

Anderson Has Been Aglow With Energy Since the 1890s, but at the Heart of the City Is Simply . . . a Heart


Paul Brown interviews George Rozakos of Pete's on Concord restaurant

Fireworks at Celebrate Anderson 2000

The new county library on McDuffie Street

City councilwoman Dr. Beatrice Thompson

Herman Hillman and Louie Walters at their popular clothing store

Mayor Richard Shirley

Paula Reel, director of the Anderson County Museum

Restaurateur Katie Tillman

Article by Aïda Rogers/Photos by Patrick Wright

Paul Brown was in Arizona when he saw the light. Camping in a Volkswagen van with his wife and two small children, he knew they couldn’t wander forever. "I said, ‘We’re going to settle in Anderson.’ " Thirty years and four grandchildren later, Brown calls that decision "a stroke of genius." His adopted hometown has everything he wants, plus the mountains and the Chattooga River nearby. "This is just a great place to call home and I wouldn’t pick up and move to anyplace in the world for any kind of money."

You don’t have to sell Brown on Anderson. He does it weekly on his radio show, "Conversations with Paul Brown." In it he interviews ordinary citizens, and he’s come to admire their attributes. "They’re hard working, they’re conscientious, they have a faith and they are sympathetic to those in need," he proclaims. Brown remembers how listeners raised enough money to buy a pickup truck for a man whose vehicle was stolen, and supplied funds to keep the local Meals on Wheels program going. "Most of these people are working people, retirees, and they have such a giving spirit. This is a very caring community."

Those good deeds paid off this year when the city and county of Anderson won the prestigious All-America City Award. After a querulous history, the city and county have become a model of civic cooperation. Together they’ve created a successful school from one in jeopardy, built a huge park and recreation area around its civic center and launched an astonishing financial campaign for six local nonprofit groups. These three successes have propelled countless others: The high school dropout rate went down while test scores went up, Hospice for the Upstate built South Carolina’s first residential home for the terminally ill and the Anderson Free Clinic moved to a larger building. A community center opened in an abandoned elementary school where it houses a branch library, police substation, health clinic and child care center, and a mothers’ group raised $200,000 to build a Magic Kingdom-style playground. KidVenture, a Work of Heart, was built in nine days, entirely by volunteers. "I don’t remember a time when we’ve had such cooperation between the chamber and the city and the county and all these different organizations that have stepped forward and are working to make this an unbelievable place to live," Brown observes.

Reared in Miami, Brown found himself covering Anderson for a Greenville TV station in the ’70s. After marrying and satisfying his travel itch, he could have gone anywhere. "But there was just something about this area and these people that drew me back here. I was able to choose Anderson as my home and where I wanted to raise my kids and put down roots. In looking back, I’m not so sure there wasn’t some sort of divine guidance in all of that."

In his blue jeans and rattlesnake boots, newsman Brown, 54, seems a lot different from clean-cut, boyish Richard Shirley. Mayor of Anderson for two years and city councilman for 20 years before that, Shirley is as buoyant about the city’s progress as his long-time friend. Brown was covering Anderson when Shirley was exhibiting leadership skills at T.L. Hanna High, as sports editor of the school paper and student body president. "I’ve watched him come along," Brown says. "He always wanted to be mayor of Anderson. He did his homework and paid his dues. I get a thrill watching people who have dreams and set goals and see those dreams come true."

Shirley’s not the only homegrown success story. There’s Greg Shore, the coroner. "He always wanted to be the coroner," Brown says. "Now, how many kids do you know who want to be the coroner? Same as Richard, he paid his dues, did what was necessary."

Shore, who is white, has an able deputy in Charlie Boseman, who is black. "To see how they deal with tragic death, I can’t think of anyone more caring, warm and sincere than those two."

As in many small towns, Anderson people rally during the good times and mourn together in the bad. Thing is, Anderson’s not small anymore. About 30,000 people live within the city’s 14 square miles and about 77,000 in the Greater Anderson area. Many are retirees with healthy incomes, attracted by the area’s climate, four seasons and many amenities. Besides Lake Hartwell with its 1,000-mile shoreline, there are several colleges nearby: the Baptist-affiliated, four-year Anderson College, Tri-County Technical College, Southern Wesleyan and Clemson universities. Professional sports and big-city culture are two hours away in Atlanta and Charlotte.

For years, Anderson has seen growth come its way from east and west on the I-85 Industrial Corridor. Recently, it celebrated an industrial victory of its own when Michelin expanded its rubber operations here to the tune of 100 jobs and $400 million. Michelin’s expansion is a large reason why Anderson County had more than $1 billion in capital investment in 1999, more than any other county in South Carolina that year.

Other good things are happening. City Hall is doubling its size and Phase 1 of downtown redevelopment is complete. The Freedom Weekend Aloft hot-air balloon show, held for years in Greenville, moved to the 64-acre Anderson Sports and Entertainment Center in 1999, bringing $10 million in revenue. An 18,000-seat amphitheater opened on the ASEC grounds, also home to soccer and softball fields, walking trails, picnic shelters and kite lovers.

In September, the new library opened. The $13-million, 98,000-square-foot project is Jeffersonian in style and palatial in nature. With its 50-foot-diameter copper dome and eight Doric columns, the library seems to signify a new age for Anderson. After decades of dormancy, with textile mills declining and downtown deteriorating, Anderson’s new library stands like a rock of promise.

"We’re truly in the midst of this community’s finest hour," declares Shirley, a vice-president and city executive with NBSC. "Things are getting done, we have a can-do attitude and our economics are healthy. This is a good time to be in Anderson and it all stems from the people and their work ethic and willingness to embrace progress."

Anderson’s slogan, suitably, is "Making News, Making Progress."

Shirley could pass for much younger than his 46 years. At 23, he was the youngest person elected to city council in local history. Unlike many of his friends, he chose to stay in Anderson. "I’m glad I made that decision because I would have hated to miss the show we’ve had over the last decade."

To Shirley, Anderson’s history is repeating itself almost a century later. Between 1885 and 1915, Anderson flourished. The grand Hotel Chiquola opened on Main Street, and a courthouse, Carnegie library, hospital and Anderson College were built. It was also during this period that Anderson made its biggest headline of all: Electricity was transmitted successfully over long-distance lines. Called "The Electric City" ever since, Anderson can congratulate native son William Church Whitner, chief engineer with Anderson Water, Light and Power Company, for making that magic on May 1, 1895. It was the first time electricity was transmitted over long-distance wires in the South.

"At that time, Charleston was predicting Anderson would become the leading city of South Carolina," says historian and journalist Beth Ann Klosky, author of Six Miles That Changed the Course of the South. Those six miles marked the territory where the electricity was transmitted, from McFall’s grist mill at High Shoals on Rocky River to downtown Anderson. Though many scoffed, Whitner and his backers proved that alternating current could be transmitted safely for an unlimited distance.

The results were stupendous. Not only did lights and running water become possible; so did industrialization. And it meant several "firsts" for Anderson: Anderson Cotton Mills became the first large textile plant in the South to use long-distance electricity; Anderson’s streetcar system was the first to be electrified by long-distance power; and Anderson Water, Light and Power was the first in the state to sell long-distance electrical power for commercial and residential use. The company’s Portman Shoals hydroelectric plant, built in 1897, was the first in the country—maybe the world—to generate power at 10,000 volts.

Klosky, 88, senses many Andersonians don’t comprehend the impact that experiment has had on their lives. But outsiders do. Interested readers from around the world have ordered her book from the county’s small museum. Occupying a quarter of the basement of the "Historic Courthouse," the museum’s focal point is a model of Whitner’s project.

"We can show students how you can make electricity out of waterpower," says director Paula Reel. Next year, the museum—including its many exhibits in storage—should be in its new digs in the old library. But similar to Anderson’s current ambitions, the museum won’t stop there.

"My goal is to have the new museum not be between four walls, but extend around the whole county," Reel says. She explains historic markers (Anderson has five historic districts) are one way to accomplish her mission. The open spaces at the Anderson Sports and Entertainment Center are ripe with history: This is where the old County Home was, with its recently discovered cemeteries.

A Colleton County native with a master’s degree from Clemson, Reel says she struck gold in Anderson. "This is a dream job. How many museum directors actually get to start from the ground up?" While she misses the Low Country, she says the upstate "is a different kind of beautiful."

When Anderson was founded in 1827, it was South Carolina’s "wild and woolly west," says Phil Cheney, adult services librarian and city councilman. "People stayed for about a decade and then moved on."

Named for Revolutionary War hero Robert Anderson, the city exhibited more recent progress when it elected Dr. Beatrice Thompson to city council in 1976. She is the first African-American and second woman to serve. Thompson helped to change the election system from at-large to one-man-one-vote and to "professionalize" the city by hiring a city manager. Thompson, a guidance counselor and psychologist, is still on council after 24 years and has been president of the South Carolina Municipal Association.

Today, Anderson is a hub of shopping, entertainment and medical care for neighboring Pickens and Oconee counties, as well as several in northeast Georgia. You’ll find every chain restaurant here, along with two Super Walmarts, nine golf courses and two 14-screen cinemas. The Anderson Area Medical Center is the county’s largest employer.

But in the heart of it all is . . . well, a heart. That’s what kept Florida native Katie Tillman here and inspired her to open a business. "I like walking down the street and people speak to you and they give a damn about whether you are breathing," she says outside Friends, the Main Street restaurant she owns with partner Valerie Lowe. "I think part of the reason we’ve been so successful is because people have a vested interest in us. They know we work hard and they want us to do well."

Across the street and up two flights of stairs, the same neighborliness continues. At Walters & Hillman, people come by to order fine menswear, much like they did when the store opened in 1952. It’s not the clothes they want as much as the repartee with Herman Hillman and Louie Walters. "I can’t tell you what all we talk about," jokes Hillman, 79, eyeing a tape recorder. "It would knock that machine out."

Unable to completely retire when they closed their Main Street shop, Walters and Hill-man opened a smaller operation on the third floor of Carolina First.

"All my adult life has been stamped within a four-block area of where we are right now," Hill-man notes, sounding vastly content. "I grew up here, and I just like it."


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