The Magazine of South Carolina

"This Circle Will Remain Unbroken"

Barnwell's Downtown "Circle"


Barnwell's "Circle" Is the Place to Be After School

Hanging Out at the Soda Fountain

Article by Linda Murphy Myrick/Photos by Larry Price

Blake Wilbanks has his homework spread out on the counter of Berley’s Pharmacy. Every now and then he twists around on the swivel stool to see who might be passing by, cutting the Circle outside.

Chad Dowdy, a classmate at Barnwell High School, scoops ice cream into a stainless steel blender. He adds strawberry syrup and milk, then turns to stick the milk shake under the blender blade while glancing out the front window to see who’s sitting on the park benches around the Circle. The drugstore is packed with kids buying sodas, shakes and ice cream.

This is not a set at Disney World. It’s not a reconstructed ’50s drugstore scene for "Happy Days." It’s real life in Barnwell, a small southern town dedicated to children and families.

"One of the first things people asked me after I bought the business in 1979 was, ‘Are you going to keep the soda fountain open?’" says Berley Lindler Jr., owner of Berley’s Pharmacy on the Circle. "The store had a soda fountain since it was built in 1901, and I wasn’t about to break the tradition. Children and young people flock to the Circle after school, and in the morning I get older citizens for coffee. I like it."

Lindler and everyone else who operates a business on the Circle strive hard to keep the Circle alive and well. Dennis and Chris Hutto moved their office and school supply store into the old post office building about seven years ago. Chris teaches at Barnwell Elementary; both are active in the school and community. Chris believes the downtown area is doing so well because of cooperation between merchants. "Sometimes we don’t necessarily agree with some of the things other merchants are doing, but it’s important to support each other and work together. We are dedicated to keeping the Circle a place where children and families can gather and feel welcome."

Barnwell School District 45 has a high number of scholars and champions in football, basketball, golf, tennis and soccer. If the schools are the brains of the community, the Circle is its heart.

"My sister married a man from this area, and it’s so wonderful to bring my son Dylan into town for a real milk shake at the counter of Berley’s and walk around the Circle," explains Susan Evans, who lives in Washington, DC. "I’ve never known anything like this, outside the movies. This is real."

A major rite of passage for children entering the sixth grade at Guinyard Middle School is the first Friday they’re allowed to walk the three blocks after school to the Circle. By themselves, money in their pockets, they come in groups of 2s and 10s down Main Street. "They are so excited and loud that sometimes I feel like hiding under the counter," says Mary Catherine Lindler, who works with her husband at the drugstore. "I know them all and they know I know their parents. All I have to do is speak to them and remind them this is a business and people coming in to get prescriptions are sometimes sick. They’ll calm down, but in a few minutes, up goes the volume."

While other small towns in the South are ailing, Barnwell has a grip on prosperity. The town is not without its sprawl problems, but downtown thrives nonetheless. Steve Shelton, who owns a sandwich shop on the Circle, says his business always has done well. And he’s on the Circle for the long haul. "I’m part of the Downtown Development Committee. We want to encourage absentee owners to spruce up their store fronts. I plan on creating an area in front of my store where people can eat out in the open air. We are going to do what it takes to keep the Circle alive."

Terri Smith, Clemson home economist for Barn-well County, heads a committee on Circle improvement. "The Circle was choking in electrical poles and lines. We needed streetlights with underground wiring. To have them installed around the Circle would cost $12,000 each. We raised the money to purchase the lights, and SC Electric and Gas installed them as a gift. We are the second town in the state to have these lights. The other is Charleston."

"I went to business school at Carolina and lived in Columbia for a while," says Berley Lindler III. "The business next door to my father’s drugstore became available. I bought the business and the building, and was very happy to be coming back to Barnwell and be a part of the Circle again."

Are all these children in and out of stores on the Circle good or bad for business? "The soda fountain doesn’t make money—actually it loses money," confirms Lindler. "But the children need a place to go. My children came here before I owned the store. Some things are more important than dollars and cents."

If there’s an important event, it takes place at the Circle. When the high school has its homecoming parade down Main Street and around the Circle, folks stand six deep along the route, supporting their children.

The first Sunday evening of Advent, members of the various churches meet in their parking lots. Everyone has a lit candle secured in a Mason jar. At exactly 6 p.m., the procession begins. People come from the five streets that enter the Circle, carrying their candles and singing carols. On the Circle, each church takes part in a service dedicated to the birth of Jesus Christ. Choirs, the Barnwell High School Band and children’s choral groups contribute, and ministers tell the old, old story one more time. Merchants who own stores around the Circle keep their store fronts dark. Only the candles, street lights and smiling faces shine on the Circle.

The Circle, which has withstood depressions, recessions and even secession, is 200 years old this year. A September 11 pa-rade will begin a year-long celebration. Various restoration and commemorative projects include restoring the world’s only freestanding sundial, circa 1858.

What does Barnwell consider its most important asset? Children. To help celebrate, the town has commissioned life-size statues of two children, a boy and girl, playing around the Circle.

Linda Murphy Myrick is a writer in Barnwell.


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