A Small Town Climbing the Hill of Progress
by Aïda Rogers
When Chester looks in the mirror these days, it likes what it sees. There's the newly restored downtown full of newly restored buildings. There are streets of Victorian homes, rich in architecture. There's the promise of better economic times and even growth - something Chester and its namesake county didn't experience for decades. Best of all is a sense of energy and renewal, a feeling Chester isn't going to let the dust settle on its historic hill, the town center since its inception in 1791.
"The Bible says the city that's set on a hill cannot be hid," notes Nancy Anderson, a real estate agent at the forefront of Chester's downtown revitalization. Today that hill is looking better than it has in years. Nobody wants to hide it now. Says Anderson, "People are beginning to feel a sense of pride about their place."
At Chester's Hillarity festival in October, more than 10,000 people came - a record for this town of 7,355. Anderson figures they wanted to see downtown after its $1.5-million makeover, but maybe they also wanted to enjoy the festivities and the different kinds of live music. Mike Campbell, executive director of the Chester Downtown Development Association, made sure festival goers would be able to hear something they liked, from C&W to rock and rap. It's important to him to recognize all members of the community.
Glinda Price-Coleman, news director of the Chester News and Reporter and a Chester native, says Chester is a pleasant place to live. Crime is low, neighbors are good. She thinks the schools provide a good education. At 35, she can see how her hometown has changed, how downtown thrived before a bypass and strip shopping centers attracted people away. Now, with downtown restored, some of the people who grew up in Chester have found their way home.
"When I was in high school, there were a lot of people who said, 'I can't wait to get out of this town,'" she recalls, "but I notice there's a lot of people back."
THERE ARE MANY REASONS Chester attracts newcomers and returned natives. For business people, it's the Charlotte airport, 47 minutes away. There's also affordable housing, some of it in the town's 250-acre historic district, says Nancy Anderson, the real estate agent. People who like restoring homes have streamed in during the past 10 years; the result is street after street of old beauties, with very few fixer-uppers left. Retirees are moving in, and so are people who commute to Rock Hill, Charlotte and Columbia. Traffic is minimal, the atmosphere peaceful and a simpler life easier to be had. Small towns have their rewards, says Ed Driggers, city administrator.
"You can call your child's doctor on the telephone as a personal friend, tell him what's wrong, and he'll call you in a prescription to the local drugstore. The local drugstore will deliver it to your house and the next day when you're on the street, both the doctor and the pharmacist will ask how your child's doing - and it's all by first name."
Driggers points out Chester's convenient location: City amenities are an hour or less in Charlotte, Columbia and Rock Hill; weekends at the beach or mountains are easy. Not far from town are the pleasures of the large but sparsely populated Chester County: two state parks and the Catawba and Broad rivers. Carowinds is close, too.
Of course, Driggers and Anderson would prefer you to stay downtown, where you can patronize the shops, eat and drink in the restaurants and spend the night at the Pinckney Inn, Chester's year-old bed-and-breakfast. Anderson's vision is Abbeville. Now that downtown has been re-stored, she can get to work on her next project: bringing Chester's opera house back to life.
"It was the social hub of the community and I think it could be again," she says, looking to City Hall, which was home of the opera house before it burned in 1929. Because two railroads were built near town, many of the most popular performers before and after the turn of the century entertained there. Anderson would like to see the opera house rebuilt for traveling shows and a fine arts series.
Until then, there's plenty to admire nearby. "People who live here and have not been away don't appreciate the uniqueness of the architecture," says Campbell. "At Disney World, you see Main Street, USA, where they spent millions of dollars to re-construct exactly what we have here that's original."
He's optimistic about Chester's future. Rural-based tourism is on the rise, which should bring people - and their money - to town. "With some promotion and now the new Streetscape in place, I think this is going to be an exciting area," he says. "You're going to see big changes in the next five years and really the next 10."
THOUGH PRETTY QUIET since the 1930s, Chester's had its share of excitement in its 205 years. Probably its most famous moment in modern history came in 1983, when the CBS miniseries Chiefs came to town. For about six months, Chester, SC, was Delano, GA, as Stuart Woods' novel about crime and law enforcement in the rural South was put to film. Townspeople were in the movie and made friends with stars Charlton Heston, Keith Carradine and Billy Dee Williams. Many say Chiefs gave Chester confidence, if for no other reason than Hollywood liked the way it looked.
"They didn't want a broad street and they didn't want a flat area. They wanted something that had a little more character and charm," Anderson says. "They liked our curving streets and they liked our hills."
They also liked the architecture, which made an authentic backdrop for a story that moves from 1919 to 1962, says Price-Coleman. The filmmakers didn't have to drastically change the facades of buildings, because elements of those time periods were still visible.
Downtown Chester escaped modernization because many of its owners lived out of town and wouldn't or couldn't make changes, Anderson explains. That's no longer the case. Today, she can take you upstairs in a downtown building and point out the skylights and tongue-and-groove walls. It's ripe for more repairs and a future as apartments, she believes. Already there are 13 apartments above downtown businesses, all rented. One building includes a room still painted black with purple shutters, used in a honky-tonk scene in Chiefs.
Hollywood hasn't been the town's only source of excitement. Aaron Burr provided plenty in 1807, when he was brought from Alabama to Virginia to stand trial for treason against the United States. Accused of trying to start a revolution to separate the West from the rest of the country, Burr was brought by horseback through South Carolina. In Chester, he broke free of his guards and jumped on a rock outside a tavern, where he demanded "the protection of the civil authorities." One of his captors, pistols in hand, ordered Burr off the rock. Burr refused, prompting that guard to grab him by the waist and throw him back on his horse.
Later, Burr and his guards stopped for the night at the Lewis Inn in the Lewis Turnout community, seven miles outside town. After being secured in an upstairs bedroom, Burr bribed the girl who brought his supper - or convinced her of his innocence - and made his way downstairs. He was caught in the living room and spent the night on a wooden bench on the porch, under close watch.
Today, the Aaron Burr Rock is on display downtown, not far from the bench on which he slept, in the Chester County Historical Society Museum. The Lewis Inn still exists as a private residence.
THOUGH CHESTER wasn't devastated by the Civil War, it had its share of drama. Perhaps the most important incident occurred at the depot in April 1865. Felix Gregory DeFontaine, publisher of the Daily South Carolinian, inadvertently rescued the Confederate constitution and other papers from a train after Lee's surrender. Had he not, the historic papers probably would have been destroyed by Union soldiers.
Like many other refugees, Mary Boykin Chestnut came to Chester, penning part of her Diary from Dixie from a building that still stands. It was in Chester where she had supper with Varina Davis before the first lady of the Confederacy moved on to Newberry and Abbeville with her three children and husband's secretary. Chestnut, the famous diarist, heard about Lee's surrender in Chester, which she recorded before moving back to Camden.
Because of its proximity to the railroads, Chester became a Civil War supply center, and homes in town became hospitals. Women took food and bandages to the trains. Weapons came from Richmond and Charlotte to Columbia, Augusta and Jacksonville. Margaret Hemphill Gaston, a young widow, made the newspapers when she dropped her petticoats to be used for bandages for wounded soldiers.
In 1986, Chester was reminded of its importance in Civil War history when four Parrott cannon - still containing black powder - were unearthed at Calvary Baptist Church near the railroad tracks. The discovery was significant because only 24 such cannon are known to exist, says Scott Coleman, past president of the Chester County Historical Society. Disarming and restoring each 1,150-pound cannon was Coleman's goal.
CHESTER, as well as neighboring York and Lancaster, was named by English and Scots-Irish settlers who came from Pennsylvania before the American Revolution. Those settlers left behind their strong work ethic and interest in education and religion, says Ann Marion, a native who studies local history.
"One of the great things Chester has is its people, those who've lived here and those we have exported," she says, noting that Dr. Walker Gill Wiley left Chester for New York, where he started the first nursing school in the 1870s. Wiley was the first physician to employ a woman nurse during surgery.
Chester's library is a genealogist's dream, says Marion. "The Lewis Bell room probably has the best resources for re-search of any small-town library, and it's really better than many, many big towns. People come from all over the United States."
The Lewis Bell room is named after a prominent citizen who gave much to Chester. That's not unusual, Marion says. "We have good people, good givers, strong churches and feelings of kinship and friendship and love for friends black and white. We're mighty good people, and that makes a difference."
SOME OF THE BEST education for blacks in the South happened in Chester, where The Presbyterian Church USA operated Brainerd Institute from 1868 to 1939. It became an academic Mecca, attracting students as close as Great Falls and Bishopville and as far as Philadelphia and Cincinnati.
More than English and math were taught: Students learned Latin, French and German, and they participated in dramatics, debates, choral groups and an orchestra. Mechanical, industrial, business and teacher training also was provided. Faculty members from outside the South planted maples and other nonnative plants; students enjoyed Sunday teas, croquet and tennis. Because the 21-acre campus had paved sidewalks, students could roller-skate. In short, a Brainerd education was top-of-the-line.
"You must remember we had these dedicated missionaries out of New York and Pennsylvania and they believed in the classics! We had operettas and music of the highest quality," says Mary Rose Adair, a retired teacher who lives across the street from the campus. The daughter of two Brainerd teachers and a member of the last graduating class, Adair says it was more than sad when the school closed in 1939. "It was just like a funeral."
What's left of Brainerd today are a historical marker, 12 acres of grassy, hilly land and one building, Kumler Hall. Empty for about 20 years, Kumler Hall is on the National Register of Historic Places. Recently, four statewide historic preservation groups identified it as one of South Carolina's 11 most endangered historic sites. The local chamber's community relations committee is trying to find grants to preserve the old dormitory and make it viable again. Adair and Anderson envision a community center with a library of Brainerd memorabilia.
Though recovering from surgery, Adair doesn't mind talking about Brainerd and posing for photos. Any publicity is good, she figures. "I can't say no to anything related to Brainerd," she says. "Tell the story!"
THE STORY OF TODAY'S CHESTER is of a quiet mill town learning to become a vocal player in the global economy. In decades past, Springs, Inc., employed much of the town (it's still the county's biggest employer) and it adopted a paternalistic attitude toward the people.
"At the time, it was really a bonanza," says Anne Pickens Collins, author of A Goodly Heritage: History of Chester County, South Carolina and a former sewing room worker. "It was not something that was done with a selfish or evil intent. It was just the way it had to be because at that time, jobs were needed and people had to be close to the jobs because they didn't have transportation like they do now."
The result was that while people had steady work, the town didn't grow. High school graduates went to college and didn't return; there was nothing for them to do. African-Americans left during the migration years of the mid-20th Century.
That's changing, says Ed West, former executive vice-president of the Chester County Chamber of Commerce. Several industries have come to Chester County in the last decade, including Dutch-owned Klerk's Plastic Products Manufacturing, Inc. Since 1990, Chester County has secured more than $184 million in industrial capital investment, creating 1,741 jobs. That investment has come from new and existing industries.
"We were projected to lose population from 1980 to 1990 and we grew five percent countywide," West says, adding that 15-20,000 people live just outside city limits. "We're projected to grow every five years now. We've got those numbers turned around."
Many of Chester's business leaders are in their 30s, he notes. Likewise, many downtown merchants are young. Russi Potts, co-owner and proprietor of the Pinckney Inn, is 30. Russ White, president of Russell Printing & Office Supplies and The Lantern Booksellers, is 28.
The Summit, a popular restaurant and bar, is owned and operated by Ryan Robertson, 29, and his wife Amanda, 24. West and Anderson are cheered by young entrepreneurs trying to make a living in a small town.
"That makes a statement about Chester that we have these young people willing to stick their necks out and start a business," Anderson says. "If we're going to survive and thrive, that's what it's going to take."
Young people and strong women have been Chester's salvation, West believes. The town is full of active women who get behind community projects and push them through. "If I need anything, I can count on a woman to get it done," he says, noting how the library, hospital, schools and downtown development have gained from hardworking women. He has no doubt Chester soon will have a YMCA, now that Bessie Vastis, a local businesswoman, is involved.
West and his wife Tamra are "come heres," but say they feel as much at home in Chester as the "born heres." Tamra, 35, is one of those strong women her husband talks about: She started Chester County's first mental retardation agency and worked to get referendums passed for new and renovated school buildings. Still, she prefers to talk about how much fun Chester can be.
"There's a perception from a lot of people on the outside that this is sort of a dark hole. I tell them, 'Listen, we never ever want for anything to do socially with our peers.' And here, our peers are from age 60 on down." Tamra has been known to serve couscous and tabouli to members of their dinner club, out on their patio in the historic district.
CHESTER WEARS THE PATINA of a typical small town, with dance clubs and dinner clubs, book clubs and bridge. There aren't as many women's groups as there used to be, but two female traditions remain: the Up-to-Date Club and the Sunshine Club. Both were formed in 1897.
Harriet Stringfellow, 84, belongs to both. Members of the Up-to-Date Club have educa-tional programs; members of the Sunshine Club send cards of sympathy or congratulations to people in town. The Sunshine Club also donates to various cha-rities. Mrs. Stringfellow knows the clubs sound "Victorian"; one originally was formed for mar-ried women, the other for single. Still, she says, they're fun. And they gave her a chance to discover her talent for poetry, which led her to become poet laureate of the SC Women's Club.
What if, in this modern day, men wanted to join? It's an idea that makes Mrs. Stringfellow chuckle. "No men have asked," she says, "but I expect we'd welcome them."
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