Rural, Refined & Raring to Go!
DILLON COUNTY PHOTO GALLERY
Page's Mill Pond, Lake View
One of Bobby Joe Hunter's Dillon County Rockers
Artist Lorna Shanks
Bear Swamp Baptist Church
Dillon mayor Salley Huggins-Cook
Lake View councilman James Grant
Latta mayor Allan Brigman and wife Nancy
Aerial crop dusting
Fishers on the Little Pee Dee River
Dillon County Courthouse
Latta Rotary Club's block-wide building
County treasurer Mary Lou Parham and Judge James E. Lockemy with the county flag
Dillon County Theatre
by Aďda Rogers
Dillon County calls itself “The Golden Land,” but if you were driving through it, you’d see mostly green. Green are the trees that bend over old bridges that cross the Little Pee Dee River. Green are the deep fields of cotton and soybean, tobacco and wheat. It’s rural, no doubt, but those in the know say it’s a golden land for more reasons than the bright color tobacco turns in the summertime. Optimism and prosperity have arrived in this 35-mile-wide county on the North Carolina border. “Excitement” would be a mild description for the local attitude.
“I’m ecstatic,” declares Bob Braddy, president of a Dillon insurance agency and devoted town son. “We’re on the cutting edge of a new era.”
But maybe the old one isn’t so bad. Spend a hot day kayaking on the Little Pee Dee and then soak yourself in its cool, clear running waters. Ahhhhhhhhhh. Could anything really be better?
Well, maybe a cold glass of Blenheim Ginger Ale. Brewed and sold locally, Blenheim comes in a variety of flavors, thanks to Alan Schafer, perhaps the most energetic entrepreneur to breathe Dillon County air. Creator of South of the Border (see photo, Page 80), that maze of Mexicana at the state line, Schafer bought the peppery Marlboro County beverage and its bottling operation in 1993. It’s said Strom Thurmond drinks it every day.
We’ll need a six-pack for our foray into Dillon County.
“To be honest with you, I’d like to take a year off from building,” confides county administrator Hartsell Rogers, leading a tour through his favorite project: the newly restored courthouse. “Seems like I’ve been building ever since I’ve been here.”
During his four years in county government, Rogers has overseen the building of a new jail and is monitoring progress of a YMCA, Dillon community center and transportation hub with Amtrak, cabs and bus lines. Next spring, a new library will open on the site where its predecessor stood before its destruction by an arsonist. The $2 million-plus building will be state of the art, Rogers promises.
Still, it’s the 1911 French Beaux Arts courthouse that thrills him most. Marble walls and floors (even a 3-by-4-foot marble “fit for King Solomon” urinal), wrought iron rails, Italian-made 6-foot chandeliers, a judge’s bench of solid oak and mahogany doors are a few reasons why. “I get calls almost weekly from other counties where they’ve actually put a bulldozer and wrecking ball to their old courthouses. They say, ‘If we had it to do all over again, we’d do what you guys are doing.’ ”
The restoration took three years, opening to much fanfare in July. Now the courthouse is as functional as it is grand: Heating, air and handicap access have been added. Landscaping and a fountain are in its future, but Rogers glories in its past.
“It was the wishes of our forefathers to build a very beautiful courthouse that would represent the county for the next hundreds of years,” he explains, bragging that it’s one of the best examples of its architectural type east of the Mississippi. “When it was originally laid out—and this was unheard of in the early 1900s—it was designed to be a fireproof building. You couldn’t have burned it if you tried. The exterior walls were about 30 inches thick.”
Brothers J.W. and Thomas Dillon gave the land and $25,000 for the courthouse in 1909, before the county was carved from Marion County in 1910. J.W. Dillon is considered the father of Dillon County. He convinced the railroad to run its line through what is now Dillon.
“Simple pleasures are the best,” maintains Johnnie Luehrs, director of the Dillon County Chamber of Commerce. She’s strolling down Dillon’s wide Main Street—so wide you can park a car at a 45-degree angle and still have four lanes—and talking about the joys of small-town living. People are friendly, North Myrtle Beach is an hour away and you can still catch the train to Fayetteville. “We have everything we need right here. If we can’t find it, we’ll teach you how to live without it.”
Then there’s the river. Luehrs was baptized in the Little Pee Dee; countless others learned to swim in it, rinsing off after a day in the tobacco fields. Children jumped off bridges and swung from ropes, poison ivy be damned. Today, the best times are playing in the river or cheering on the uncannily successful football and baseball teams. It’s an All-American life, southern-style, around here.
It’s not only southern; it’s harmonious. The nearest malls are in Florence. The dry cleaners will bring your clothes to your car. For entertainment, teen-agers work or cruise the handful of fast food restaurants. Those who hunt leave their jobs at 5 and are stalking doves, deer, ducks and turkeys by 5:15. The Twin Lakes Country Club offers 18 public holes of golf, tennis courts, a swimming pool and gourmet dining. Golfers come from as far as Myrtle Beach to enjoy the recently improved course.
Meanwhile, the culturally inclined volunteer at the Dillon County Theatre, home of the MacArthur Avenue Players. Restored in 1990, the theatre is one of a few examples of Spanish Colonial architecture in South Carolina. The 315-seater, listed on the National Register, has seen graduations, fashion shows, revivals—even a funeral—along with a yearly series of musical and theatrical productions. The most recent opening event, “Grease,” featured a cast of 30 local young people and sold out all seven performances. Its members are almost as proud of the theatre’s cleverly decorated restrooms as they are anything else.
Dillon County is a place of contradictions. At one end is the turquoise and terra cotta mania of South of the Border, with its scattering of video poker parlors. At the other is Abingdon Manor, an elegant country inn in Latta. Home of James Haselden Manning, the county’s first state senator, Abingdon Manor rises in Greek Revival grandeur in one of the town’s three historic districts. Mike Griffey runs the inn with his wife Patty, a talented chef.
The Griffeys and their inn are just one example of the refinement flourishing in Latta, population 1,565. Doing their thing in disheveled content are artists Lorna Shanks and James V. Meekins. Shanks, a South African educated in England, and her Texan husband met and married in Latta. Both felt a sense of coming home—she through her English-Scottish roots, he through his grandfather, who told him stories about South Carolina while riding him as a child on the back of his horse.
“James and I are strangely different, but because we’ve been adopted by the town, we’ve never been made to feel strange,” Shanks reflects. The couple bought the vacant, vandalized Dalcho School just outside Latta and are transforming it from “The Ruin” to “The Villa.” Shanks has painted Greek and Roman divinities and the three Muses on the walls, and Meekin has repaired falling stairs and unstable floors. They and their four dogs and six cats live happily across from Catfish Creek Baptist Church, she painting portraits, he painting cowboys and Native Americans. On a stage upstairs, Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe entertained audiences in the ’40s.
“It may not look like it, but Latta has a lot going on,” observes Ricky Taylor, a native and entrepreneur. “And it has a long way to go to come back to where it was.” Taylor, 46, remembers when Latta bustled with dime stores, a movie theatre and a depot. Trains were common during the town’s tobacco heyday.
Now, leaders are capitalizing on its location, history and outdoor amenities to bring it back. Mike Griffey, the innkeeper, chairs the ambitious Latta Revitalization Commission. Among other things, the LRC has saved the 1890 Edwards House, the town’s first two-story home, and is repairing it for use as a Discovery Center in conjunction with the Dillon County Museum next door. It also has renovated an alley into a park, formed partnerships with Francis Marion University, gotten donations and accommodations tax funding and won a Cultural Visions Grant from the South Carolina Arts Commission.
The LRC is turning the town’s historic entrance into Veterans Park. The Park would include the 1914 Carnegie Library, an 1888 one-room post office and the 1873 Vidalia Academy, which will be moved to the site. A fountain dedicated to Latta veterans will complete the project. Meanwhile, a log tobacco barn, farm tenant house and country chapel will be built in the next several months at the five-acre Heritage Park near Latta’s community center. Ten more acres, to be used as a driving range for Latta High School and the public, were just given by a local family.
All this and arts, too. Carlisle Floyd, one of America’s most famous opera composers, is a Latta native, and the arrival of Shanks and Meekins has deepened that interest. Hence the new Main Street Art Center, home of workshops and exhibits, and a performing artist series. Jazz, poetry, classical guitar, the 82nd Airborne Concert Band and choral societies have performed in parks, schools and churches.
“By 2006, we’re going to be an art colony,” announces Nancy Brigman, LRC manager and a former teacher. Latta’s SpringFest, an annual April arts event, is more about enriching the lives of the locals than attracting others here or bringing money to the town.
Already Latta has specialty stores like Treasures from the Attic (clocks) and RJK Frames and Things (a coffee and gourmet specialty shop). The latter is run by Richard Kopituk, founder of the Latta Brass Plus One, a quintet with saxophone.
A New Jersey native, Kopituk and his Latta-born wife moved here from New Orleans. “This is a thriving metropolis of 1,600 people—800 of whom are my wife’s relatives. Shirley was quite concerned about my moving to a small town from the big city, but it’s the best move I ever made.”
Dillon County’s three towns are Latta, Lake View and Dillon. Between them are stretches of old roads, well-kept farms and country churches.
“We’ve always been very conservative, farm-dominated folk,” observes plain-spoken Frank Ellerbe, a Latta native. Ellerbe is the county’s first director of economic development. “We were one of the last counties to get into the business,” he informs. But Ellerbe is making up for lost time. “1998 was the best year we’ve had in the 12 years I’ve been working for the county, and it was really a culmination of prior years’ work.”
The good news includes 450 new jobs in manufacturing and $42 million in new investment through expansions and new ventures. The county’s budget more than doubled in 10 years, with no tax increases. Unemployment dropped from 11.5 percent in 1996 to 5.4 percent in 1998. Commercial bank deposits rose from $166.5 million in 1995 to $210.8 million in 1998. Per capita income rose from $10,800 in 1990 to $15,300 in 1996. “That is a hell of a jump and shows to me a great improvement in the quality of life,” Ellerbe asserts.
Cooperation between town governments and an advanced, $13-million sewer system attracted industry. Maryland-headquartered Perdue Farms put its highly mechanized poultry processing plant four miles west of Dillon in 1992. Today, it employs 1,300, making it the county’s largest employer. South of the Border employs 700. Both companies are credited for getting many citizens off welfare. Other important industries include Dillon Yarn, Wix, Franco, Carpostan, Paperboard Industries and Dillon Furniture and Dillon Veneer Manufacturing Companies.
Still, Ellerbe echoes many others who complain how company executives and managers choose to live in Florence and work in Dillon. He also wants to see high school graduates go to college and come back. Too many don’t because of inadequate job opportunities.
One reason people are optimistic in Dillon proper is the recent election of “new blood.” Salley Huggins-Cook, at 30 the youngest mayor in the state, is also the town’s first woman to hold that office. Jackie Hayes, Dillon High’s athletic director and head football coach, is taking his leadership skills to Columbia as state representative. In another example of small town multiple hat wearing, Dillon city manager Glen Wagner still does his old job as recreation director. Opportunities for leadership are easy to find.
“It’s challenging to make a difference,” says Huggins-Cook, a lawyer whose goals as mayor include downtown revitalization and better parks and recreation. “When I won the election, a friend of mine in Columbia said, ‘Why in the world would you want to do that?’ And I was like, ‘Why in the world would you want to work at the solicitor’s office all your life? I could question things you do all day.’ And then I said to her, ‘What have you done to promote your community?’ And she said, ‘I really can’t say anything.’ And I said, ‘But I can.’ ”
As a coach, Hayes saw better facilities in his travels around the state and wanted the same for Dillon. As a representative, he’s helped nail funding for the new library. “I try to think 5 or 10 years down the road,” says the 37-year-old father of three. “We always want to be making progress. Without change, you recede.”
As for Wagner, Dillon was too good to refuse. He came from Orangeburg in 1992 knowing it was the job of a lifetime. He took 100 acres of pine trees and cornfields and created a park with one building, four fields and an office. His challenge has become a salvation.
“Recreation for our youth was one of the greatest unmet needs,” says Ann Griffin, director of the county’s Department of Social Services. “We saw children on the streets during the daytime and particularly in the summer. They had no mentors, and this offers them that element.”
In a nod to the county’s reverence for football, the county recreation league is highly equipped. “We actually put kids in pads,” brags Hartsell Rogers, county administrator. “That’s shoulder pads, at 9 years of age.” This year, about 645 children will participate, cheerleaders included, reports Lonnie Turner, recreation director.
All races mix on the ball field, and Rep. Hayes says blacks and whites work well together here. Tish Powns, a Memphis native who lived in Chicago, moved to Dillon to work at the expanding Saint Eugene Medical Center. She says a small town has broadened her perspective. “This has been an incredible experience. As a single black female, the reception I’ve gotten has been very good.” The 36-year-old vice-president of administrative services for the medical center says volunteering with Rotary and other civic groups is more fulfilling than big-city life. “Cities and towns are what people make them. I’m so glad I’ve had a chance to make an impact on Dillon County.”
“I love a small church in a country town, and this is it,” affirms the very content Rev. Lynwood Anderson, pastor of the 400-member First Baptist Church in Lake View.
Indeed, chickens cluck and peck between the Trading Post and Lunch Box on SC 9 as you come into town. Life here centers around school and church, and there’s more time for hobbies. Tennessee walkers are Anderson’s. But his first love is being a pastor. Less population means more pastoring, less administering and a chance to be a member of the community. “Lake View probably has the greatest pool of talented people in any community I’ve ever seen,” the Timmonsville native says, bragging about local singers, painters and builders.
Lake View still has an identity, Anderson believes, and he cherishes its small town sense of caring: Cook Funeral Home leaves its outside lamp on when someone has passed, turning it off only after the funeral. First Baptist is always open for someone who needs to come in from the rain.
Lake View is named for a pond. Legend is Sherman’s troops poured powders in the mysteriously dark and fish-free “Boil Hole” in Page’s Mill Pond. Today the pond is serenely beautiful, with cypresses and lush grounds.
Like Dillon and Latta, in Lake View, excitement builds during the school year when the Wild Gators hit the Class A fields and gyms. Signs inform that the football team has won the state championship eight times since 1938, and the baseball team has taken the state title the last three years.
“I’ll tell you what: This town turns out for ball,” says James Grant, a town councilman known as “Mr. Lake View.” He remembers how citizens came full force to the annual Christmas on the Boulevard event in the morning, then departed for the football team’s clash in Columbia by noon.
Grant is proudest of Lake View’s four-year-old community center, built with accommodations tax monies and local donations. Town meetings and receptions are held where a Chevrolet dealership once displayed its cars.
About 32,000 people call Dillon County home—significantly less than the population of several South Carolina cities. But natives aren’t budging.
County administrator Rogers turned down a wonderful offer from his former employer back in Pennsylvania. “I told him I’d rather pump gas and be in Dillon,” he says.
“It’s kinda like Louis Armstrong said about the blues,” he muses, negotiating his car past the Little Rock crossroads to historic St. Paul Methodist Church. “If you can’t feel it, I can’t explain it.”
THIS ARTICLE IS FUNDED BY:
* City of Dillon
* County of Dillon
* Dillon County Chamber of Commerce
* Dillon County Historical Society
* Little Pee Dee River Commission
* Town of Lake View
* Town of Latta
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