The former Cates Store in Glenn Springs is becoming one with the forest
A common refrain heard from those who find progress a mixed blessing is the rate at which quiet old communities are subsumed by the ugly trappings of modern enterprise, disappearing under strip malls and cheaply built subdivisions. In the American south, however, I marvel at how often the reverse is true. South Carolina in particular abounds in towns that were once crowded and bustling with commerce, but today are largely deserted, their once-proud buildings crumbling into the kudzu.
Each town has its own story to tell, but the main reasons for the decline of historic communities are broadly shared: they include the great migration of black sharecroppers and agrarian workers north and west after the collapse of Reconstruction; the flight offshore of the textile industry, leading to the shuttering of many mills throughout the Piedmont; and the twin economic blows wielded by the Great Depression and the boll weevil, which crippled a farming population already living at subsistence level.
I set out to explore some of these towns with my husband as co-pilot when a writing project spurred me to research South Carolina history in the mid-nineteenth century more systematically than I have done so far. I’ve been returning to some well-thumbed plantation diaries, slave narratives and collections of Civil War soldiers’ letters that already had a place in my library, as well as new volumes that have come my way like
The Hammonds of Redcliffe
Upcountry South Carolina Goes to War
. I found the latter volume at the tiny library in Traveler’s Joy* and soon became immersed in this collection of letters written by members of the Anderson, Brockman and Moore families in 1853-1865, when numerous sons and fathers from the Spartanburg-Reidville area left home to join the Third, Fifth, Thirteenth (the Brockman Guards) and the Eighteenth
SC Infantry Regiments.
Reidville Academy Faculty House, SC, built in
Wanting to see the area so vividly depicted in their letters, I headed for Spartanburg and that portion of the county south and west that is fed by the Tyger and Enoree Rivers, a region whose place names echo the prominent family names of these correspondents and their neighbors: Moore, Duncan, Woodruff, Fincher, Switzer and more. It amazed me to realize how quickly one can be driving through farmland and dense woods after leaving the noisy thoroughfares of exurbia; less than fifteen minutes after pulling off Interstate 85 my husband and I were parking under the willow oaks at the Reidville Academy Faculty house. Coincidentally, the night before I read the letter written in May 1858 by the prosperous planter David Anderson to his son John Crawford Anderson, away at a boarding school in Columbia (The Arsenal), telling him how “…we have finished the brickwork of the professors house. The workmen have covered it and will have it ready for plastering in a few weeks” (
). This building is one of two structures remaining from the original school established by Reverend Reid for the purpose of providing a good Presbyterian education for the children of local gentry, the other one being the Female Academy’s dormitory, which, on the day we visited it, housed an antiques business in the process of closing down.
The Reidville Academy Faculty House is described on the town’s website as being home to the Reidville Historical Society, but no organization seemed to be operating out of the striking old building when we stopped there. The windows were shuttered and wasps were building nests below the eaves. In fact, the town is so sleepy and undeveloped that it takes no great stretch of imagination to see it as it must have looked over 150 years ago, before many of the town’s young men and several of the school’s instructors joined local brigades and marched off to war.
Dr. Leonard's Store in Reidville, built in 1905
A significant number failed to return from northern battlefields, including the most loquacious correspondent in Tom Moore Craig’s book, Andrew Charles Moore. Andrew and his younger brother Thomas were the sons of Andrew Barry Moore, the doctor whose family established Walnut Grove Plantation in Roebuck (Becca) early in the nineteenth century, an historic farm which I have visited several times. After the doctor’s first wife died childless, he married a local woman 34 years his junior and she bore four children, including the boys. Many of the letters in the collection are between these young men and their mother, Nancy Moore Evins (Dr. Moore died when Andrew and Thomas were still young), bearing evidence of the close relationship they enjoyed with her and of the universal nature of a young man’s experience being away at college. The requests for money are ceaseless, with Thomas, studying at South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina, Columbia) complaining about his roommates: “I have been bored nearly to death by some Charleston fellers above me. I am going to take another room…” and pleading with her to send him shirts and two feather pillows to replace the cotton ones he’s been issued because “I had as leave lay my head on a log.” Thomas John’s revelation about higher education will sound familiar to anyone who teaches college freshmen, when he writes to his mother in January 1859: “I was under the impression before I left home that anyone could get through College without much study, but since then I have found out better.”
Meanwhile Andrew, studying law at the University of Virginia, scolds his mother for indulging his younger brother Thomas’ “extravagance,” and struggles to break the sensitive news to his mother that he has got engaged to his second cousin, Mary Foster -- “I ought to have told you long ago”
Thomas survived the Civil War, spending the last two months of it in the federal officer’s prison on Johnson’s Island, Ohio. He returned to his family’s estate of Fredonia but it was empty save for the cotton bales filling the rooms on the ground floor, stored there by Moore’s prudent overseer, Mr. Hill, against the day when the blockade would be lifted and Moore could make a new start with the proceeds. His mother and stepfather had died by then, as had his older brother Andrew, who was struck in the right temple by a minie-ball at the Second Battle of Manassas on August 29, 1862. Thomas reported this in a letter to their sister, Margaret, who had traveled north to Virginia on the train accompanied by her slave cook, Louisa, intending to find her brothers and her husband, Sam Means. She missed them all through an infuriating scenario of bad timing and misinformation, including, at one point, being told by a soldier that her husband had been wounded when he was actually unharmed. Thomas wrote to Margaret that he went looking for Andrew (‘Bud’) on the battlefield after someone else in the Eighteenth Regiment reported seeing him fall; when Thomas found his brother’s body he wrapped him in two blankets and buried him in the grave he dug with his own hands. Before doing so he cut a lock of his brother’s hair to give to Andrew’s young wife, who had written to her husband only three days before he was cut down charging a Union battery
On this beautiful early summer day in Reidville the wheat was standing high in the fields surrounding town, and on the hillsides a teenage boy on a tractor was cutting hay.
On Main Street it was as quiet as 1860.
My husband and I walked from the Professors’ House to Dr. Frank Leonard’s store on College Street to have coffee and share a piece of homemade cake.
The store sits directly across from the elementary school, which occupies the site where the original Female Academy stood.
The academy survived a brush with Union troops camping nearby at the end of the war who were bent on burning it, as the story goes, but could not withstand the wrecker’s ball when it was finally torn down in 1948.
Souvenir of Reidville: set of antique compote dishes bought
for a few dollars at the former Reidville Female Academy dormitory
It is much the same story in Glenn Springs, which we viewed on another day, taking Highway 150 south from Tomahawk County* across the Pacolet River. This road is virtually a see-what-happened-when-the-textile-mills-closed-down tour, taking motorists on a winding trail through the three depressed towns of Pacolet Mills, Central Pacolet and Pacolet, where a sturdy but rundown early 20
century mill house can be purchased for very little money but where jobs are a lot harder to come by than houses.
Bridge over the Pacolet River, approaching Pacolet Mills
Glenn Springs, which is not far from Reidville and is mentioned once or twice in the letters in Craig’s book, has a different story to tell. The mineral springs in this area attracted entrepreneurs as early as 1825, when developer John B. Glenn opened an inn beside the springs and advertised it as a healthful summer retreat. By 1838 a much larger hotel and spa were attracting summer visitors by stagecoach from throughout South Carolina, and the town expanded to accommodate permanent residents who seemed to have led highly social lives.
House in Glenn Springs
This resort peaked around the 1890s, by which time Glenn Springs mineral water was being shipped as far away as the U.S. Capitol, where it was served in the Senate cloakroom.
Glenn Springs Post Office
By World War I, however, the town was losing its popularity, and by the time the hotel burned down in 1941, the development of roads and highways that bypassed what remained of the village had already sounded its death knell. What structures remain habitable in Glenn Springs are impressive by way of the faded grandeur they exhibit, but more striking are the ruins being swallowed up by vines and groves, like dinosaur bones sinking into the tar pits.
We passed through Cross Anchor, another town whose heyday dates from a previous century (in this case, the late eighteenth, when Methodists settled here) but which is now merely a crossroads, where we viewed a man at one corner selling watermelons from his truck and on the opposite corner an old brick store and a Masons’ Lodge collapsing into the brush. At last we crossed the Enoree River into Laurens County and finally arrived at our furthest western destination that day, the county seat of Laurens.
Cross Anchor, SC -- what's left of it
Laurens has certainly seen better days but it is still hanging on, with many of its stately homes looking as stately as ever and the courthouse square showing more encouraging signs of life than I remember when I last visited the town fourteen years ago. At that time the Klan Museum and Redneck Shop was still housed in the old Echo movie theater on the square, the sight of which gave displaced Yankees the heebie-jeebies so bad they hightailed it out of town as fast as their rented cars could take them. Since then the shop, its owners, and the stranger-than-fiction story that embroiled them and the town made it into the New York Times. (“Uneasy Neighbors in a Southern Gothic Tale,” January 12, 2012 -- see the link below).
Laurens Courthouse and monument to Confederate dead
My husband and I poked our heads into a little artist’s co-op on the square, a good sign for Laurens’ potential as a tourist destination, and I asked one of the friendly women minding the store what was up with the Klan Museum. She explained that everyone in town was hugely relieved when the shop’s proprietor finally announced that after years of wrangling over the establishment’s ownership in court and running it at a deficit he was closing the place. The editor of Laurens’ newspaper was so pleased by this turn of events that he ran a celebratory front page story announcing that fact.
Laurens front porch
This so enraged the Klan-loving business owner that he announced he had changed his mind and was keeping the shop open. He only managed to prolong the closing, however, not maintain the business, but that contrariness speaks volumes about the character of a certain kind of native-born South Carolinian who starts a civil war out of spite, or tries his best to blacken the reputation of a town trying to haul itself into the twenty-first century. Fire-eaters, indeed.
Any day-trip through the eastern portions of South Carolina’s upstate country is ended fittingly with a visit to historic Morgan Square in Spartanburg, called “the village” in antebellum times. The streets radiating out from the statue of General Daniel Morgan, a Revolutionary War hero, have become livelier in recent years (a reassuring bucking of the trend) with the addition of the Chapman Cultural Center, numerous restaurants, and Hub City Bookshop, an excellent independent bookstore and small press that has acquired a kind of literary landmark status since it opened in 1995.
On the day we stopped by the shop, housed in the old Masonic Temple on Main Street, the associate working there was enormously helpful with our questions and book searches. I found their regional history section to be extensive, including, among a number of books about nineteenth
century upstate life, copies of
Upcountry South Carolina Goes to War
. Naturally, no self-respecting bookstore can operate without supplies of strong coffee and baked goods close at hand, and Hub City delivers with an interior entrance to the neighboring Little River Coffee Bar and Cakehead Bakeshop.
We discovered Hub City to be a good way to decompress gradually, after spending long hours submerged in the land that time forgot. With apologies to Proust, the past is a highly absorbing place to visit (and remember), but I’m glad I don’t have to live there.
Craig, Tom Moore, ed.
Upcountry South Carolina Goes to War; Letters of the Anderson, Brockman, and Moore Families, 1853-1865
. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2009. Print.
LINKS & INFORMATION:
The New York Times,
“Uneasy Neighbors in a Southern Gothic Tale,”
January 12, 2012.
The Hub City Bookshop, 186 W. Main Street, Spartanburg, SC 29306
History of Reidville, South Carolina: