Writer Tom Poland Gets His Kicks on Highway 76
And the taillights dissolve, in the coming of night …
Sensing too well when the journey is done. There is no turning back …
– Robert Plant
In a way, the journey was done for many fine two-lane highways June 29, 1956. That’s the day President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, the Interstate Act. Eisenhower, a general to the end, envisioned highways, his “broad ribbons,” laden with tanks and troops, and South Carolina got its share.
Fifty-three years, five interstates, and 757 freeway miles later, a grid of steel, cement, and asphalt makes it possible to cross South Carolina and see little of anything other than interchanges, bridges, concrete barriers, and orange safety barrels. Don’t despair. The real South Carolina is still out there. You can find the state’s true face along forgotten byways and back roads. Among those less-traveled routes rolls U.S. 76, once upon a time a cross-state thoroughfare.
Slung across the Palmetto State like a thin, low-hung belt and cosigning with 176, 378, 301, I-26, I-126, and other roads, 76 runs across the Palmetto State entire. In all, 76 runs 548 miles, east to west, from Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, to Chattanooga, Tennessee.
And it runs through my mind, this asphalt river lost in time. For I have driven every inch of it, and I know that for those who live along its path and those who go to work on it, it flows as essential as ever. On three Sundays, I journeyed its length – past remnants of an old South Carolina and a shiny new South Carolina. My escort? The goddess Change.
Journaling a road: It’s eclectic at best. Perceptions flicker by as fast as the road’s center stripes and the recollections come fast and furious. Ride with me then down a highway and journey through time, geography, history … life itself.
Highway 76 begins unceremoniously, easing into South Carolina from Tar Heel Land. No state sign welcomes me, just a sign heralding my arrival in the Horry County community of Spring Branch. Crossing the Little Pee Dee, I’m in vintage country. A tire swings from a tree near the Spring Branch Country Store. And then Nichols, all 1.4 square miles, arrives.
This is Marion County, and echoes of the Old South reverberate here. They ring through the pastures, crops, and burnt-out hallways of charred homes. Crumbling mansions remind me that glory once lived here. I attribute this change to I-95 and tobacco’s demise.
From a weathered mansion’s column, a framed deer head stares at 76 passersby. Man’s oldest calling, hunting, thrives here. And fighting too. The town of Marion honors Francis Marion, Revolutionary War hero, and just beyond flows the Great Pee Dee, the river that missed renown in Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home.” Spying the Suwannee River on a map, Foster preferred “Swanee’s” lyrical fit.
Highway 76 can be surreal. A “Broken Arrow” incident, the first, happened at Mars Bluff. A B-47, No. 876, left Savannah’s Hunter Air Force Base for North Africa. At 4:19 in the afternoon of March 11, 1958, it accidentally dropped an unarmed nuclear bomb in the woods behind Bill Gregg’s home. The bomb slammed down in gummy loam and its high-explosive trigger dug a crater 50 feet wide and 35 feet deep. No one died.
Not far away, a gunboat sleeps way down beneath the Pee Dee. The Confederate Mars Bluff Naval Shipyard built the C.S.S. Pee Dee upriver from the 76 Bridge. Because Sherman was coming, Confederates sank the Pee Dee March 15, 1865. Archaeologists plan to raise three cannons from Pee Dee silt in the summer or fall 2010.
Fields and forests fly by until I arrive in Florence, where the Drive In Restaurant claims to have the Pee Dee’s greatest fried chicken. That would please those Chic-Fil-A bovines who take matters into their own hooves and their famous cousin who lived here. In 1925 Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover visited Fred Young’s dairy farm whose Jersey, “Sensation’s Mikado’s Millie,” set a world-champion butter-fat record.
In Timmonsville, “Cale Yarborough” says it all. NASCAR racing through my mind, I approach Cartersville and pass JB’s CB Shop, a reminder of the 1970s citizens band craze. Outside Mayesville, veins of tar run like rivers through 76, now a gravel reminder of Sumter County’s old days. From here came Mary McLeod-Bethune, civil rights leader, unofficial advisor to Franklin Roosevelt, and founder of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, which she opened for African-American girls in 1904.
Sumter’s regal O’Donnell House commands the eye. Built circa 1840 in the Italianate style, Frank Pierce Milburn remodeled it in 1905 in the Neo-Classical style. Once a funeral home, now a social venue, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.
So is Sumter’s restored Opera House. Built in the mid-1890s, it houses City Hall offices. Stately and evocative of Europe, I wouldn’t trade this classic opera house for 100 multiplex cinemas.
West of Sumter, the highway’s military character strengthens. Jets from Shaw Air Force Base’s 20th Fighter Wing scream over Manchester Forest. Across the Wateree River, jets streak over Highway 76 from McEntire Air Base, once known as Congaree Army Airfield.
Close by stands the last old-growth bottomland forest, Congaree Swamp National Park. World-record trees take their place among redwoods and sequoias as arboreal legends. Alas, past car dealerships and fast food restaurants and into Columbia where 76 joins I-126 near Elmwood Cemetery. Here on a bluff, the Broad River purling below, Confederate soldiers sleep.
Approaching Riverbanks Zoo, fall line rapids churn, plummet, stair step, froth, and run white. On zoo grounds lie ruins: a covered bridge and one of the South’s oldest cotton mills, which Sherman burned. Confederates torched the bridge, a futile attempt to keep Sherman out of Columbia.
I-26 soon steals Highway 76’s identity, but thankfully, 76 divorces it near a gleaming Toyota dealership. Now 76 strings beautiful beads together—small towns. It curves into Ballentine, named for E. A. Ballentine, who ran a general store in this Lexington County settlement. Built in 1929, it’s the town’s last original building. Political candidates once waxed eloquent here as wise, old men played checkers by the wood stove.
Angie Rhame opened High Noon here on Valentine’s Day 2007. In walked an elderly woman. “This does my heart good,” she told Rhame. “I was so afraid they’d tear this place down. I have so many memories here.”
A train rumbles by each day at high noon, (thus the name). In the old days as the train rolled through, an attendant snagged a mailbag from a hook and hurled a sack of incoming mail to the ground. High Noon was Farm House Antiques from 1995 until 2006. Proprietor was Carlos Gibbons, father of Leeza, South Carolina’s gift to national television.
Ballentine leads into White Rock, which melts into Chapin. From 76, you’re a stone’s throw from Beaufort Street and its eclectic shops, among them a gallery and NASCAR collectibles shop.
Just inside Newberry County, a thicket veils a vanquished farm. A poignant reminder of lives moved on, this abandonment recalls a time when small farms sustained this country. Sadly, we continue to lose our connection with the land.
Just beyond Prosperity’s old train depot sits the town square. There, Diane Folden runs Diane’s Steak House in a 1935 granite block building. A Swede laid the granite blocks quarried in Winnsboro for $3.25 a day. This was where C. Boyd Bedenbaugh operated Bedenbaugh Mules and Horses. Saturdays, farmers came to buy horses and mules. To gauge animal’s temperament, farmers walked them around the public square before buying them.
From the ’40s until the mid-’80s, the building housed South Carolina’s oldest continuously run seed cleaning business. Mrs. Jenny Bedenbaugh, whose husband’s father originally owned the building, said they separated chaff from soybeans, wheat, and oats. You could say dining takes place in a seedy place.
Imposing timbers inside once separated stables. “Many customers compliment me on the restaurant’s rustic look,” Folden said. It’s a busy place. CNN set up headquarters when she had presidential fundraisers for Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney. An Elvis impersonator gave dancing tips once during Shag Night. “We never have a dull moment here.” I’ll add that though it’s a steak house, Sunday’s fried chicken is fabulous.
Down the road apiece, an old ’50s gas station, now a dusty antiques shop, speaks volumes about I-26’s arrival. Toward Clinton, orange tiger paws adorn a shed’s roof near a Christmas tree farm in 76’s ongoing crazy quilt culture.
In Joanna, on the eastern edge of Laurens County, the Blalock mausoleum dominates the Veterans’ Memorial. Once known as Goldsville, Joanna feels deserted. Beyond its outskirts, kudzu mobs deep woods. This topiary artist gone mad drowns local forests, and somewhere beyond its green masses, I know, farmers struggled to contain red gashes in the earth.
Through Laurens and on to Hickory Tavern. Land rises into green swells as I journey past the silver shoals of the Reedy River and on through Princeton, past aluminum frying pans hanging over some small-but-precious garden plant.
U.S. 178 cosigns with 76 from Honea Path to Anderson – the Electric City, the South’s first city to transmit electricity long-distance. On November 14, 1931, Amelia Earhart flew in to the original airport in her Pitcairn PCA-2 Autogyro, promoting Beech-Nut products. Pondering her fate, I shoot beneath I-85 to La France past Pendleton’s outskirts where Samuel Augustus Maverick was born. Sam moved on to become an ornery Texas rancher, a “maverick” who signed the Texas Declaration of Independence. Thus, did “maverick” enrich our language.
Here in Foothills Country, I roll down 76 even as the land climbs. To my left sits the entrance to the Botanical Gardens of South Carolina and its 295 acres of gardens and bogs. U.S. 76 crosses Lake Hartwell and the Seneca River, where its inundated riverbed joins the Tugaloo to create the mighty Savannah, that great river of sovereign delineation.
Seneca, established 1873, shipped cotton over its rails. Then the mills came. Seneca, today, possesses a homogenized look here and there. Dollar stores, drug stores, and Mexican restaurants. On to Westminster, just outside the dark green slopes of Sumter National Forest. All that greenery makes a doublewide trailer’s bright purple roof appear radioactive. The theme of old and new commingled continues: A classic barn near Westminster faces a mobile home across Highway 76.
The Chauga River passes beneath me, a mini Chattooga. Outside local trout fishermen, few know of the Chauga Narrows, a class VI rapid. There’s where the true Earth exists. The Earth too wild to tame.
The Wild West appears in Long Creek, a strip mall that looks like a Wild West town, a place a cowboy can hitch his horse and get a shot of whiskey. No cacti live here in faux frontier land, but apple orchards fill the green folds and creases.
Now the land plunges, turns, and falls away—a roller coaster speed run. Tearing past the Chattooga Whitewater Outfitters, a business owing its existence, in part, to Deliverance and the “land of nine-fingered people.” As if by magic, the Two Redneck Chicks Café appears with twin Confederate flags fluttering, but, no, I’m not in coon-on-a-log, corn-liquor country. I am, however, approaching the land of bluegrass and dulcimer.
Straight ahead looms the river of legend, the wild, unforgiving Chattooga. This river surely is like no other. I walk onto the middle of the 76 bridge and plant my left foot in Georgia, my right in South Carolina, and watch the river run as I take stock of my journey.
Highway 76, once a mere line on a map, now lives in my mind. Between this boulder-strewn river borne of mountains and the Upper Coastal Plain near Nichols lie all my sights, impressions, and notes. I can place my finger on 76’s thread-like presence and know that here hangs a deer head, here lies a sunken gunboat, and here is great fried chicken. Opera houses, mobile homes, charred mansions, and monstrous tractors. It’s all in my head now. The blending of past and present has made my 76 explorations delightfully unpredictable. And best of all, I don’t have to thank Eisenhower for the journey.
Darkness falls on the Chattooga. The taillights of a westbound car dissolve in the coming of night. It’s time to retrace my journey, but there is no turning back. They say you can’t step into the same river twice. Nor can you step into the same road twice. I cross into Georgia to find another way back.
This feature appears in the spring 2010 issue of Sandlapper magazine.