My choice for town number nine of the This is America Too project came to me last minute. While visiting Darien, GA a week earlier, I set my sights on Blackville, SC in the south-central part of the state, and was convinced it would be next. However, while exploring the coast around Savannah and Charleston, I found myself doubting my decision. Suddenly, one night I was looking at a map and found Cheraw, SC. I did my research, decided it was perfect, and sent out some emails to local organizations hoping to make contacts in advance.
The morning I left for Cheraw I wasn’t in a hurry. I had been staying in the Francis Marion National Forest just north of Charleston and knew it wasn’t going to be a long drive. While lounging, I found that I received a reply from a gentleman named Dale who worked for Cheraw’s tourism board. He sent me the names and information of two women in town who might be interested in talking; it was already a good start. I broke down my tent and drove north along the coast. I passed through the picturesque streets of historic Georgetown, and into the gaudy Myrtle Beach whose traffic and energy made me never want to return. Just north, beyond the town of Conway, the land opened up, the traffic dissipated, and time seemed to slow as I drove along Hwy 501 to Hwy 38 and eventually into Cheraw.
My first impression was that it had the small-town charm I was hoping for. I stopped quickly downtown and then headed out to the Cheraw State Park where I would be staying. When I arrived I was a little confused and had to ask a couple where to register. They kindly gave me directions to the park’s office. Online I could only book the first few nights and at the office I asked Ronda, who checked me in, if there were sites available the last couple nights I would be there. She told me the weekend was fully booked but was sympathetic to my situation, telling me to call every morning and she would let me know if anyone cancelled.
Back at the grounds I found the couple I asked for directions earlier were in my site. Theirs was just across the way, and since they were set up we just agreed to swap until I had to move or leave a few days later. During my stay in Cheraw, I ended up befriending the couple whose names are Suzanne and Bucky. I learned they lived on Martha’s Vineyards but Suzanne informed me that the island wasn’t what people thought and there was a decent working class population, even many homeless. They just happened to have bought land there in the 70s when it was still affordable. I told her about my project and gave her a card, she appeared excited to check it out.
Once I was set up I returned to town. I did a bit of wandering but the drive had worn me out and I quickly found myself in the Downtown Restaurant and Bar seeking a beer. I sat at the quaint little bar and tried to order something local but was denied so I went with a Yuengling. Sipping my beer, I started a conversation with Betsy, the woman seated next to me. She moved there for her husband’s job but owned a second-hand clothing and goods store in town. We talked about Cheraw, and about living in a small-town, which she really enjoyed. I told her about the project and she gave me some suggestions on where to meet people. I also talked with the bartender Devin and enjoyed the overall vibe, feeling it’s a place I’d return to. After a couple beers I went back to the campground.
It has become my custom to eat in town on the first night of my visits, but in Cheraw I chose to cook. I had returned at dusk and driving in I saw the most beautiful sunset over the small lake the campground was situated on. I was happy to be in nature but as I started cooking I found myself swarmed by gnats that didn’t bite but were annoying. They were so bad I had to crawl into the hot van to eat, a consequence of camping in the South but probably not as bad as it would get in summer. I spent the rest of the night doing a bit of writing and reading before crawling into the tent content with the start but ready to really begin my visit the following day.
The next morning while having my morning coffee I called Rhonda who told me a space opened for the weekend. I excitedly drove over to pay and with my last two nights secured, I headed into town. I parked downtown and walked to the Lyceum Museum located on Market Street. It’s a tiny one-room building dating back to the early 19th century and was used as a chancery court, private library, the town’s first telegraph station, and quartermaster’s headquarters for both the Union and Confederate armies at different times. The museum is chock full of tidbits of information explaining different periods of the town’s history. I believe it’s the smallest museum I’ve visited, but I was amazed how much they packed in. However, I couldn’t help but think there was a lot to cover in a room so small and didn’t realize it then, but it was the only public museum about the town’s past. It’s kind of shocking considering Cheraw’s rich history, relative size as small towns go, and wealth. Still, I enjoyed it and was there for some time in spite of its size.
The one thing I took away was how proud the town was of its Confederate past. The museum was only my first exposure to the unapologetic pride that resurfaced many times during my visit. The town is officially the self-proclaimed “prettiest town in Dixie,” and in Cheraw the Civil War was referred to as the War Between the States or the Confederate War. I would later in the week attend Civil War reenactments and there was no doubt who was the enemy. I was troubled by this nostalgia, and also confused since nearly half of the population was black, yet it showed me how vastly different perspectives across the country could be. I embarked on this project for these types of experiences and Cheraw didn’t disappoint.
I left the museum walking northwest into what I later learned was the black business district during the segregation era. Even on that first stroll through the neighborhood, I sensed there was a noticeable difference from the main section of downtown. I found more abandoned businesses, and things seemed generally less kept up. When I learned about the neighborhood’s history I wasn’t surprised. However, I love old abandoned buildings and spent some time taking photos. Finally I circled around and back towards the Market street area with plans of visiting the chamber of commerce to seek out advice on getting some interviews.
Before going there I wanted to get lunch. I stopped in a place called Eddy’s Pizzeria. The cashier was a very friendly young girl who looked to still be in high-school. I ordered what I thought was a cheesesteak. The food took a bit to arrive and when it finally came, I realized ordering a cheesesteak at a pizzeria was a mistake. I was hungry, and in spite of the rubbery meat and lack of actual sandwich filling, I scarfed it down. To be fair, it cost around five dollars so I got what I paid for.
Next I went to the chamber of commerce as suggested by Betsy the previous evening. The woman at the front desk greeted me but seemed a bit preoccupied and asked if I could take a seat for a moment while she finished some business. Before long Roger, the head of the chamber, came and greeted me. I introduced myself and started explaining my project when he invited me into his office. We had a great conversation and he helped me better understand the contemporary history of the town and its growth since WWII. I hadn’t realized how industrious the town was, more than any I had visited so far, and I got the sense Cheraw had a larger population than the 5,700 it claimed.
I asked Roger about possible interviews and he suggested I talk to Sarah Spruill, one of the women whose info I had received from Dale the day before. He also mentioned a woman named Janelle who ran the antique shop nearby, noting she once helped the guys from the television show American Pickers. I asked about other museums and he mentioned the Lyceum and the Old St. David’s church while grabbing me some pamphlets on walking tours of old houses. He told me I could take the key to the church if I wanted to see inside, and proudly explained the cemetery there had the remains of someone from every U.S. war, and the first Confederate memorial in the State. I brought up Felicia McCall, the other name Dale gave me, and asked about the African American Heritage Center she operated. He seemed a bit surprised but quickly went back to look for another pamphlet that she wrote which provided a walking tour of the black historic businesses and homes, mentioning she might also be someone to talk with. I was happy I had stopped in, feeling good about the conversation and potentially securing more interviews. On the way out I got the church keys, only having to sign a book to check them out for a time.
I drove to the grounds, parked, and walked up through the graveyard surrounding it. I went straight to the church but had a hard time trying to get the door open. When I finally got in I was first struck by its austerity, it was so white, clean, pristine, and I felt as though I was the only one to ever set foot in it. I briefly imagined all that transpired there, the number of people who passed through the doors, and what life was like when it was at its peak of popularity. I didn’t stay long or take time to check out the cemetery since I felt pressure to return the keys. After I dropped them off, I went to the antique shop around the corner to meet with Janelle.
When I stepped into Sentimental Journey Antiques, it was dark and had a musty smell that reminded me of visiting my grandma’s house as a child. I got the impression it was likely filled with some amazing stuff, but bordered on being the creation of a hoarder. I spotted Janelle sitting behind the store counter about halfway to the back of the shop and gave a friendly hello as I approached. She was reading her bible and I worried I might be bothering her. I introduced myself, reaching out my hand, and she reluctantly gave me hers. As I explained what I was there for she would not make eye contact and just sat there, bible in hand. She asked how long I was in town and explained she was too busy to meet with me personally because of the Spring Festival taking place that weekend. I understood.
As we talked, she warmed up a bit and was less weary of my intentions. From our conversation, I could tell she had a passion for the region’s history and I was saddened she could not sit down with me. I gave her my card and she told me she would try a few people in town. I left feeling somewhat dejected but determined and outside I sat down on a park bench to call Sarah Spruill whose name had been mentioned several times already.
Sarah didn’t answer but I left a message and then decided to make my way to the African American Heritage Museum to see if I could find Felicia McCall. It was closed, and appeared to be only open by appointment, so I called Felicia. She answered right away and was extremely friendly. I told her what I was doing and that I hoped to meet with her and see the museum. She seemed very excited about the project, which was encouraging. She said she was going to be at the museum later in the day to give a personal tour and would try making time to meet me afterwards. With the resources available to me exhausted, I decided to explore the town some more for photos.
The sun was out and it was warming up. I headed northwest along Third Street which is lined with gorgeous antebellum homes. One of the town’s popular stories is about the Union’s invasion of Cheraw led by General Sherman whom stationed himself there late in the Civil War. Unlike many towns in the South, Sherman didn’t put the torch to Cheraw, yet he was still considered the devil by many there. I thought he should be a hero in their eyes for sparing all of the lovely homes that contributed to the local flavor. Outside, the street was lined for blocks in the deep reds, pinks, and whites of the early spring blossoms, and combined with the architecture made for a scene one has to experience firsthand to fully appreciate.
After traversing several blocks of the town’s wealthiest neighborhood, I meandered southeast past Market into one of the poorer neighborhoods. I was shocked at how a town so small could have such disparity of wealth, and I wasn’t even in the most impoverished part of town. While some of the homes I passed were nice, modest dwellings I would personally be happy to call home, others looked like they were abandoned and on the verge of collapse. All of them looked tiny in comparison to what I had just seen and could have been garages for those grander homes. Finally the heat got to me and I started towards downtown, but on my way I saw a sign for the Dizzy Gillespie Homesite Park and had to check it out.
John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie grew up in Cheraw and as a jazz fan I was excited to see where the trumpeter was raised. I followed the arrow on the sign turning left down Huger and again I was surprised. The street was the poorest I had seen yet and only two blocks from the huge homes of Third Street. The class and color divide was something I thought only occurred in major cities, but Cheraw was opening my eyes to a new reality. The park itself is lovely, filled with a variety of sculptures made from stainless steel and enclosed in a stainless steel fence made to look like music bars. I took some photos and sat for a second imagining the hours of practice Dizzy must have put in at the site. I wondered if the neighborhood had been so rundown when he was living there. After a moment I continued downtown.
Just as reached my van I got a call from Felicia. She was finishing her tour and could meet me if I was available. I replied I would be there in five. I rushed over and upon entering what looked more like a storefront than a museum, I was greeted by Felicia. I felt an instant connection and we talked briefly before she mentioned she had to finish up her tour. When her guests left we continued talking and I felt as if I had known her for years. She is my age, very articulate, and passionate about her project. She willingly shared so much about starting the museum, writing her book, and spending some of her childhood in Germany. The conversation was so comfortable that we got lost in it, talking for some time. I eventually asked if I could walk around to look at the pieces. I made my way through her collection, which included an array of artifacts from the days of slavery through Jim Crow. Many were personal heirlooms or things donated to her from families she worked with at her funeral home. I found the descriptions were minimal, and realized why she gave personal tours, but at that point I was too embarrassed to ask for one. Before leaving, we planned to connect the next day for an interview. She also gave me a signed copy her book African Americans of Chesterfield County which is part of the Images of America series. By the time I left I was on cloud nine. Meeting Felicia already made the visit to Cheraw worth it and I was excited to sit down with her the following day.
When I stepped out of the museum I noticed Sarah had called me. I returned her call and we made plans to meet at her house the following day. What started out rough ended up productive. In good spirits, I decided it was time for dinner and a beer. I made my way to the Downtown Restaurant where I chatted a bit with Devin before we were joined by another guy named Ray. The conversation was great, we talked about bourbon, food, and Bill Murry; I thought maybe I had found my local watering hole in Cheraw, but when the music cut off, the place got silent, and Jeopardy came on the television, I knew I found my local spot. I ordered a bacon cheese burger that left me even fonder of the location. After dinner I said my goodbyes and returned to the campground where I did some reading and writing before heading to bed exhausted from the long day.
When I woke the next morning, I didn’t feel any rush. I had coffee, breakfast, lounged, and texted Felicia to plan a time to meet. I eventually got motivated and headed to the park headquarters to utilize their internet. There I received a call from Janelle apologizing if she was rude the day before, explaining that she was just very busy and preoccupied. I let her know I understood. She said the contact she had in mind hadn’t returned her call but we talked about a few other ideas she had. I appreciated the call and help, it made me feel better about our meeting the day before, and I hoped some of her leads might pan out.
When I finished my work it was nearly time to meet Felicia so I headed downtown where her funeral home is located. When I stepped in, she was on the phone at her desk. The interior was nicely decorated but not extravagant. I haven’t spent much time in funeral homes so I had no point of reference, but it seemed like a comfortable place to talk about death. She gave me a wave when I entered and I sat down opposite her at the desk while she finished her call. We made some small talk before I turned on the recorder for the interview.
Similar to other southerners I had met working on the project, Felicia knew a great deal about her ancestors and was able to recite names from several generations back. It reinforced an idea I got in Darien, Georgia, about the pride that southerners have for family. We got on the subject of her enslaved great-grandmother who was impregnated by her master and from him had her grandmother. Of course her grandmother never received a dime from her father, or the recognition that her fully white half-sister did. Yet Felicia told me, “I can remember being at my grandmother’s house and some of the family that owned [her great-grandmother], owned our family, would come by and visit. They never discussed being related to each other, they never discussed slavery per-se…They would do things for each other…but it was kinda like the unspoken rule that you didn’t say what we were, but everyone kinda knew.” Felicia in fact found an old deed after purchasing the building she ran her funeral home out of showing it was once her great-grandfather’s, the same man who owned and impregnated her great-grandmother. I found the story surreal. Interestingly, the unspoken family ties between whites and blacks continued to pop up during my time in Cheraw and was one of the most memorable aspects of the visit.
The conversation turned towards her upbringing in Cheraw, and what it was like to grow up there feeling like an outsider. As Felicia spoke about her earliest memories, living on a military base in Germany, surrounded by a multicultural group of friends, I felt her fondness for those days. Yet when we talked about returning to Cheraw, her demeanor changed. Although she was exposed to incidents like the Ku Klux Klan marching through Cheraw, the hardest thing for her, she explained fighting back tears, “I didn’t feel like I fit in with anybody, because back then…the white kids were taught, your black friends can’t come home and visit with you, they can’t come to your birthday parties”. As far as black classmates she explained, “because I didn’t think, talk, my parents had their own businesses, I wasn’t black enough”. She was lost, and “it was very lonely”. She told me her daughter had been going through something similar and I felt for them both but knew I would never fully understand their pain.
The end of our conversation focused on her efforts to bring light to the overshadowed and mostly ignored black community that makes up half of Cheraw. She explained that when she opened her museum, “a lot of people realized the town really hadn’t done a great job at telling the narrative of contributions of African Americans in our town”. She went on to say that many of the “old guards” have a “rose glassed view” of Cheraw’s history but in reality, “it wasn’t as pretty as they like to play it up”. Opening the Southern African-American Heritage Center and writing her book African Americans of Chersterfield County, was a result of her feeling “like there needed to be some balance there and some truth invoked into Cheraw’s narrative”.
As I sat listening to her, I understood I was sitting with an incredible woman who was doing something few would have the drive or courage to do. My project had given me a chance to meet some amazing people and I knew Felicia was one I would never forget. We talked for just over an hour before I turned off the recorder. We chatted a little more and she asked me if I had ever made someone cry before. I answered it was a first. By the time I left her funeral home I felt like I made a new friend, and after thanking her and saying goodbye, I left hoping we would stay in touch.
It was nearly time for my appointment with Sarah, so I drove over, pulled in the backyard, and walked up to the front door. She invited me in and we sat down in her dining room. Sarah lives in Cheraw’s oldest home, which was already impressive to me. I could tell it had history, was not too extravagant, but still beautiful. Sarah was very articulate and spoke with a strong southern accent that reminded me of Martha, whom I met in Darien, Georgia. I guessed it was the accent of the more affluent southerner. She grew up in Darlington thirty miles south of Cheraw, which she explained was a more agricultural community than Cheraw, comprised then and now of “big time farmers” using the phrase “country aristocracy” to describe them. She left Darlington to teach in Charleston where she met her husband Jimmy, and eventually they returned to Cheraw in the early 70s.
It wasn’t long after that Sarah began to get involved in Cheraw’s historical preservation. Her first endeavor was bringing a student tour to town from Colombia, SC, which led to a nomination for National Register of Historic Places, and eventually blossomed into a full program focusing on the town’s history and preservation. Although not a historical society per se, those involved created brochures, events, and the like to celebrate the town’s heritage. Her knowledge and understanding of Cheraw was deep and talking with her was like walking through a museum. I got sense she was a liberal in sea of conservatives, but she had a different view of race relations in Cheraw than Felicia. To use Felicia’s words, she saw the past with “rose colored glasses”.
I could have sat for hours listening to her insight into the town and region’s history. Of all that she shared with me, my favorite story was about Dizzy Gillespie. The famous trumpeter and pride of Cheraw was one of the Kennedy Center Honors years back and a group from town, including Sarah, went to Washington D.C. to be a part of the celebration. Sarah explained that among those who made the trip were, many “old Cheraw people, or married to old Cheraw people”. When the group met with Dizzy at the event, he was overjoyed to see them and as they told him their names he had an uncanny ability to trace back each of their family’s histories in Cheraw. She went on to say, “his grandmother…had a Powe child, the Powes were big slave owners in Cheraw”. “[Dizzy] knew this whole background history” and one of the attendees was of the Powe linage, said her name, and “he went back and said well we’re kin…and every one of us that was there, I believe except one person, had real connections that he knew about generations back”. Like the story Felicia told of her family connections to white families through slavery, Sarah was giving me another example, and one about the very famous Dizzy Gillespie.
After forty-five minutes or so I turned off the recorder and we continued to talk. I found myself very comfortable with Sarah and she told me she also really enjoyed the conversation. Before leaving, she gave me a tour of her home, showing me parts that were still original and where the new additions were built. Being a history buff, she shared some stories about the house and I found it fascinating to be in Cheraw’s oldest home and to have someone giving me a tour of it. Finally, I said my goodbyes and left with a sense that I made yet another new friend. As I jumped in the van my mind worked to process all the information I had taken in over the previous few hours, how both Felicia and Sarah were liberal minds in one of the most conservative states in the country, but still had different views on the small town of Cheraw.
Feeling both exhilarated and exhausted with the day’s work accomplished, I decided to stop at the Downtown Restaurant. I wanted a beer, a chance to unwind, and to share banal conversation with Devin or whoever. The beer and conversation hit the spot, and after I decided to eat at River’s Edge next door. There is a heavy Mennonite population in the region and the River’s Edge is a town favorite owned by a Mennonite family. Apparently it’s a destination spot, and everyone told me I needed to try it, so I wasn’t leaving town without stopping in. The interior is wide open with a very country-home feel, maroon walls with white pillars, bakery in the back, and quilts for sale on the walls. I was greeted by a very nice young woman in Mennonite garb and taken to a small table. It was very busy, filled with families, and I could tell it was popular among Mennonites in the area. I ordered an ice tea and the pork butt with a side of coleslaw and mashed potatoes. The food came very quickly and was delectable; I couldn’t help but devour everything. Although the portion wasn’t huge, it did the trick. I left fully understanding the restaurant’s popularity.
Afterwards, I returned to the campground. Rain was in the forecast that night and the following day I was moving sites. Before leaving in the morning I packed up and left a note for Suzanne and Bucky explaining I would be sleeping in the van so they could take my site which was technically theirs. When I got back they had moved and Suzanne came to thank me for the note and ask if I had more cards for the project because she was giving them out for me. I was flattered. We talked a bit and I even got an invite to stay with them on Martha’s Vineyard. We exchanged information and I told her and Bucky I’d likely take them up on the offer, (little did I know then that the two of them, their home, and Martha’s Vineyard would end up becoming a part of town thirteen of the project). The rest of the night I relaxed and at the time I set up the van to sleep there still wasn’t rain, but when I woke the next morning it was pouring and I was happy with my decision to pack early.
I killed time in the morning writing, reading, and waiting for the rain to subside. I text Felicia thanking her and ask about possible contacts. She wrote back she was trying to talk with people but I didn’t hear from her again during my stay. I also left a message with someone whose information Sarah had provided, again not having any luck. When the rain finally ended, I made breakfast and then set out to explore.
My first stop was Riverside Park along the Great Pee Dee River. The river, named after the Pedee people who once occupied the area, helped make Cheraw a major trade center in the 19th century. Cheraw was the last navigable town upriver so all agricultural goods from the surrounding countryside passed through there. At one time it had the biggest cotton market between Georgetown, SC and Wilmington, NC. Trade was so important in Cheraw that it was also home to the Merchant’s Bank of South Carolina, the largest bank in South Carolina outside of Charleston before the Civil War. I walked along the peaceful riverfront trying to imagine the scene during Cheraw’s heyday, the sights, sounds, and smells of riverboat traffic loading and unloading cargo of all types: tobacco, cotton, rice, indigo, and the precious human slaves that made it all possible. My imagination was aided by Civil War reenactors who had a mock Confederate military camp already set up for the upcoming Spring Festival that weekend.
My next destination was St. David’s cemetery just down the road. I had been there earlier in the week to see the church, but hadn’t roamed the grounds. I have a thing for old cemeteries and the South has some of the most gorgeous in the country. St. David’s was one of these. It was filled with both modest and more extravagant gravestones, all surrounding the church that loomed over the weather beaten markers. I was told there was a solider from every U.S. war and I tried to see if I could verify that claim. I at least found graves from the major wars.
When I left St. David’s, I took a drive into the area of town known to be the poorest. The neighborhood is on the southwest side of town, literally on the other side of the train tracks, and contains a low-income housing project called Gillespie Ingram Motley. I was already shocked by the disparity of wealth in Cheraw, and how glaring it was from block to block, but my drive showed me it could get worse. What might have been most disturbing was that a town of less than six-thousand actually needed a low-income housing project, especially when there was industry in Cheraw.
I continued my drive past town limits and fifteen miles out to the even smaller town of Society Hill. There wasn’t much to see, but I wandered a little, reading historical plaques, and taking photos. Back in Cheraw I stopped at Groucho’s Deli and had one of the worst sandwiches I’ve eaten. The bread was spongy, like a cheap hotdog bun just out of the microwave, the meat was skimpy and topped with a cheese-like substance, and I was charged for tap water. I had heard the town was excited to have the chain open a location and I wondered why. I reluctantly finished the mess I ordered and went out to explore a little more.
There were still some photos I wanted to take and places I wanted to visit. I stopped at the high school first to capture shots of it and the water tower nearby. Then I drove to the Foundry Hill Cemetery. It is the historically black cemetery that was actually established after the Civil War, a remnant of the Jim Crow era. It’s a modest but sprawling cemetery in a beautiful setting. Since being in the South, I continued to find it odd that the one aspect of life where segregation was still acceptable was death. Felicia’s funeral home still handled mostly black funerals, with the exception of the few progressive whites that found the division silly, and Foundry Hill was still considered a black cemetery while St. David’s was for whites. I came across this in Darien, GA as well and assumed it was the norm. I strolled the cemetery thinking about this before deciding I would return to the campground for a hike around the park.
Several times during my visit, I passed a spot called the Sandtrap Sports Bar that sat only a mile from the campground. Each time, I thought I should stop in and finally I did. I assumed it got its name because of its proximity to the golf course located in the park I was staying. For me golf has always been an elitist sport I associated with rich white guys, yet South Carolina was showing me the pastime spanned class levels. The Sandtrap Sports Bar was a perfect example of this discovery and not what I would have thought of as a “golfer’s hangout”. Inside it was a classic dive, my kind of place. The bar is to the right when you enter, there was a room with tables to the left, and another room further back with pool tables. The décor was a mix of sports and golf memorabilia, but I still wasn’t convinced it was a golfer’s hangout. There were three other guys at the bar chatting with the young bartender. I sat down, ordered a PBR, and like a true dive it cost me a dollar fifty. I sat and took in the atmosphere as the guys sat smoking and sharing local gossip. As I often do, I joined the conversation and before long was listening to a story about how the guy next to me, Troy, once had a brain hemorrhage and saw God when he crossed over to the other side. The conviction he shared the story with left me no doubt he believed what he was saying and who was I to question it.
Troy had just turned fifty, was from Michigan originally, and had some great stories that kept me there for a few more beers. My favorite was about he and his brother. They were driving across the Midwest with a pound of weed and a bunch of acid. This was back when you could fill up at a gas station before paying and they had stopped to do just that. However, when they left, each thought the other paid. It wasn’t long after leaving that they were pulled over by the cops, shitting their pants because of the drugs. They nervously explained how they meant to pay and made a mistake. The officer let them return to pay and Troy said he was so elated with his luck, he even gave the woman at the station extra money for the trouble. After my fill of stories, I said goodbye, making sure to let them know it was a pleasure.
It was still light when I arrived at the park so I took the walk I had planned. I followed a nice trail around the lake and over a damn, getting a chance to see the campground from the opposite shore. I spent some time enjoying the peacefulness as the sun set and then doubled back to my site where I cooked dinner, and did some writing and reading before sleep.
The next day was the start of the Spring Festival and I was up early because I wanted to be in town to see Sherman’s march into Cheraw. It would be my first Civil War reenactment and I couldn’t have thought of a more appropriate setting. I didn’t know how popular it would be so I was there needlessly early to get parking. On Market Street where it was supposed to start, there was a very small crowd. As I waited, Suzanne and Bucky passed and we started to chat when the shooting began. I excused myself and headed to where the action was. As Union troops chased Confederate soldiers through town toward the river, I followed behind taking photos. We passed Janelle’s shop and I stopped to say hello to her and a friend outside watching. I joined the chase again and stayed with them all the way to the river where the skirmish ended. Before going back to town I walked around the camp set up there finding it all good fun.
Returning downtown, I walked up Second Street to explore the Spring Festival. It was the quintessential small town fair, complete with a few small carnival rides and a number of food stands. The smell of barbeque filled the air, and as I walked along scoping out places to get my lunch, I heard my name called out. I looked around wondering if it was me being beckoned and I spied Suzanne sitting with someone behind one of the booths. I walked over and she introduced me to a woman I guessed she too had just met. Her name was Sharon and I was told the two of them were just talking about me when Suzanne spotted me. We talked for only a moment before Bucky came and got Suzanne. They headed off but I stayed.
Sharon and I ended up talking for over an hour and the conversation became one of the most memorable of the visit. She explained that until a decade ago she was a lawyer living in Berkley and working in San Francisco. Years of the high-pressure occupation had worn on her to the point she was physically unhealthy. On a whim, she decided to move where her family was from, knowing no one. Sharon bought an old home in a little town called Chesterfield about fifteen minutes from Cheraw and at best a quarter of the size. The move changed her life; she was much happier, and eventually even her daughter, a bay area native, moved in with her. I found her story extremely intriguing and couldn’t help but ask a million questions.
Of course, I wanted to know what it was like going from the Bay to the small-town-south. Just as I was finding on my travels, she told me people were the same and just had different views formed by different experiences. I asked what she thought about race relations, and the regions desire to hold on to the confederate heritage in spite of what it represented. She explained that whites in the area, who related with or revered the South’s confederate past, often didn’t do so because its ties to slavery, and in fact many had black family members. Her theory was that family ran deep in the South, and for many it was having a grandpa or great-grandpa who fought for the Confederacy that was the real source confederate pride. I didn’t fully buy nor dismiss it, I had seen that family was an important part of the south so I imagined it had some validity. It also wasn’t lost on me that like Felicia and Sarah, she too brought up white families with distant black relatives they kept relations with. It was obviously common in the region but something I didn’t hear of when I was in Darien, Georgia, although I’m sure it occurred. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a logical reason for it being more commonplace in that part of the South. She really played a part in helping me piece together what I was experiencing in the south, but my stomach began to remind me of what I was doing before I was called over by Suzanne. We exchanged information and I continued my search for lunch.
At the far end of festival, near the community center, I found the heart of the event. Piled together were the typical food booths with corndogs, cotton candy, burgers, funnel cakes, etc., but nothing that I wanted. There was an empty stage set up with bleachers, a little pen with pony rides, and inside the community center, people were selling arts and crafts. About a block down, I found a stand that caught my stomach and I ordered a chopped barbeque plate with baked beans, coleslaw, a bun, and a fresh squeezed lemonade for ten dollars flat. It was prepared quickly and the gentleman cooking told me to come back and tell him how I liked it. Like a child with a gift, I searched for a shaded spot where I could sit down, open my little white Styrofoam box, and see what awaited me. The pork was flavorful, imbued with a bit of smokiness, and sauced lightly so I could still taste the meat. The coleslaw had a kick, perhaps from the addition of horseradish, and I washed it all down with the fresh made lemonade. When I was done devouring my meal, I went right back to the stand to tell the man how much I enjoyed it. He shook my hand and thanked me for retuning. With my hunger alleviated, I explored the festival more.
Later in the afternoon, they had another reenactment by the river and I drove down to check it out. The mock battle took place at the base of a small hill and when I arrived, I found spectators already camped. The place filled up with families, which included very small children and babies. There were cannons set up on both ends of the battlefield and just around two the first blast sounded to my surprise. The cannons were extremely loud and jarring, I was surprised someone would bring their children. After a couple rounds of the cannon fire, they began the shooting. Of course, in this battle the confederates won, pushing the union troops back after a small skirmish. It was fun to watch and I thought that if I came across another reenactment on my travels that I would check it out.
When it ended, I felt festivaled-out and decided to look into some other activities. First, I headed to the store to do some shopping for the night. After that, I thought I would go and visit Chesterfield since it was on my mind after talking with Sharon. It was a quick drive and when I got there the town was barren. I guessed it was either because everyone was in Cheraw, or it was just a typical Saturday afternoon. Either way I really enjoyed having the place to myself, and it was a welcomed peace after being around the bustling festival. I walked the few blocks up and down the main street reading whatever historical plaques they had posted. Chesterfield’s claim to fame is that it was where they made the first call for succession in South Carolina. Sherman also marched through there, though he was not so generous as with other places, and burned parts of the town.
I returned to Cheraw for one more walk through the festival to see how things were going. One thing I thought interesting was how if it were in Wisconsin, or even California, there would be a beer tent somewhere, but not in Cheraw. I thought the south needed to loosen up a bit. It was later in the day and I recognized that the crowd was a lot younger and now black residents outnumbered the white dramatically, the reverse was true earlier. The vibe hadn’t changed but many of the food vendors were either packing up or already gone for the day. I walked to the community center to see some live music. The band was an all black band but the bleachers were a racial mix. I noticed a true intermingling of people and on each of the five grandstand benches, white and black people sat together without any sense of division. At one point an old white man, or at least very light skinned, got out and started dancing with his wife, really getting down, and the crowd clapped and cheered. I had an epiphany, reflecting on what I was seeing, and all I had taken in over my time in Cheraw, I thought that in spite of the pride for the “old south” that much of the white population still held, the region was more integrated than much of the north. I wondered if there would be a festival like this where I grew up in Wisconsin, one inclusive of both the black and white populations but without problems. I didn’t think it was likely. As I sat there, listening to the music, and letting these thoughts run through my mind, I recognized that this was exactly what I wanted from my project; exposure to new ideas, views, and experiences that better let me know the country I called home.
Before leaving Cheraw I headed to the Downtown Restaurant for a beer and to say goodbye to Devin. I got in just after they opened but people were already there. It talked with two couples, telling them about the project and getting advice on where I should visit in North Carolina, my next destination. They left and Devin and I chatted. I told him I was leaving and we exchanged social media info. That night South Carolina was playing Gonzaga in a final four game and of course, it was the focus of people in town. I watched most of the first half and decided to go.
On the way back to the campground, I stopped first at the local IGA supermarket to get something for dinner, then made another stop into the Sandtrap to finish watching the game. It didn’t turn out so well for South Carolina, losing to Gonzaga by only four, but I thought it was a great experience anyways. After the game, I returned to the campground where I had a quiet night reading, writing, and planning where I would go the following morning. I eventually called it a night and laid in my tent retracing my time in Cheraw.
The next morning I woke, and although I was heading out of town, I wasn’t in a rush. I had my coffee, breakfast, and stopped to say goodbye to Suzanne and Bucky. I finally packed up with the plan of heading to Colombia, SC and then back towards the coast. As I left the campground, I began to think about what I was leaving behind. Cheraw was one of the most gorgeous, yet saddest towns I had visited. The disparity of wealth, the division from one block to the next, made me feel more like I was in a major city, yet Cheraw had all the small town charm. I wanted to resent those who still thought it was the “prettiest town in dixie”, holding on to confederate pride, but as I was driving out that day it wasn’t resentment as much as curiosity that I felt. I experienced yet another side of the South, and instead of solidifying my convictions, it made things greyer than ever. I didn’t leave Cheraw that day thinking I would miss it, or that it was one of my favorites, but I knew that what I learned from my visit would influence me as I continued to explore other parts of the country. I was glad for the experience, the people I met, and that the project was providing me with the insight I was seeking from it.