Sumter to Prosperity

The old train depot in Prosperity, one of the many relics along Highway 76 as it winds through South Carolina.

A Summer Road Trip Across SC, Part Two of a Three-Part Guide to Crisscrossing South Carolina

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 a time when small farms sustained this country. Just beyond Prosperity’s old train depot sits the town square. There, too, sits 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 an animal’s temperament, farmers walked it around the public square before buying it.

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.

Next week: Part Three — From Joanna To the Chattooga

Learn more about Tom Poland, a Southern writer, and his work at www.tompoland.net. Email day-trip ideas to him at [email protected]

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