The Spirit of 76

Your starting point, the N.C. state line. Begin here and follow Highway 76 through rural South Carolina.

A Summer Road Trip Across S.C.,

Part One: From Spring Branch to Mayesville

Summer means road trips. Here’s a guide to crossing South Carolina in three drives.

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, N.C., to Chattanooga, Tenn.

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.

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.

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 bomber, 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.

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.

Next week: Part Two — From Sumter to Prosperity

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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