The South’s culture memorializes the past in a plethora of ways, among them naming public sites for people and maintaining historic graveyards for visitors. Well-known for its mythic attitude toward the past, the South is today undergoing a change in how our narratives are constituted and shared, and by whom. In this essay, we find a story of one writer’s visit to a rural location, where her experiences are based around a lake named for a segregationist, a renewed memorial to a slave, and a small town’s efforts to maintain its heritage.
Melding in McCormick
by Pilar DiPietro
Although I consider myself to be perceptive and vaguely intuitive, I never considered myself a vessel for paranormal activity until it stared back at me from the lodge mirror. On the morning after Martin Luther King Day, 2020, on the shores of Strom Thurmond Lake, Daddy Tom’s 85-year-old face challenged my sanity.
The drive to McCormick, South Carolina was a pleasant one. Although, as is my tendency when not using a map app, I misjudged a turn, happily found myself on an alternate correct route that skirted the Sumter National Forest. Bill, my new beau, and I arrived to the small town only an hour later than planned. A badge of courage should be awarded to the stout soul who travels with a woman who drops herself into a town, or on to any given road for that matter, fully expecting to magically find the right direction.
Maybe the sheer number of buzzard wakes that I sped past on Route 49, or the many old, white homes, crumbling and folding into themselves, left abandoned by their owners, should have been precursors to our visit to the cotton mill town. But on this Monday morning in January, the only things I was aware of were the fans of peeking rays that reflected off the windshield, the dulcet tones of my new lover’s voice, and the rocky, worn, potholed roads that evidently hadn’t seen tax money in quite some time. Bill pointed out the expanses of logged land that no one cared to reseed. We both commented on the great dugouts that recent heavy rains had made on the land. Bill likened these deep rivulets to skidder trails. Little did I know that I was to become the ultimate outsider here in my own home state.
The grounds of the Hickory Knob State Resort Park offered a splendid entrance. The mile’s worth of driveway crossed streams, gave glimpses of barns and clubhouses, and overlooked and wound past golf greens and sand traps. The registration and recreation building, with its plush, overstuffed couches, pool table, and widescreen TV, seemed inviting. When we crossed the polished wood floors of the game room, however, we were still two hours early for check-in. And even though there were no other lodgers in sight, and in fact no other human stayed in the lodges during our Monday and Tuesday visit, we were denied an early check-in. Apparently, a large conference had vacated the grounds the day prior, and evidently our room had not been cleaned. But now Hickory Knob seemed deserted. On the face of it the park’s surroundings were welcoming, but ultimately the place-soul of McCormick and Thurmond Lake was camouflaged behind a façade, a thin veneer of something. Southern hospitality, maybe?
When I made our reservation at Hickory Knob, I hadn’t realized that our stay corresponded with Martin Luther King Day. This coincidence was both relevant and serendipitous. Therefore, the manual labor that hummed in the registration building seemed foreign on this particular federal holiday. I made my way to the ladies’ room and noticed Goo Gone cleansers, Zep Grout Cleaner, rags and brushes strewn along the hallway floors and in the bathroom itself. Grout had been bleached and scrubbed. Brass polished. African American women were on their knees, and African American men were running power cords and floor buffers. Was this a holiday in McCormick County?
The inability to check into our room afforded a visit back to town to establish its boundaries. As we crossed over the lake, I noticed its rich brown color, almost a burnt umber, muddied and thick. On this day, Thurmond Lake was sluggish, it plodded rather than flowed, and the sky was slowly clouding over and becoming increasingly grey. Hungry and out of sorts, we arrived at Michelle’s, a local eatery. As it happened, no matter who I asked during our two-day stay for dining recommendations, the answer was always Michelle’s. Indeed, Michelle’s made up 25% of the town’s available restaurants—since I only counted four.
Michelle’s occupied a small building tucked into a side street. Its interior contained a counter, rolling salad bar, several random tables, including a six-top that was occupied at two PM, and a handful of booths. After we settled into our booth, a distinct dialect became discernable and rose above the din of voices. I turned and observed an older woman greeting some patrons heartily, exclaiming how “tow-ell” a boy had grown, and only “fower” years old. Meanwhile, Patience introduced herself as our “waitress,” (no highfalutin’ “server” here), and was back to the table in no time with our drinks. I contemplated the pizza, but was immediately drawn to the “Man Fries.” Bill, a vegetarian, ordered the salad bar. I noticed that the place was fairly full and bustling for this late lunch hour. I was surprised. Moreover, I was delighted when my “half-order” of Man Fries arrived. Patience presented the heaping pile of fries with a certain pride and I dug into the mound of beef, mushrooms, onions, peppers, jalapenos, and cheese with the relish of a child enjoying a first piece of candy. Bill returned from the salad bar with a plate of fresh mixed greens, olives, sunflower seeds, croutons, and cottage cheese. I boxed half my fries up and looked forward to when I’d have stomach- room for the rest. Outside Michelle’s, we paused to take a selfie in front of a McCormick sign before getting into the car, and I promptly drove off with my to-go box on the roof of the Volkswagen. This also should’ve been a clue.
On the handful of miles back to the entrance of Hickory Knob, the sun seemed to take cover behind sweeping clouds from the biting January air. We were finally able to check into our lodge, which was positioned at the end of a rustic structure on stilts, the wooden decking bearing signs of wear under the feet of lodge-stayers. I immediately noticed a stain on the carpet as I opened the door, but thankfully the rest of the room was pleasantly clean and neat. Our lodge room contained double beds, a small table with two chairs, a small flat-screen in the corner, mini fridge and bureau with lamp. A granite vanity area with a sink was spotless, yet cracks at the bottom of the sink were quite noticeable. An adjacent half bath contained a toilet and bathtub. I opened the door to the “lake front” balcony and imagined, had we been placed in another room, that the view of the lake between the tall pines was pleasant. Our room, however, looked out into a cluster of vine-laden scrub trees that blocked the view of the lake entirely. I asked Bill why Hickory Knob would have put us in this room specifically when all the others were vacant, especially after I informed the phone attendant that I was writing an essay about McCormick and would incorporate my stay into the article. He just shrugged.
We decided that there was just enough time before sundown to snoop around the area a little more. Although when we checked in the clerk mentioned several attractions, I paid little attention, preferring to drive around to get a feel for myself. We passed large housing developments named “Tara” and “Savannah Lakes Village,” that boasted private clubs and restaurants. On a whim, I quickly turned to the left and headed down Cemetery Road. We came upon an indicator that read Railroad Trail and turned onto a desolate, dirt road that dead-ended at a small handful of directional signs. I pulled the VW over and we hopped out to get a closer look. To the right was a state attraction notification which alerted us to the fact that where we stood was once the site of “Badwell,” the Pettigrew plantation. One side of the sign gave some facts about James Louis Pettigrew (1789 – 1863), the leader of the opposition to secession, a Charleston lawyer, and South Carolina’s Attorney General. The back indicated that we had stumbled upon a path to the Pettigrew family cemetery. I assumed that somewhere along the line the surname Pettigrew morphed to Pettigru because when I joined Bill at the fork of smaller signs, one pointed to the Pettigru Spring House .01 miles to the right, one to the Railroad Trail straight ahead, and a third to the Alston/Pettigrew Cemetery, .05 miles to the left. We chose to head to the right first to see what the Spring House was all about. Bill informed me that springhouses were used, before refrigeration, to keep foods from spoiling.
The Pettigru Spring House was located down the cart path and off to the right. We followed the springy path, dolloped with fallen pine trees that we climbed over and that I pretended were balance beams. Right away I noticed that neither door nor window hung on the block building. Inside was welled water. It was difficult to tell how deep the water was, but steps led down toward the basin, then disappeared under the surface. A lone, plastic cup floated atop the stillness. I noted the brickwork that made up the inside of the house and Bill commented on the way the building was professionally and soundly structured. After all these years, the expertise of the outside blocking, which was excellently fashioned and pieced together, and the brick-and-mortar interior, which was also masterful, allowed the springhouse to function as built. Beyond the springhouse, there was an overflowing creek that gently kissed and licked the trees surrounding the structure. It was evident that torrential rains had washed through this area so fiercely that they had forged deep, muddied ruts leading to the water’s edge. The clack-clack-clack of what I imagined to be waterfowl sounded through the standing and toppled pines, a dirge-like musical, mourning the death of a house’s usefulness and also a reminder that day’s light was fading fast and to quicken our pace.
The afternoon had turned a pasty gray, the air was chilly and biting as we backtracked toward the family cemetery. The path was little wider than a cart and beside it a large, dead tree stood starkly against the sunless sky. Lake views were visible between the trees. We trod down the dirt drive to nowhere, ending in a circle of non-ness. As we approached the cemetery, I immediately noticed a lone headstone to the right of the family’s walled-in plot. The stone drew me toward it, not only because it stood apart yet not far off from the wall, but because I noticed that heavy rains and erosion had carved an angry trench over the body of the grave and ran all the way to an overflowed and swampy area beyond it. The family proper was protected from running waters and runoff by a finely crafted stone enclosure. Yet, all the headstones inside the wall were old and worn. The bystander, however, was fresher, newish. Cleaner. The grave read:
A faithful servant and honest
Departed this life
The 9th day of February 1857
Born on the place before 1776
A kindly temper a cheerful
Obedience and willingness to work
Concilliated the regard of those
Who treated him in his
Life time, as a friend
And caused when he died
To be buried like a Christian.
I wanted to take a photograph of the headstone. It had evidently been replaced, as the broken pieces of the older marker lay just in front of it. I brought out my phone and saw that I had 39% battery life left as I opened the camera app. I raised the camera to get a good, square shot of the stone and tapped the screen. My phone promptly went black, then a circular cursor began revolving, perhaps thinking about taking the picture. The screen went completely black and the phone cut off. Puzzled, I turned the phone back on and immediately noticed that my battery life was down to 10%. I hoped that it would be enough to take the photo and began to square up the shot again. I pressed the screen, and it shut down. This time, no matter how I coaxed it, it remained black. I asked Bill to take the shot of Daddy Tom’s tombstone with his camera. Fortunately, he was able to take a good photo. I also depended on Bill to take various photos of the cemetery, which contained about thirty headstones of the Allston and Pettigru families. The day had grown dreary and his shots lacked color, yet the starkness uncannily portrayed the feel of this place, in the middle of the woods, at the end of a road to nowhere.
Bill called to me, and I walked toward him up the slope of a small hill of scrappy trees and fallen leaves. He was standing among haphazardly placed stainless steel placards, no larger than greeting cards. The blank signs marked the burial spots of the Pettigru family slaves. No gravestones were visible, and I wondered who took the time to mark all of these spots. Some markers were gathered in pairs, some were cast over the side of the hill, some seemed in bunches. In all, there were probably fifty placards.
My mood was solemn as we headed back to the car. The half-mile walk perpetuated thoughts about the Pettigru family, and my mind wandered, trying to gain an understanding of what I had witnessed. I wondered where the family home might have been situated in relation to the cemetery and the spring house. I questioned just how swollen the creek was, how long the land had been succumbing to the rain’s runoff, and how long it had taken to etch so deeply into the earth. Finally, I wondered about the lives on this place, down this road, at another time in history. I questioned why I was unable to photograph this family, or Daddy Tom’s epitaph. I continued to voice my concerns about the phone as I plugged it into the car charger and it illuminated brightly.
The roads back to Hickory Knob State Park seemed endless, and I marveled at how we stumbled across Badwell’s location at all. No signage indicated its presence from the main road and nothing was left of the estate except the springhouse and cemetery—one end of the path sustained lives, the other commemorated them. Even the tallest trees were toppling and the earth was giving way to the waters that pounded the grounds. Apparently Pettigru’s homestead, once a resting place, a respite from the trials of Charleston life, was itself retreating, in degrees, just beyond budding housing developments.
After a lackadaisical dinner at Theo’s Restaurant and a quick glimpse of the Burt-Stark House in Abbeville, we returned to our lodge at Hickory Knob to settle in for the night. The air was frigid, the temperature low. The wind chewed at my ears, nose, fingers and toes, and howled through the pines on the banks of Thurmond Lake. I cranked the heat up to 67° and the unit responded by noisily chugging warm, dry air into the room. The refrigerator sung a tap-tap-tap into the darkness.
There was no rest for my weary bones on this night, however. The dry heat preyed havoc on my newly reconditioned sinuses, apparently not fully recovered from a balloon sinuplasty and spur removal in November. My nose screamed for a drop of dampness to quench its flaming cavities. My throat blazed. Balls of bloody phlegm formed periodically, requiring expulsion. I moved into the other bed in an attempt to shield Bill from my pain and insomnia. The constant laboring of the radiator spewed merciless, dry heat which forced me to seek cover under the blankets. I arched my neck and placed my nose close to my armpit, praying for just a smidge of humidity. At three AM my face was burning—each cell was screaming. I tossed and turned until about five AM and finally called it quits.
I staggered to the mirror that hung above the cracked sink to squeeze eye drops into the parched, sunken caverns of my sockets. I stretched to full height and gazed into the mirror before lurching backwards. I was aghast by my reflection—an image of a 85-year-old face stared back at me! The skin of the craggy face was divided and splitting, like a dried peach pit. The sags above my eyes were like sand bags and hung over my lashes, pendulous and bulky. The canyons aside my nose and mouth were deep and sunken. The piercing black eyes of a kindly old man stared back at me.
I began to curse and howl in horror, unable to understand what I was seeing or the macabre image that I had become. I ran to Bill and begged him to look at my wrinkled and pitted face. I raged about the dry heat. I shook my fists at the impossibility of it all. Bill raised his sleepy head toward the shadowed light, but he was too drowsy to see me or to understand my hysteria. He dropped back off immediately. My face felt as though it was seized up for battle, the elephant’s skin around my eyes had all but enclosed the orb into a mass of gathered wrinkles. By the time Bill woke at 8:40, my delirium had subsided somewhat and I had already debated how to best iron the river beds of my skin cells. My still-crusty eyelashes, even after a shower, rejected mascara. I rubbed layer upon layer of face cream into the bark of my hide. Finally, the pits seemed to surrender and soften slightly and the deep rivulets blurred and evened out a bit. I begged an answer as to what could have caused such a transformation. A nagging reminder of my phone’s outage blossomed into a comprehension that I had been bestowed a rare gift. Without a doubt, I had personified Daddy Tom.
Yet, the first practical order of my day was to acquire a humidifier. The air outside the room was frigid, the wind stabbing. I could feel my face begin to clench once again as we made our way down to the lake front. My phone showed that it was 27, but the wind chill made it feel much colder. I immediately felt a tingling in my gloved hands and fingers. Bill retreated to the room. The brilliant shimmering of the lake belied an apparent lack of life moving in and around it. I heard a few bird noises and chirps, but the loudest sound was a dainty ping emanating from a bobbing glass bottle caught among the rushes. I followed the runoff paths and slipped often on the slick, fallen long-leaf pine needles. In the lake, pylons surrounded a dock, looking bereft and forgotten. Thick, winding vines offered the only color, aside from some evergreens. Even the sky was murky and drab. As I made my way around the edge of the lake, brambles and stickers lunged at me, grabbing my clothing for either purchase or escape from their roots. While I stood to rest under a cluster of grape vines, a lone wren landed and perched just above me. She cocked her head to the side, clearly bewildered at my presence, and remained for many moments until I broke our spell and turned away.
Strom Thurmond Lake, renamed so in the 1980s from its original title, Clarks Hill Lake, was large, round, and intentionally impressive. As I traipsed around it, the red clay shore was stoic and unmoved by the gentle brown waves that brushed against it. Small bubbles formed, their frothing a burble of reaching waters. The wind was raw and the air lacked humidity. I thought this a strange phenomenon, knowing I was situated on an expanse of water. As I headed back toward the room, I wandered the longest way, past the other lodges and cabins. I noticed that all the toilets and sinks had been pulled out of one building and were lined up against a wall, like an execution or a prisoner line-up. Clearly the porcelain and granite had committed some wrongdoing, perhaps cracked under pressure or split from the lake’s water that flowed through them. I remembered the cracked sink in our own room, but mostly the ancient face and steely eyes above it: one that would’ve been grateful for any modicum of moisture.
When I gathered Bill from the room, my face was still pinched. It was crusty, flaky, and shriveled. Yet, Bill’s was untouched by the dryness. We hopped into the car and motored toward town. Our first stop was the Chamber of Commerce where I learned a bit about the lake, the surrounding area, and was given a packet about the Calhoun Massacre, which I vowed to explore. Bill, meanwhile, wandered next door for a coffee. We visited the Helping Hands Second Hand Store, which seemed to be the hub of the small community. The shopkeeper knew all her patrons who came through by the dozen, in search of some new treasure or another, gossiping about small tidbits. Bill was immediately accosted by a woman who bragged about her recent trip to Italy, placing her hand on the blue, silk scarf that I had draped around his neck. She petted both he and it, while explaining how lovely it would look with her eyes. “Wouldn’t it?”
We headed across the street to the Dorn Mill, a gargantuan brick building, situated next to the railroad tracks and at the center of town. I learned that at the turn of the twentieth century Dorn Mill sustained the community. M.G and J.J Dorn, with their partner Preston Findley, purchased the gin from the McCormick family and combined the mill with a cotton oil extractor, utilizing the railroad tracks for easy train transport to and from outlying towns. The Dorns were among the first to recognize the value of not just the cotton, but the oil that could be extracted from it. The whole of the town’s prosperity lodged at this crossroad. The building itself was inaccessible, but the outside brickwork had been restored to its full majesty after a fire in the 1920s, and stood firm and solid. But the detached depot looked forlorn and the property seemed a husk: a sad, lonely glimpse of a more prosperous past. We made our way along the backside of the mill on the train tracks, like children skipping school, and took photographs in front of a massive mural depicting the mill hovering over cottonfields, a buck jumping over railroad tracks, a lake complete with a canoe and fishing dock, and a marshy waterfall with Carolina blue skies and fluffy clouds above it. I desired to buy a book about McCormick’s history at the local bookstore, one of just a handful of shops that remain downtown, but they had a cash-only policy. We were directed to visit the MACK—the McCormick Arts Council at the Keturah—situated across the tracks in the historic Keturah Hotel, and we wandered over. We viewed the student art exhibit in the downstairs rooms of the old building and perused the giftshop featuring handcrafted items before making our way back to the car in order to venture out of town.
I drove without notating the direction and kept driving for many miles, until I had to find a place to pull over and use the cover of a tree or shrub for nature’s calling. I turned right at a small sign that read Luther Point and headed down the road to investigate, and find a hiding spot. Paved road turned to dirt as I drove toward what I thought may be a dock or landing at the lakeside. My attention was drawn to large, flat, pieces of metal affixed to trees and to stakes in the ground. I took me a moment to recognize that these metal pieces were fashioned in the shape of human torsos. The mannequins were nailed high and low, some in clearings and others in more densely forested places. I noticed what appeared to be a foot path between pines and hardwoods and at first impression thought we may have driven into a Halloween fright trail. I imaged children clutching onto their parents while making their way through the woods. Finally, I tumbled out of the car at a clearing and chose a bush. Directly across from me, nailed to a tree, was a mannequin: just chest, shoulders, and head—a flattened man tacked to a tree. I was squatting in the midst of a shooting gallery. The metal was marred by a smattering of holes in the heart and brain. I decided that this place was not for fun, but meant serious business. I jumped back into the car, feeling incredulous and frightened. I had never witnessed a place where people were trained to shoot others, and it was jarring. I thought it best that we hightail it out of there back toward the safety of the main highway.
Crisscrossing McCormick once again, we headed out on Route 28 toward Long Cane, to view the site of the Long Cane Massacre. During the Cherokee War of 1759 – 1761, a small group of persecuted settlers were overtaken and killed by one hundred Cherokee warriors, leaving twenty-three dead at the site of the settler’s overnight, makeshift camp. As we drove toward the site, I couldn’t help but notice the forgotten and decaying homesteads along the highway, among waving grasses, beneath cloying ivy. Every road I chose seemed to pass neglected and forgotten houses, perhaps containing grim memories or hardships within the walls, fled from rather than restored, a family name dying out between the rotting beams and boards.
At a road sign we turned left, and twisted and turned through a neighborhood, until a smaller sign directed us onto what seemed to be yet another path to nowhere: two deeply carved ruts with a large, grassy hump in the middle. I had to concentrate to prevent my low-lying car from getting stuck. At one point, we came to a fork with no indicating signage, and I inevitably selected the wrong way, which led us along fields for miles. Once we back-tracked and chose the other fork, we finally came upon a small clearing. A new bridge connected two sides of a steep ravine. I could readily imagine a wagon getting stuck between the gap, requiring an overnight stay.
We climbed out of the car, crossed the bridge, and made our way toward the site of the mass grave. I noticed that there was no sound except the wind’s slow rushing and the leafless tree branch’s clacking. There were no bird’s songs or rustling leaves. When we arrived at the five headstones, I perceived a reverberation cutting through the air, a puckering sensation not unlike a vacuum, through the pines. The profound stillness lingered until a high-flying plane broke up the sucking essence of vast nothingness. On the ground, a small, circular scattering of old stones represented the twenty-three souls lost in the massacre. Recently, the descendants of the Calhoun family memorialized this site with a modern stone that sits taller and brighter than the older ones. The stone serves as a reminder that their ancestor was “with 22 others here murdered by the Indians the 1st of February 1760.” The next largest stone represented the Norris family: Mary Winifred Patrick Norris, Eliza Wrentz, Ezekial, William and Sarah. Beside it, the sleepy heads of crocuses were wakening to an early spring. Bill and I placed two pennies that we found in McCormick on the oldest-looking stone, joining a handful of quarters there. Perhaps this family, too, may replace the stone with a newer memorial. We walked hand in hand back across the bridge, melding together in the wake of weary souls that suffered the ultimate price for seeking freedom.
At this point our heavy emotions needed uplifting, so when we happened upon Hamilton Point State Park, I turned in. The beautifully maintained park was indeed shaped like a point and emerald grasses languished on the banks of Strom Thurmond Lake. The park boasted a stunning view that could be enjoyed whether parking, picnicking, or simply sitting. Here, the clouds had cleared, the air was warmer, and the mid-afternoon sunshine reflected off each gently rising wave. Sailboats and small motorboats bobbed in the distance. I realized that in comparison to what I had witnessed as a bystander here in McCormick, my own problems seemed miniscule and vague. Yet, the eyes I had looked through and what I had envisioned loomed large. Slow tears inched down my stinging cheeks. As the brisk breeze cut through my layers, Bill and I turned our gazes from the lake and faced one another. He gently smoothed my softening cheek and leaned in to give me a tender and lasting kiss. On Hamilton Point, I left the past to rest as we each reached deeper toward the other’s living soul.
Pilar DiPietro left retail management after twenty-eight years to earn her MA in Rhetoric and Composition. She graduated in 2019 from Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and her thesis on place-soul and travel writing is available at https://digitalcommons.winthrop.edu/graduatethesis/98. Further work has been published in Smokelong Quarterly and in South Carolina Bards Poetry Anthology 2021. She has recently completed her first book of literary travelogues Former Glory: Twelve South Carolina Travelogues and has begun her second volume discovering North Carolina.
Lesson Plan: NH-MSF-Lesson-Plan Personal Essay Epiphany