Three Days in Florence, South Carolina

Florence, South Carolina is a conundrum.

I came upon it entirely accidentally. After leaving Baltimore, I passed through Virginia Beach and Fredericksburg on my way to Orlando to see friends. I woke up early in the morning at a truck stop in Dillon, SC (just past South of the Border), got some coffee and headed south. (If this were a novel, this entry would be called a flashback. But it’s a blog, so I guess it’s just called talking about something that already happened.)

I had a ton of work to do, so checked Google Maps for nearby libraries and saw one not too far away with all 5 star reviews.

florence SC library

I pulled off the interstate and towards town and was immediately suspicious that a 5 star library could possibly be nearby. (Oh Google Maps, you keep burning me, and I keep coming back.) The road to Florence is paved with, well, some empty fields mostly. As you get to the town itself, you see the familiar signposts of a lot of small towns in America: empty buildings, for sale signs.

downtown florence sc

I kept driving. Hope springs eternal and all that. And then out of nowhere, like a mirage in the desert: the library.

Seriously. I hung out for a while until I needed more caffeine so I checked Yelp, which pointed me at a coffee shop right down the road. I drove back towards empty buildings and a desolate downtown and came upon this auditorium: florence auditorium Where did that come from? I hung out at the homey Clay Pot coffee shop and had some tomato pie. clay pot florence sc As I was leaving, I saw this poster on the door, for a concert at that crazy beautiful auditorium: 2014-09-25 14.09.55Well. You may not know this about me, but I’m an Amy Grant fan from way back. A close reader of this blog may recall that my very first concert was way back in 1980: Amy Grant at the Mabee Center in Tulsa, OK. I have seen her in concert many times since then, the most recent being just last year at the Greek Ampitheatre in Los Angeles with my sister (who I went with to the first one) and my niece (who was seriously not born in 1980). And this concert was only two days away. So what do you think I did next? Obviously I walked right across the street and bought a ticket. amy grant florence sc The woman working the box office told me that it was a great venue for concerts. “It’s really too bad you don’t live here”, she told me. So now I had two more days in Florence, South Carolina. I found an RV park just outside of town with a duck pond. florence rv park That night, I checked out the local fancy hotel with fancy bar and restaurant. It was a hip hotel you might see in any cool downtown. Except Florence’s downtown looks like this: florence sc downtownYet in between the abandoned buildings are lovely, peaceful, park-like areas, like this: florence sc The next day, I hung out at the library again, then decided to check out another coffee shop: Lula’s. Clay Pot has the cute cafe vibe, whereas Lulu’s is all hipster love. After I’d been there a while, a couple of people came in with guitar cases. Cool, live entertainment later. But then some more people came in with guitar cases. Pretty soon I realized the place was jam packed full of people will guitar cases.

Open mic night. A couple of things about open mic night in Florence, South Carolina: everyone plays guitar. Everyone is exceptionally good. 70% sing gospel music. 100% of the audience knows every word to said gospel music. And 150% of the audience is completely supportive of absolutely everyone on stage. I only heard more singing along and clapping and yelling and whistling and encouraging shouts at, well, maybe no where. You can hear a little bit of it here:

Lula’s Florence Open Mic

At first, I was thinking, oh wait, is this a Christian mic night? But then I remembered what it was like to go to high school in Oklahoma. This was just regular southern small town open mic night. I heard gospel sure, but also some pop stuff, country, Christian rap, the usual.

Then, concert day! Fresh off open mic night, I wandered over to the downtown Friday night street concert. The street (the one surrounded by abandoned buildings) was full of people. 

Free concert! A photo posted by vanessajfox (@vanessajfox) on

I hung out for a while until it was time for my own concert.

Amy Grant concert

So what is the deal, Florence? What’s with your fancy library and your fresh faced young people singing gospel music and your hipster hotel remade from an old timey bank and your abandoned buildings and your large police presence?

Oh, did I forget to mention the large police presence? Once I started looking, they were everywhere.

florence police

I did some online town stalking, as you do.

First, I came upon this news: on Thursday night (not long after I left the singing, fresh faced teenagers in their organic , commune-like coffee shop, five people were shot in a drug deal gone bad two miles down the road.

Wikipedia put the puzzle pieces together.

“The city of Florence has recently undertaken a massive redevelopment of Downtown Florence… The historic downtown district running from the central business district toward the McLeod Medical Center, features a number of historic buildings that have been rehabilitated. The redevelopment started with the $18 million Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation Library [Editor’s Note: The Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation seems to be behind most of the investments in refurbishing Florence. But just who Drs. Bruce and Lee are, where they got all that money, and why they love Florence so much are questions I could not find answers to.], and today now has the new Florence Little Theater, some 60 new apartments and the Francis Marion University Performing Arts Center which opened in September 2011… New office space has emerged from once abandoned buildings, and a police substation was added on once crime ridden Dargan Street.”

The police substation, yes (it’s right on the corner with the hipster hotel and the homey coffee shop and the tea house and the Friday night street concert). The office space emerging from once abandoned buildings? That might be a little aspirational.

Actually, quite a lot of the Wikipedia entry seems aspirational, like perhaps it was written as part of the redevelopment effort, perhaps by someone on the redevelopment committee. Portions just seem, oh, a bit optimistic:

“As of 2013, the city retains its status as a major hub, both for industry and infrastructure, while establishing itself as a regional center for business, medicine, culture and finance… Florence has blossomed into a strong center for medical care…”

And maybe a little reaching:

“Florence has benefited being located at the intersection of I-95 and I-20, approximately halfway between New York City and Miami, Florida…. his has allowed Florence to remain competitive and bringing in and sustaining major manufacturers.”

Look, I have an English degree too. I certainly admire crafty use of language.

The entry tells the tale of our world, the tragedy and triumph of our modern age:

“Special efforts are being aimed at the downtown area, which was once the center of the city’s activity but remains dormant after retailers and shoppers left for suburban malls.”

The section on crime is a study in contrasts, in contradiction, a microcosm of the town itself:

“In 2006 FBI crime statistics ranked Florence fifth in the nation in violent crimes amongst 350 metropolitan statistical areas. The city also ranked fifth in the nation in 2005 and first among comparable American cities. At the time, Florence police chief Anson Shells attributed much of the violence to gang activity, and said that “[e]very city, especially metro areas, suffer from violent crime. I’ve never considered the Florence area to be a particularly violent area. I consider this to be a very safe area.” In his 2012 state of the city address, Florence mayor Stephen Wukela stated that in November 2008 the crime rate in the city “was one of the highest in the country.”

Not surprisingly, the article about the Ku Klux Klan enclave there in the 1950s is relegated to a footnote.

Florence is slightly larger than Hudson, OH (around 30,000 vs. 20,000 people), but about 20% of the population is living below the poverty line there vs. less than 2% in Hudson. The median household income is a bit different too: $35k compared to Hudson’s nearly $113k (unrelated tangent: in Hudson, the median income for males is $87k compared to $38k for females). You remember Hudson? No downtown revitalization efforts, just a magical, movie set of small town America.

What causes such a difference? History? Proximity to larger cities? Nearby opportunities? I dunno.

As it happens, I’m back in Hudson right now. It’s still pretty magical. I started having brake problems again as I was driving west from New York and figured Hudson wouldn’t be a bad place to be stranded for a while, if in fact I needed to be stranded. Turns out, I didn’t. The Chevy dealership fit me in despite having a booked schedule, gave me a ride to the library, fixed everything up in a couple of hours, and then came and picked me up.

Someone who knows me from the internet saw I was in town and hung out with me and bought me dinner. I had fast wifi all day and a peaceful place to work from.

But Florence was pretty awesome too. It also has a great library and hip coffee shops. Plus overflowing talent at open mic night and free outdoor concerts. And Hudson doesn’t even have a cutesy hotel or a beautiful auditorium, as far as I can tell.

So visit Florence. And visit Hudson. And experience the wonderment of the vastness and contrasts of America.

Sandusky, Ohio: The Town With the Non-Unique Boy And a Boot

I’ve never been to Sandusky, Ohio. I’ve never been to Ohio at all. But I’ve been hearing about Sandusky all my life. Sandusky was my grandma’s home town. My grandpa was stationed near there before shipping out to World War II and that’s where he met my grandma. They got married there, in her family’s Catholic Church.

I never knew Cedar Point, the amusement park, was something anyone else knew about but me. I envisioned it as a tiny boardwalk that my grandma would go to as a kid. Even now when someone mentions Cedar Point, I think, how do you know about that place? Did you hear my grandma’s childhood stories too?

I got to Sandusky by way of Hannibal, Missouri, and Chicago, and the RV Hall of Fame and Museum in Indiana, stories for another time.

I found an RV park just outside of town and pulled in without warning, as I generally do.  As is often the case, I was a novelty to the staff: a girl by myself, not even any pets, no reservation, in a funny little Roadtrek. A big class A pulled in at the same time, also from Washington state. They were relieved to finally get there, as a bridge was out and they had a hard time following the detour signs.

They joined in the wonderment of my situation.

A spot was found and no sooner had I pulled in that I pulled back out again, followed the detour route, and headed to downtown Sandusky.

I had a burger and a beer right on Lake Erie at the Sandusky boat ramp. Sometimes, you can overnight for free at boat ramps, which I’m assuming is what the permit would be for?

I drove to my grandma’s childhood home and then walked over to the Holy Angels Catholic church right around the corner. My grandparents got married here in 1946.

It was closed. What? Aren’t Catholic churches open all the time, in case you need to escape from vampires or a safe refuge from being tracked down by a secret branch of the government for a crime you didn’t commit? Hollywood has tricked me yet again.

But maybe not with the small town America stuff.

As I drove towards the beautiful town square and the beautiful brick buildings, right on Lake Erie, I thought: the small town of the movies really does exist.

I had gotten there just in time for Cruisin’ By The Bay, the big annual car show. My grandpa would have loved it.

Cruisin By The Bay Sandusky

My sister told me to track down the boy with the boot. What boy with the boot? I found him in the town square. A town square, by the way, which puts every town square in America to shame. First, there’s this:

Sandusky OH town square

Does someone fashion flowers with today’s date every day? (Apparently yes.)

And here’s the boy with the boot:

Sandusky OH town square

I read that he was a replica of the real boy with a boot, who was encased in glass in the county courthouse. So off I went.

So he’s the official symbol of Sandusky, but why? Neither the plaque nor the official decree explained.

Roadside America (an awesome site, with an even awesomer phone app, which I first learned about from my awesome friend Kieca) notes that lots of towns have boys with boots, all for apparently unknown reasons. It also notes that some of them take the statues in for the winter. The downtown Sandusky statue’s plaque noted the same! (The version of the Sandusky statue origin story recounted on the Wikipedia page is debunked by Roadside America, and if we can’t trust Wikipedia about the boy with the boot statue, what can we really believe in this crazy, mixed up world?)

But wait, what? The official symbol of Sandusky is not unique to Sandusky? There are at least 24 and perhaps hundreds of others of towns with the same symbol? (Apparently one is even in Seattle?!) Yeah, that was news to Sandusky as recently as 2013. Just look at this sad headline from the Sandusky Register:

Boy With the Boot

The article notes that the supposed German immigrant turned successful Sandusky businessman, who presumably had returned to his home country to bring back this unique statue, was actually born in the United States (and likely had never set foot in Germany) and had ordered the statue from a New York catalog as a kind of marketing display for his hotel. He created a local park with several statues, including “this little boy, cast from zinc, was in the center of a fountain, surrounded by statues of Venus and of dolphins.”

And wouldn’t that have been a site to see.

Tenkiller Lake: A Study in Mud Dauber Avoidance

I don’t remember it being this hot, but I remember being this sticky. I’m drenched the minute I walk outside. I watch the water skiers and the speed boats and the jet skis. I can almost taste the cheap 3.2 beer.

I was last here, at Cherokee Landing at Tenkiller Lake, just outside of Tahlequah, Oklahoma (capitol of the Cherokee Nation), the summer after my junior year of high school. The summer after my sophomore year, my friends and I worked at a fireworks stand just outside the convenience store here:

fireworks

(That’s me in the shadows, far right. My grandma is in front.)

Four of us worked there, so we’d trade off working the stand and drinking beer at the lake.

Illinois RiverI could have also picked a campground at the Illinois River. It’s funny how you forget things and then something reminds you and it all comes rushing back. The Tulsa hairdresser intent on making me blonde mentioned she’d been to Tahlequah the previous weekend to “float the river”. Ah yes. Floating the river. It all came back. Ice coolers of beer floating with you. Just floating. All day long.

She also mentioned how if you float the river, you have to expect that everyone around you is going to be loud and rowdy. Ah yes. I remembered that too.  Maybe the river wouldn’t be the best peaceful spot for me to camp out.

This other photo, by the way, is my sister and me floating the river in a canoe (you can also make the trip via inner tube). This was a tamer trip, with my parents and grandparents. Yes I have a perm. Everyone had a perm. Everyone.

So I’m here. At Cherokee Landing. It wasn’t even on purpose. I was driving towards an RV park and drove right by the stop where the fireworks stand used to be. I backed up and drove down towards the lake. It was peaceful and pretty and quiet, so I decided to stay.

Tenkiller Lake

I pulled up to the ranger station. He told me to just pick a spot and they’d come by eventually to collect payment. (Which they did, two nights later with a loud knock on my door in the dark. A ranger in his 60s was standing there. I was not happy. “You don’t do this at night. You come by during the day. I’m a woman alone and I don’t open my door to strangers in the dark!” He was startled. “And you shouldn’t! I wouldn’t either!”.)

It’s beautiful, sure. But here’s the problem. Mud daubers. For those not familiar, mud daubers are big black wasps that build nests out of mud. And they’re part of nature in this part of Oklahoma. They’re not aggressive and generally won’t sting you, although Wikipedia, after calmly explaining how non-dangerous they are, casually drops in that they’ve caused several plane crashes that have killed everyone on board (one with 189 people). Wait, what? Now I have to be afraid of that too?

Anyway, my immediate concern is not flying. It’s showering.

The bathroom is where the nests are. And I really can’t step foot in the building with the swooping, buzzing wasps, much less shower in there.

Which is awesome because finally I have a chance to check out my RV shower!

The first step is to get hot water. The way this works is I press the “on” toggle for the hot water heater. The pilot light ignites itself, the propane kicks in, and in about 15 minutes — like magic — hot water!

Next, I turn my hallway into a shower. I do this by removing a panel from the floor to expose the drain, opening the bathroom door, then pulling the shower curtain around the track.

I had read some reports of water getting everywhere, but that’s not my experience. The water stays in the shower area, the pressure is great, and it’s as fine a shower as I’ve taken so far!

Another achievement unlocked!

I take a walk while I enjoy my morning coffee, before opening my laptop for another day of work.

cherokee landing campground

The Quest To Find Lunch

It’s easy to forget how big the United States is, and how different it can be from town to town. When you’ve lived on one of the coasts for a while, your city can sometimes trick you into thinking all cities are alike, even when they’re not really cities at all. Or, if you think the some parts of the country might be different, you have this picture from a country song, all dirt roads for driving trucks down on a moonlit Saturday night, home style BBQ, a local bar.

Sometimes places can surprise you. Black Hawk, Colorado’s Mountain Mocha Coffee Company. Home roasted coffee and wifi in a town of 118 people. Hoxie, Kansas.

Then there’s Jennings, OK.

I got to Jennings in early afternoon. It’s about 30 miles east of Stillwater, just north of Mannford, which maybe you haven’t heard of.

The population of Jennings is 363 people, a booming metropolis compared to Black Hawk, CO. Or at least one would think.  According to Yelp, Jennings has one cafe. I drove down the main street (also known as the only street). The cafe was closed. Its Facebook page tells the story.

Excitement when they opened in late 2013. A menu. Free wifi on June 1! And then June 11:

J Cafe Jennings

The rest of the street didn’t look any more promising.

Jennings OK

We moved to Jennings when I was in the second grade. The school had three classrooms and three teachers for grades 1-6, so two grades doubled up in each room. It was like the 1970s version of the 1800s one room school house.

My classroom was set up like a split screen: first graders on one side of the room and second graders on the other side. The teacher would get one side started on something, then switch to the other side, like spinning plates only with little kids and paste.

As an overachiever, I had really rocked first grade, so I ended up spending a lot of my time helping out on first grade side while the teacher was occupied with the second graders.

There’s an entirely new elementary school there now. I don’t know why I expected the old school to be there. In addition to having half as many rooms as it needed to have,  my stepsister  and her classmates in the third/fourth grade room had to wear their coats and gloves while in class in the winter because of the unpatched holes in the walls and floor.

I think every grade has its own room (and teacher now too), from what I can tell from the school web site. Where I also discovered that about 80% of students get a subsidized lunch. All I remember about those lunches is the canned beets that would bleed into my mashed potatoes, ruining the whole thing. And if you know me, you know that’s a mashed potato tragedy.

I drove out of town a couple of miles, passed our old house. The garage my parents built was still in front.

And then I swung over to Mannford, that town you’d never heard of. For third grade, I went to school there, at the school at our church. I was thinking I might have lunch there, since the J Cafe didn’t work out. According to Yelp, my only 5 star option was Sonic Drive In.

Another choice was Freddie’s Steak House, about which a Yelp reviewer said:

“I’m shocked that this place has any decent reviews at all. It so old, run down, and horribly ran that I don’t see how they’re in business. I would avoid eating or drinking anything in this establishment considering it’s not at all clean. Not to mention, they have a dog that hangs out in the kitchen and I personally saw a dead deer carcass in their walk in while I was living in mannford. If you don’t mind the high risk of food poisoning every time you walk through the door then by all means become a regular at this place, but I wouldn’t personally put the food in my body. Also, one of the only bars I’ve ever been in that doesn’t cover their bottles of liquor at close every night. There’s no telling what kind of dead bugs are getting mixed into their beverages.”

So that was kind of disturbing.

Although having lived in lot of places where people are seriously into hunting, it doesn’t seem all that unreasonable that someone thought it was a good idea to store the deer from their latest hunting trip in the walk in.

Another reviewer wasn’t as concerned about the food: “The food is bland and unorginal yet it  truly shines compared to the detestable service. ”

Or, I could go to Jones Family Diner, for which the reviews mostly talk about food poisoning. Also, this didn’t sound great: “I don’t think they’ve cleaned their fryers in a while because we got some nasty fried globs of “something” in with the tater tots, which, BTW, were not crunchy.”

I’ll give you one guess where I had lunch.