How a Reconstruction president got his own road in the South

Laurens, S.C., is a typical small Southern town. Its mills are closed, the Columbia, Newberry and Laurens Railroad is now part of a major transportation company and the last bank with its headquarters in the community relocated nearly a decade ago.

But there’s no denying its history. Even though it has a population of around 9,000, the town can claim two South Carolina governors, a U.S. Senator and a U.S. Secretary of the Navy. It also produced at least two Confederate congressmen and several signers of the S.C. Ordinance of Secession.

That latter bit is what makes the sign on a main street heading into town rather striking: “President Andrew Johnson Memorial Highway”.

Johnson, of course, served as the 17th president of the United States. Of particular note to denizens of Laurens and other Southerners, he was president during the first part of Reconstruction (1865-69), when Radical Republicans in Congress did their best to stick it to the South for the War Between the States.

At first glance, naming a road in the heart of South Carolina after a Reconstruction president seems akin to, oh, labeling the section of road between the German cities of Stuttgart and Munich the “Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau Memorial Autobahn”.

It should be noted that Johnson was by no means aligned with the Radical Republicans. He favored quick restoration of the seceded states to the Union. Unfortunately, his plans did not give protection to former slaves. He went so far as to veto the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave citizenship to former slaves, and got crosswise with the Republican-dominated Congress.

Andrew Johnson, with a face only a mother, but not a prospective mother-in-law, could love.

He was impeached by the House of Representatives and escaped conviction and removal from office by a single vote in the Senate. Without Congressional support, he accomplished little during his four years in office.

So why does Johnson, generally considered one of the worst, if not the worst president in U.S. history, and the man in charge of the Federal government directly after it defeated the Southern Confederacy, have a highway named for him in the South Carolina Upstate?

It turns out that Johnson, a native of North Carolina, operated a tailor shop in Laurens in the mid-1820s. He even courted a local “blue-eyed beauty,” a lass named Sarah Ward.

Johnson wanted to marry Ward, but according to legend, Ward’s widowed mother didn’t think a tailor was suitable for her daughter and nixed the match.

Once Johnson realized he had no chance of winning Ward’s hand, he returned first to Raleigh, N.C., where he’d been born, then moved west to Tennessee.

It was in Tennessee that he would eventually serve in the U.S. House, U.S. Senate and as governor before becoming Abraham Lincoln’s vice president for six weeks, until Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, thrusting Johnson into the presidency.

A resolution designating a stretch of road through Laurens as the “President Andrew Johnson Memorial Highway,” recognizing both his time in the town and his service to the people of the United States, was passed by the S.C. General Assembly in 2000.

Alas, I was unable to find any roads named for the widow Ward or any of her kin during my time in Laurens.

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Graniteville, S.C.: The original Southern mill town

You wouldn’t know it driving through the dusty streets of Graniteville, S.C., but the small community was at one time a cutting-edge region for economic development.

Today, the unincorporated area has a population of about 2,500 individuals, down sharply from a half century ago. For 150 years, Graniteville, about 10 miles east of Augusta, Ga., was a textile center. It was, in fact, the original Southern mill village, beginning in the mid-1840s.

Graniteville’s place as a textile hub was finally done in by the movement of jobs to foreign countries and a tragic train accident in 2005 in which poisonous chlorine gas was released following a collision, killing nine residents and injuring another 250.

While area does have a tire plant, there’s definitely a feeling Graniteville’s best days are behind it. Yet there remains plenty of interest in the hamlet.

Among the appealing features of Graniteville are more than two dozen original mill houses, built in the late 1840s.

The Gothic Revival wood-frame homes, survivors of 100 built more than a decade before the War Between the States, are considerably more stylish than the clapboard mill houses familiar throughout many Southern cities and towns.

The homes feature Gothic vertical board-and-batten siding with a steeply-pitched front gables. They were built with decorative scalloped barge boards, which can still be seen on many of the remaining houses.

Shuttered mill in Graniteville, S.C.

Graniteville was the work of William Gregg (1800-67), an orphan who parlayed a successful career as a jeweler into a textile fortune.

Gregg had been a part owner of a cotton mill in Edgefield District in the mid-1830s, one of several mills that existed in the state at this time. But these ventures tended to be undercapitalized and prone to failure.

Gregg decided to embark on a serious study of the industry, venturing north in 1844 to inspect textile mills in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. Gregg’s travels convinced him that with proper planning and supervision textile production could be managed successfully in the Palmetto State, according to research done by Lisa Pfueller Davidson for the National Park Service.

Gregg understood the state was “wasting its potential by shipping raw cotton to the North and buying back finished goods at exorbitant prices,” according to Davidson, who added that Gregg believed that viable textile mills in the state would diversify the state’s cotton-reliant economy and provide jobs for poor whites.

Between 1845 and 1849 Gregg supervised the construction of a mile-long power canal, a mill building and a schoolhouse, in addition to the mill houses.

The mill was furnished with state-of-the-art technology for spinning and weaving, and went into operation in 1849. The financial success of the enterprise prompted the development of other, similar mills elsewhere in the South.

While Graniteville’s mills went into decline as jobs began shifting overseas in the 1980s and ‘90s, the final nail in the coffin came after the operation was acquired by Avondale Mills in 1996, when a Norfolk Southern train carrying chlorine gas, sodium hydroxide and cresol went through a misaligned switch, then collided with a second, parked train.

Several of the cars derailed and one carrying chlorine gas ruptured, releasing about 60 tons of the gas. Of the nine people killed as a result of collision, six were Avondale employees.

The following year, Avondale’s CEO announced his company was ceasing operation, closing mills across four states. He cited the crash as the primary reason for the company’s failure.

It proved a sad ending to a long, remarkable run for the Graniteville operation.

Still, it’s impressive to consider that the mill William Gregg started before the California Gold Rush survived into the 21st century, providing jobs and textiles for more than 160 years.

(Top: One of few remaining original houses built for mill workers around 1850.)

Florida fisherman hooks, lands jumbo grouper

Spend any time talking salt water fishing and you quickly become aware of the “big ‘uns,” those deep-water behemoths that are the stuff of legends but almost never end up on the end of your line.

Earlier this month Brandon Lee Van Horn of Panama City, Fla., was finally able to stop dreaming and start bragging.

The longtime commercial fisherman, who began fishing on his grandfather’s charter boat at age 8, landed a 330-pound Warsaw grouper on Oct. 1. He caught the monster in 375 feet of water after a 25-minute fight to bring it to the surface.

“You have no idea how much that fish means to me,” he told the Panama City News Herald. “I will probably never catch another one that big ever again.”

Van Horn, who fishes for a “little bit of everything,” mostly seeks out smaller species like vermillion snapper. Bigger fish such as Warsaw groupers can be difficult to land because they often break off or straighten out hooks once they’ve taken the bait, he told the paper.

Warsaw groupers are among the biggest fish found in the Gulf of Mexico, growing up to eight feet in length and nearly 600 pounds. Van Horn missed the Florida state record by more than 100 pounds, to a 436-pound giant caught in 1985 off Destin, but he was still pretty pleased with his day.

“I will probably never, ever catch one in my life this big ever again,” he said. “Definitely a fish of a lifetime.”

(Top: Brandon Lee Van Horn shows off his 330-pound Warsaw grouper in Panama City, Fla.)