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.

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.)

Flea Bite Creek – short on fleas, big on other critters

Even in an area where the streams and bodies of water have names such as Squirrel Creek, Four Hole Swamp and Smoke Pond, the name Flea Bite Creek stands out.

It’s difficult to determine how long ago the creek got its unusual name, which seems a bit of a misnomer today as there are few, if any, fleas along its banks. But given the sandy soil found in the area, near Cameron, S.C., in Calhoun County, less than an hour south of Columbia, it’s possible the irritating parasites once inhabited the locale in abundance.

Standing on a bridge over Flea Bite Creek, with a view of algae-covered water, thick cypress trees and a great deal of brush along the banks, it would seem a more appropriate name for the stream would be “Snake Bite Creek.”

Another possibility is “Gator Gulch.”

But back 250 years ago when the region was being settled it’s likely nearly every lake, river and swamp in South Carolina was filled with snakes, venomous and otherwise, meaning this sluggish stretch of water wouldn’t have stood out had it been host to cottonmouths, copperheads or king snakes.

Not only that, there’s something to be said for a foe one can see, and avoid, even if it’s a six-foot snake, rather than one the size of sesame seed that jumps in an unpredictable manner.

Universities work up new scheme to ‘free’ students from debt

Modern academia is anachronistic, if nothing else.

The latest trend that appears to be catching on is termed “income-share agreements.”

Schools such as Purdue University, Norwich University and Lackawanna College are offering to pay students’ tuition if students offer them a percentage of their future salary for a fixed number of years, according to an Associated Press report.

In contrast with traditional loans, in which students simply pay down the principal and interest until there is nothing left, students with income-share agreements pay back a percentage of their salary for a set period of time.

Uh, isn’t this just another name for “sharecropping?”

Perhaps universities ought to put a halt to the ongoing building spree which so many are currently engaged in – constructing fiefdoms that would make many a medieval lord envious – and get back to the business of simply educating students.

He died among strangers; the sad tale of a 1915 suicide

Gravestones are typically vague beyond name and date of birth and death, but if they include and an editorial flourish, most are laudatory. This can come in the form of a familial platitude: Loving husband and father; a religious bent: Asleep in Jesus; or an indication of virtue: Generous of Heart, Constant of Faith.

A few, however, reflect mystery, sadness or even both.

In Newberry, S.C.’s Rosemont Cemetery is an aging tombstone for one G.W. Dunn. It reads:

“Died in Union Station June 21, 1915 / He Died A Stranger Among Strangers”

The search of old newspapers turned up some background on G.W. Dunn, and it is indeed a forlorn story.

Under the headline “Man Suicides in Newberry,” The Newberry Herald and News reported on June 25, 1915, that Dunn killed himself in the city’s train station by drinking carbolic acid. He was subsequently buried in the city, even though he hailed from several hours away.

“(Dunn) had written a note, which he put on his hat, and then stretched himself on the floor with his head on a bench. It was so clear a case of suicide Coroner Lindsay held no inquest,” according to the paper. “Several passengers saw the man lying in the waiting room, but thought nothing of it, until a drummer (salesman) examined the body, having noticed something wrong.”

Being a different era, the contents of the note were released to the press, and detailed in the Herald and News:

Gravestone of G.W. Dunn, buried in Rosemont Cemetery, Newberry, S.C.

“To the City Authorities of Newberry: I am going to kill myself – and there will not be any use in notifying my people, as I would rather they not know anything about this. I want the city to bury me, and after that you can write to A.B. Dunn, Round, S.C. My name is G.W. Dunn.”

Round, S.C., today known as Round O, is located in Colleton County, not too far from Charleston. It was several hours travel from Newberry in 1915, even by train.

The man’s family was contacted, but, according to the story, “the police chief at Walterboro phoned that the man’s people were not able to look after him. They requested that he be buried here.”

He was interred in Rosemont Cemetery the day following his death, with a local minister conducting the service.

That Dunn was down on his luck is apparent. The paper noted that he was about 35 years old, had one leg and went about on crutches.

It didn’t appear Dunn had come to Newberry to end his life. He arrived in town earlier on the day of his death, from Columbia, about 30 miles south, and spent the day looking for work. He had eaten lunch at a downtown restaurant and left a bundle of clothes, saying he would probably return for supper.

“It appears that the unfortunate man had tried to get work here,” according to the paper. “Mr. W.H. Hardeman of the Newbery Cotton Mill says he applied to him for a job, but there was nothing or him to do there, as machinery has supplanted the hand labor the man had been used to. He tried elsewhere for work, but failed.

“In his despondency, lonely and friendless, the crippled stranger within our gates, with poverty and no work staring him in the face, perhaps without a home fit to be called a home, drank poison and died. He was given a decent burial,” the story concluded.

Dunn had 40 cents in pocket when he was found.

More than a century later, one cannot read of Dunn’s death without feeling a twinge of sadness. To end one’s days in a distant town, with one’s family unable or unwilling to foot the expense to have your body returned home inspires melancholy.

G.W. Dunn rests today on knoll in one of the lonelier parts of the cemetery, the heartrending words on his tombstone faded by time. One can only hope that this “stranger” found some measure of peace in the hereafter.

Banana peel peril largely extinct; allusion remains in comedy

Most comedy must at least be partially based in reality to work. An audience unable to relate to a subject is usually an audience that isn’t going to laugh because they can’t make a connection to the joke or story being told.

For that reason, most people under the age of, say, 85, have had a hard time relating to the idea of slipping on a banana peel. Yet, it has remained a comedy staple practically since the invention of motion pictures.

This seems as counterintuitive as the French love of Jerry Lewis.

Apparently, though, slipping on banana peels was once a very real concern; hence, their role in comedy.

Consider this 1918 story, under the headline “Banana Peel Gets Verdict,” taken from the Greenwood Index, a South Carolina newspaper:

We note that some days since a suit was brought against the city of Columbia (S.C.) by a party who had received a severe injury as the result of a fall on account of having stepped upon a banana peeling that was thrown on the sidewalk.

This verdict should be a warning to every town to enforce more rigidly the ordinance against throwing these peelings on the sidewalks. We suppose that there is not a town that has not such an ordinance, and yet there is a great deal of unconcern about enforcing it. It is a common thing to see these peelings on the sidewalks of Greenwood, and numbers of persons have had accidents on account of it.

There used to be an ordinance against spitting on the sidewalk, but we seem to have thrown it down, too. It might not be a bad idea to let it be known that more attention will be given to it, and the one prohibiting banana peeling on the sidewalks.

Believe it or not, the banana peel was considered a genuine public hazard at one time, writer Laura Turner Garrison wrote in Mental Floss explained when examining how the banana peel gag became so popular in comedy.

“In the mid-19th century, a man named Carl B. Frank began importing Panamanian bananas to New York City,” according to Garrison. “The fruit quickly became a popular street food throughout America, but the surge in urban migration and lack of sanitation regulation posed a major problem in cities. People often tossed their garbage into the streets, leading to a general foul stench and public waste buildup. A fresh banana peel might seem non-threatening, but a rotting banana peel was a slime-covered booby trap.”

Around 1880, Harper’s Weekly rebuked those who tossed their banana peels on a public walkway, as this would likely result in broken limbs, and some Sunday Schools warned children that an improperly discarded peel would not only definitively lead to a broken limb, but that the individual unfortunate enough to suffer the broken would inevitably end up in the poorhouse due to this injury, Garrison added.

The banana peel gag has been a fixture in comedy since the beginning of the 20th century, with the routine widely accepted to have originated on the Vaudeville stage.

“The gag first appeared on the silver screen in the Harold Lloyd silent film The Flirt,” Garrison wrote. “While sitting in a restaurant, Lloyd’s character diligently peels a banana then tosses the skin on the floor. A snooty waiter walks by with a full tray, slips and falls. Chaos ensues.”

Buster Keaton employed the gag in his 1921 film The High Sign, and Laurel and Hardy used it in The Battle of the Century (1927).

It’s continued to be a regular feature in both comedies and cartoons over the decades through to the present, even though most viewers today likely can’t recall ever seeing a rotting banana peel on a sidewalk.

Perhaps the reason the banana peel gag remains viable is that while few of us have experienced slipping on a rotten peel, we have all slipped and fallen. And, like most things, when it happens to someone else it’s pretty funny.

(Top: New Yorker Cartoon by Liam Francis Walsh.)

Austrian telemarketers, pig-dogs and missed opportunities

One of the great things about fancy new cell phones is that they tell you the location of callers. I suppose they’ve done this for quite some time, but I only joined the 21st century late last year when, after 16 years of mediocre flip phone service, I reluctantly upgraded to an Android phone.

This came in handy earlier this week when I saw that I had an incoming call from Austria. I don’t know anyone from Austria or in Austria. In fact, the only people I know of from Austria are Mozart, Emperor Franz Joseph, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Hitler. It seemed unlikely any of them would be phoning, so I ignored the call, just as I ignore any number I don’t recognize.

In retrospect, I missed a chance to try out my puerile German. While I speak extremely poor French, my German is utterly abominable, consisting of “Guten Tag,” Guten Morgen,” a couple of rudimentary sentences and the occasional derogatory remark.

I could have opened the conversation with “Guten Tag, du bist ein Schweinhund!” which translates to “Hello, you’re a pig-dog.”

I figure given my lack of contacts in Austria, it was most likely a telemarketer, so why not try out a little foreign invective, even if I was addressing someone I didn’t know with the casual form of the verb “to be.” They were calling me, after all.

Of course, they probably wouldn’t have understood me and simply hung up, but hey, I would have gotten a chuckle out of it. “Sticking it to those damn telemarketers!” That sort of thing. We take our victories where we can get them.

Speaking of the word Schweinhund, one has to admire the Germans’ ability to level an insult. Not just a pig, not just a dog, but a pig-dog. I’ve seen dogs that act like pigs, but I don’t think that’s what Schweinhund is all about.

One of my daughters has made friends with a German exchange student and she recently asked her friend if there was such a word as Schweinhund. The exchange student’s face lit up. “Ya, Schweinhund! How do you know this word?!?”

My daughter, drolly: “My dad uses it, often while driving.” It made the exchange student’s day to hear an insult in her native tongue.

I wonder if my daughter, were she studying in, say, rural Romania and had a Romanian friend ask if she knew the word “jackass” would light up similarly?