It Was Good Enough For Folks Like Annie
I left the Empire State of the South the day after Mother’s Day and headed to the Palmetto State. The border, mere minutes away, brought to mind the Allman Brothers’ “Blue Sky.”
“Goin’ to Carolina … won’t be long til I’ll be there.”
Well I crossed where the Savannah used to run and there I was where another song occurrence, a Tony Joe White ditty, took place. White wrote the moving, melodic “Rainy Night In Georgia.” More to the point he wrote “Polk Salad Annie.” More on that in a bit.
It was a good day to drive. Sunlight rained liquid gold, the sky intensified to deep blue, and cottony clouds made newly minted leaves and grass greener than I remember. It was a beautiful day for exploring the countryside. My mission was simple: take heretofore-untraveled back roads scouting photos for a new book. My first goal was an old gristmill, Price’s Mill.
In McCormick I took Highway 28 toward Plum Branch where I turned left onto Highway 283, a road that suggests the South of the 1950s. I had never been down this backroad and traveling it seemed dreamlike—I felt I was in another country. I knew my parents had made summer trips down it seeking peaches for ice cream and pies. The road was as beautiful and rustic for me as it was for them and I got great joy knowing no interstate would blight my day.
It didn’t take long to see delightful places. Not far out of Plum Branch I came across Deerfeathers Store. It’s a colorful place. You used to see stores like this a lot. One concession to modern times, a Pepsi machine with its bright blue, red, and white branding, appeared out of place against an old cement wall. Grass edging the old store’s front seemed undisturbed … few feet if any had trod it. Store hadn’t opened in a while.
The regular gas pump—the only pump—registered gas at $1.86 a gallon. Ancient history. Two felled cedars, painted white and bereft of branches, serve as columns for the tin overhang. Stubs where limbs were cut no doubt proved convenient for hanging stuff. Croaker sacks come to mind. Beneath the overhang were two homemade benches and an old cable spool, a table of sorts. You can be sure men chewed the fat here. No doubt they talked ’bout hunting whitetail deer, buck scrapes and guns. A sign over the door proclaimed a tournament of sorts. “Deerfeathers 13th Annual Big Buck & Doe Contest.” How long ago had that been? Perhaps the gas pump holds a clue.
In this part of the world you’re in deer country. Some genteel city folks wouldn’t approve of the buck and doe contest. No sir. Not long ago a city girl over here lambasted Sportsman’s Warehouse because it caters to hunters and fishermen. “They enable men to kill living creatures,” she lamented. “I’d never go in a place like that.” She loves grilled salmon by the way.
You can be sure Miss Salmon Lover wouldn’t like Deerfeathers Store. Wondering what makes some people tick and wondering if this store is open during deer season only I resumed my drive down Highway 283. Signs and several turns led me to Prices Mill. Near Stevens Creek, I found it but came across it so suddenly I shot by it. I crossed Stevens Creek and passed two men walking the shoulder of the road. At the top of a hill I turned around in a driveway where gourds hung nearby from a pole. What a great thing. When you see gourds put up for purple martins you know you are in deep country.
Doubling back to the old mill I pulled over to talk to the men. Here’s where I had my Tony Joe White episode. The two men were pulling up long green stalks. A gut feeling told me they were hunter-gatherers out for a meal and sure enough they were. I pulled over and the younger guy came up carrying a large weed. The older man standing spread-legged on the steep shoulder eyed me with suspicion.
“You guys must be getting up a mess of polk salad,” I said.
“Yes suh. My mama says it’s great. Gonna eat some tonight.”
Good for them. A free meal courtesy of a sun-dappled side road. Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie” recounts the story of a poor Southern girl and her hungry family. White’s song would have died a premature death had folks in Texas not loved it so. They kept buying it and eventually it climbed the charts, furthering the legend of “polk salad.”
Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods and the fields, looks somethin’ like a turnip green. Everybody calls it Polk salad. Polk salad. Used to know a girl that lived down there and
She’d go out in the evenings and pick a mess of it … Carry it home and cook it for supper, ‘cause that’s about all they had to eat,
But they did all right.
White’s lyrics don’t tell us all we need to know about polk salad. It’s a toxic plant that has to be prepared just so. Country folk say it has to be “properly prepared,” and that calls for boiling the plant three times, each time in a change of water. White’s lyrics do, however, perpetuate the legend of this plant of the South, which resembles spinach in taste and texture … so they say.
The two men gathering up a proverbial mess of greens appeared to be doing all right. For sure water would boil tonight! The friendly fellow waved as I drove off; the other stared. How great it’d be I thought if the talkative fellow’s mama was named Annie. As I eased off I shouted, “Enjoy that salad!” and the friendly fellow waved again.
I coasted downhill over Stevens Creek and pulled onto a grassy plain that faced Prices Mill. Things went downhill all right. As I stepped from my car a pack of dogs topped a knoll to the left of the mill. The leader was a pit bull with jaws capable of snapping an anvil in half. The dogs stood there snarling and yapping. The pit bull stepped forward, the obvious leader. Now not all pit bulls are ferocious. I know one that is genial, timid even, but I wasn’t giving this one a chance to teach me a lesson. Back into the car I went which meant I did not get to walk down to the dam where water tumbled away. Nor could I take up-close photos of old millstones on the porch.
Inside the circa 1890 rough-hewn pine building with gabled roof one R. A. Price worked seven days a week grinding out some 14,000 pounds of cornmeal a week. He died in 1968 and son John M. Price took over the operation crushing and pulverizing 7,000 pounds of yellow cornmeal in the early 1970s. I don’t know if John M. Price died but the friendly polk salad picker up the hill had an answer for a question of mine.
“How long has the old mill been closed,” I asked.
“Shoot, dat thing’s been shut down ten years.”
Price’s Mill made the National Register of Historic Places on November 22, 1972 nine years after the Dealey Plaza Incident. At the time, it was one of the few remaining water-powered gristmills in South Carolina. It made me sad to see the old mill. No one seems to be keeping it up as the old tractor consumed by weeds and saplings attests. I have no doubt that someday—and it could be sooner than later—the millstones will fall through the porch. And then like dominoes all will tumble into a state called disintegration.
I resumed my journey and soon Highway 283 ended at Highway 25. The reverie that had held me began to fade as I approached Edgefield. Now Edgefield is a fine town with many beautiful and historic homes but I saw too the trappings of modern life. Funny thing about highways, the lower their identifying number the more modern they are. Don’t believe me? Head out with a map.
Now Edgefield is the home of the National Wild Turkey Federation and the wild turkey rules the roost in these parts. Entering Edgefield proper I saw large, painted turkeys on every corner. Each fiberglass gobbler stands about five feet tall. A flock of the big birds dominate the square and it looks, well, weird. One such turkey has magnolias, the images of former governors, and peaches painted on it and that’s just one side! The turkeys hatched from a 2010 community art project. Go see them and talk turkey with locals.
I visited with Jane Bess, a local potter in Edgefield and we talked about the old places where legendary potter Dave the Slave dug his legendary clay. Wherever that place is it remains undisclosed.
My drive through the hinterlands had taken me to places I wanted to see. If having to see fiberglass turkeys was the price to pay, fine. Dirt roads, old shanties, vintage country places, and more reassured me much of what was still is.
I took Highway 23 out of Edgefield and passed peach orchards that’ll soon be heavy with fruit. Surely these are the orchards where Mom and Dad found their beloved peaches. I motored through peach country and Johnston, a hamlet named Ward, and towns called Ridge Spring, Monetta, Batesburg, and Leesville.
Soon things changed. Turning onto Highway 1 modern life began to assert itself with vengeance. Traffic picked up and I passed wobbly boxes, aka trailers aka mobile homes, flashing cell towers, high-voltage powerlines, and a glossy, high-dollar medical facility. The trappings of modern life—billboards, quick stops, and orange traffic cones—blighted the land and banished beauty for good. I had crossed the invisible line that decrees old ways must surrender to new.
The air left me.
My car had forsaken the past where people such as Polk Salad Annie found sustenance along roadsides and men used falling water to grind cornmeal. I had abandoned the land of orchards and old homes for high-tech traffic lights and digital signs. The land of fluorescent orange, tree stands, and large tracts of forest no longer existed. Old tractors wreathed in vines and places where slaves made famous pottery were nowhere to be found. Yes, I had crossed the border into a place called Urbanization. But it’s not just swallowing me and you. It’s omnipresent.
I vowed to go back to Highway 283 and drive its cousins too. There’s beauty and majesty along highways assigned to the 200s and I aim to travel more of them. When I do, I’ll recapture a bit of my and your lost youth where traces of simpler times cling to a precarious existence. There, memories live on along forgotten highways where yesteryear’s South makes its last stand.