A Tourist Trap Trapped In Time
First came the cars. Then the summer vacation stormed America in the late 1940s, becoming an institution that drove more car sales and vacation rentals. And it did something else. It fired up the imagination of people stuck on the road to “there.” Dreamers galore created roadside attractions to tap into the coins rolling down the road. All these years later, all across the United States, in the middle of lackluster nowhere, you’ll come across these wayside-hijacking places. Once upon a time, their spectacles gave America’s highways a bit of character, a rest stop kids refused to let their parents pass. That was then; this is now. These oddities lost their luster long ago. Super theme parks dominate today and interstates spirit people in a rush through a franchise-bedeviled land.
Time at last caught up with America’s roadside attractions. Visit these relics of the road today and you can hear flakes of rust crackling as iron succumbs to the elements. Cars keep rolling by these days and the funds for maintenance ride with them. Roadside attractions, welcome to the end of the road. The Era of Abandonment has arrived.
Some attractions were great. In my boyhood memories Marineland on Florida’s A1A comes to mind, as does the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. Others were outright odd. As the old war stories would begin, “I was there.”
Others I only heard about. Among them, the world’s largest catsup bottle in Collinsville, Illinois, the world’s largest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas, and the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. Many claimed superlative status: the tallest or largest. Close by we have what may be the tallest Mexican in the world, Pedro, at South of the Border near Dillon, South Carolina.
I drive by it every so often on my way to the Tar Heel State to see family. I cannot pass it without a strange sense of wonderment pervading my thoughts. Nor can I forget the one time I climbed to the top of the Sombrero Tower … that was a lifetime ago.
This past Friday I headed to Apex, North Carolina on a Super Bowl road trip and birthday celebration rolled into one. My Atlanta daughter, Becky, and her two children were riding with me on I-95 headed to see my daughter, Beth, and her family. Becky and her two children had left Atlanta earlier in the morning at 7:00 o’clock. By 3:00 p.m., the children had been riding in a car for six hours. To say they were restless is an understatement. For an hour tacky billboards had appeared, one after another. The kids, Mary Beth and Will had never seen South of the Border. All the billboards hyped a pseudo-Mexican character named Pedro. Fluorescent colors of orange, green, red, and yellow, traces of the tropics, covered the billboards. It made for a garish sight and the campy word play added a corn pone element.
One billboard held a huge link sausage. “You never sausage a place. (You’re always a wiener at Pedro’s.)” Another proclaimed “Smash Hit” and attached to it was a wrecked car. A real car! Yet another featured an upside down Pedro with the words “Too Much Tequila!” These billboards and many others with their predictable, stereotyping messages count down the miles to a place that sprang up with the famed vacation movement. All were the brainchild of Schafer.
If you’ve driven I-95 north to North Carolina, you know the star of South of the Border is the 165-foot high Sombrero Tower. As we approached the North Carolina state line, the Sombrero Tower rose into the Pee Dee sky. Seeing that tower galvanized the kids.
“You kids want to climb the tower?” I asked. I don’t have to tell you the answer. It hit me that this scene had repeated itself thousands upon thousands of times. As I exited I-95, I realized I was driving back into the 1950s.
We pulled into what many have long argued is a place that promotes a racist caricature of a Mexican bandito. To me, with good reason, Pancho Villa comes to mind. I can’t speak for you but let me say this: “So damn what. Lighten up.”
We parked and found ourselves in a ghost town with an aging exaggerated Mexican atmosphere. We went into the building over which the Sombrero Tower reaches into the sky and I asked the attendant if the kids and I could climb the tower.
“It’s out of order,” she said. “Probably always will be.”
All I could surmise was that funds for maintaining the tower had dried up. Disappointment set in. I had taken the kids’ mother and her sister up in the 1980s when they were children and I wanted to repeat this odd bit of family history. Plus it would do the kids good to burn off some excess energy.
I looked around the parking lot. I saw one other car. In 1999 Robert Clark and I featured the big marquee, a mustachioed Mexican holding a South of the Border sign in Reflections of South Carolina, the original volume. Looking at that photograph just now I counted ten cars in the spot where we had parked. A tourist stop designed to feast on the age of the automobile, South of the Border sits on Highway 301 just yards below the North Carolina border, hence “South of the Border.” This tourist trap like no other sprang from a roadside beer established in 1949 by Alan Schafer. Robeson County, just across the line in North Carolina, had been a dry county at that time. South of the Border, dare I use the acronym “SOB,” flourished in its glory days. It grew to over a square mile in size and had its own fire and police departments.
Around these parts the tale goes around that political connections made sure I-95 ran right by South of the Border for I-95 is a major artery funneling snowbirds back and forth between Florida and the North. There’s plenty of speculation out there, some of it well documented. It takes a bit of unraveling and involves North Carolina’s determination of where I-95’s southern terminus would be, Dillon’s residents’ concern as to where the rumored “superhighway” would come through, SC Highway Department changes to its interstate plans in the area, and an extraordinary friendship among power brokers Bubba Ness, Alan Schafer, and SC State Senator Jack Lindsey. In “Building Bigger: South of the Border and I-95,” Laura Koser said, “South Carolina historian Walter Edgar has been widely quoted giving his opinion, that Schafer ‘had the political influence to get I-95,’ pointing out that the Interstate ‘…makes a little jag there to go through South of the Border.’” Julius “Bubba” Ness, who in time would be elected Chief Justice of South Carolina an inside source said, would do anything for Alan Schafer. Nothing came of all this and it amounted to a lot of smoke but it makes for intriguing speculation with a reference to a murder even. All the key players are long dead.
Today South of the Border is the first thing southbound Northerners see of South Carolina. Think about that. These people’s first impression of the Palmetto State, known for Charleston, mountains, and its haunted lowcountry, is that of a campy Mexican village which is about as authentic as a fake Rolex. Colorful, gaudy even, but nowhere near the real deal. That hasn’t stopped the place from getting all sorts of publicity though.
Roadside America pretty much nails South of the Border. “The automobile trip from the bleak cities of the Northeast to the sunny shores of Florida via I-95 takes two good days of driving. Halfway there, as you speed between endless miles of pine forest, visible heat rising up off the road, a huge alien sombrero nearly 200 feet high  suddenly appears in the distance. Have heat, fatigue and eight ceaseless hours of auto bingo and children’s’ hands grabbing at your sunglasses shredded your senses like old retreads on hot asphalt?
You grin, speed up, and quickly turn off at the next exit, as if compelled by some otherworldly force. The sombrero is, in fact, Sombrero Tower, landmark of the South Of The Border tourist complex. After enduring an accelerating onslaught of 120 billboards for more than 200 miles, this is what you’ve waited to see.
South Of The Border (or SOB, as it’s known to insiders) is a unique amalgam of Dixie and Old Mexico. At first you wonder what all this Mexican stuff is doing in South Carolina, thousands of miles from its natural habitat. But in a remarkably short time you’ll accept SOB as a neon yellow and pink Tijuana, with the added benefit that its inhabitants speak English and its water is safe to drink.”
So, let’s return to that racist caricature thing. According to South of the Border’s website, “How did Pedro come about? Well, Mr. Schafer went to Mexico to establish import connections and met two young men. He helped them get admitted to the United States, and they went to work at the motel office as bellboys for several years. People started calling them Pedro and Pancho, and eventually just Pedro.”
Despite feeling a bit repulsed, I like the place and am glad the politically correct crowd either doesn’t care or has yet to make this place a target. Maybe they realize it will soon be a relic, a ghost town from something like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Mel Gibson’s Road Warrior. Perhaps the social media crowd, our modern-day equivalent to a lynch mob, will crucify this travesty. Sarcasm intended for kids love the place no matter what. When my grandkids saw the place they thought they had landed in Disney World. The excitement died a bit though as they looked around and saw no crowds, no parades, no bands, not even a Mariachi band. Besides, a cold wind was blowing and they drifted toward the public restroom.
Schafer, the founder, heard the racism comments and dismissed them saying his Pedro was a light-hearted joke. Today all employees are referred to as “Pedro,” regardless of their race or creed, an effort to dilute claims of racism.
A few other notable things about this tourist trap. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke of nearby Dillon, South Carolina worked at South of the Border throughout college as a waiter. He wore a poncho and waited tables to pay his way through Harvard. (Bernanke was born in Augusta, Georgia, but had strong New York ties.)
As you might expect, Hollywood found this place. Part of the film, Forces of Nature was filmed here. Bart Simpson parodied the place in “Bart vs. Australia.” Movies and TV aside, what people really think of when you mention South of the Border are Schafer’s billboards (Be a Deer! Bring some Doe) and that tall Sombrero Tower. The one we didn’t get to climb in this tourist trap trapped in time.