An Unsung Historian Makes A Difference
If “Big Sky Bill” leads you to believe Bill Fitzpatrick hails from Montana, you’re wrong. Bill was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, but has spent most of his life in the South. After earning an MBA from the University of South Carolina in 1978, Bill chose to stay in South Carolina. He lives in Taylors. So what’s behind the Big Sky connection? He likes Big Sky Ski Resort in Montana because of the great ski weeks he and his daughter have had there near Bozeman.
It was a cool March afternoon in Greenville when I met Bill. Big Sky Bill walked into M. Judson Books, a bookstore where Robert Clark and I were speaking on Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II. Bill knew we were there thanks to a woman neither of us had met. She connected us because we all share a mutual interest in travel, history, and photography.
For Bill it’s more than a passing interest. It’s a calling, and in Bill’s case, an extraordinary accomplishment that would unfold over the course of years and miles. “If I had to guess,” said Bill, “I’d say I have traveled around 30,000 miles since November 2011.” Bill hit the road, in his words, to “make South Carolina history easier to enjoy. That is what I do.”
A frustrating day in November 2011 gave impetus to Bill’s mission. “On that day, all I wanted to do was to photograph a building (the three-story, eight-sided plantation home in the Cedar Springs Historic District). “That’s it. I had no intention of doing anything but that, just that. But after struggling to find the place, and then, once there, realizing that I had left all my printed materials at home, meaning I had no idea of what I was looking at, I thought, there should be a “better way.” When Bill ran into the same problems the following week as he traveled from Shiloh Methodist Church in Inman to Anderson’s Mill, he became determined to find a better way of enjoying South Carolina landmarks.
“My home state has over 1,400 Historic Register Landmarks, a National Park Service classification that includes historically noteworthy cemeteries, churches, homes, buildings, and districts, such as Cedar Springs. I eventually made it to Cedar Springs that morning, but not without a series of frustrating experiences. Still, the magnificence of the landmarks resonated.”
Bill set out to find that “better way,” one that would allow the casual tourist easy and convenient “one-touch” access to any of the state’s National Historic Register Landmarks. He went to work. Over the last five years, he photographed more than 2,000 of South Carolina’s historic landmarks and made his work accessible. In a series of eBooks he produced he included photographs of the sites and a summary history, courtesy of South Carolina Archives and History. He added pertinent comments, as well as all street addresses and GPS coordinates. Then he hyperlinked all coordinates in the eBook, such that a simple “touch” takes readers to the landmark. “No more paper maps, no more worrying about where I am or how do I get there or what am I looking at,” said Bill.
In March 2013, he completed his National Historic Register Landmarks project with the publication of the third book in his trilogy, “South Carolina’s Magnificent Historic Register Landmarks: The Coast.” Thanks to Bill’s efforts and eBooks, South Carolina residents and guests can easily travel to any of the state’s great historical treasures and know what they are looking at when they arrive.
Bill’s also documenting South Carolina’s historic churches, which he defines as “any church with a roadside, historic landmark sign.” A post from his website proves that he’s an accomplished writer as well.
“On a skinny one-lane red clay road, the Garmin woman orders me forward. I obey. The road narrows. I say what I have to say when I meet a steel fence. It is late and I am hours from my home. Should I return to Edgefield and try the same road from a different direction, or give up my efforts to find Horn Creek Baptist Church? To borrow from Robert Frost, I selected the less-traveled path, and it made all the difference. I wanted to photograph this historic church that was built in the 1780s … Four years later, I returned to Horn Creek, not so much to meet the new caretaker who had been hired to guard the otherwise unprotected rural church, but because this abandoned place, set deep in the Carolina pines, smelled of history and I wished to take additional photographs. I enter the church grounds and pass a leaning Historic Marker that tells me a Revolutionary War battle was fought nearby.
“Hi, I’m Bill,” I said, extending my hand to the ‘caretaker.’ ”
“ ‘A pleasure to meet you. My name is Barney Lamar.’ He unlocks the new church doors so I can take my photographs. After I complete my efforts, Barney and I enjoy a late afternoon drink. Oh, good Lord, you are more than just a caretaker, I tell him when he shares his career in historic preservation. When he learned that the Edgefield County Historical Society had long-term plans to restore Horn Creek Baptist Church to its original condition—and make it self-sustaining to boot—he decided it was time to return home. The church, and its history, could not be in better hands.”
The same could be said for South Carolina’s historic sites. Every state needs a Big Sky Bill. Just think how much easier it would be to see historic places and better understand what those who preceded us endured, achieved, and left us.
Most people are content to while away the hours doing much of nothing. Not Bill Fitzpatrick. He’s contributed stories to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and he continues to work on “The Magnificent, Historic Churches of South Carolina.” According to Bill’s definition, about 600 such places exist in the state. “All of my travels have been terrific, but none more than the journey among our historic churches,” said Bill. “I am very passionate about saving our state’s historic churches, and have volunteered to present papers and ideas at a couple of conferences next year. If we can have a BBQ Trail, don’t you think we ought to have a SC Church Trail? I feel like I could teach the history of our state through the histories of our churches.”
Bill has completed his coffee table book on this topic and has one copy in hand. “It’s no time to be modest,” he said, “it’s gorgeous. I plan to use it to excite the folks I meet and talk to about the possibilities. I am not sure where any of this will end up, but I do know where it started: a simple trip to photograph a three-story, eight-sided plantation home.”
Author’s Note: Bill was a columnist for an industry magazine, Hospitality Upgrade. One of his columns on Customer Loyalty went “viral,” eventually appearing in a college textbook. He writes an “Americana” column for Khabar, an Atlanta-based magazine that caters to the needs and interests of first-generation Indian-Americans. To see Bill’s South Carolina church work, go to Facebook and search for The Magnificent Historic Churches of South Carolina. Bill’s efforts put him in contact with a project that covers Georgia’s historic churches. Visit HRCGA.org to see some of Georgia’s historic churches.