The UFO Welcome Center is built right next to its creator’s trailer. Photo by Jonathan Sharpe
We here at Free Times love Columbia.
It’s the whole reason this paper exists. But sometimes, you’ve got to get away.
You’re probably familiar with the old day-trip-to-Charleston strategy for entertaining out-of-state visitors — it’s a Columbia classic. And it’s nice to visit the beach, or the mountains, or the relatively close-by cities of Charlotte and Greenville. But there’s a vast inland area of the state filled with quirky and/or beautiful places to visit — and too often, it gets ignored.
For this feature, we limited ourselves to destinations closer than a drive to Charleston. Some are rinky-dink old roadside attractions; others, scenic hikes; still others, disturbing testaments to our state’s history.
We’ve given approximate one-way drive times, based on the quickest route — although we recommend exploring the state’s back roads, which would make for a longer trip. We’ve also provided contact information where relevant, but you’ll probably still want to look these places up online before you go.
ONLINE EXTRA: Listen to the first-ever Free Times podcast, in which we discuss some of the day trips we took for this story.
UFO Welcome Center
Drive time from Columbia: 1 hour
It seems as though the heyday of the UFO Welcome Center has pretty much come and gone. Jody Pendarvis built it in the mid ‘90s; The Daily Show visited in 2001. When we pulled up to it in early April, Pendarvis’ truck wasn’t there, so we poked around a bit hoping he’d show up.
It would be impossible to miss the welcome center, a 40-foot-tall, rickety metal structure set prominently on one of the main roads entering Bowman. A ramshackle fence surrounds it. Ramps lead to the inner areas of the saucer. “UFO Welcome Center, Bowman, Planet Earth” reads a painted wooden sign facing the road. Power tools and building materials lay here and there. Nobody answers a knock on the mobile home in the shadow of the welcome center; there are hundreds of beer cans on the ground next to the door.
There’s a gas station right next door. We ask a man leaning against the wall outside whether he knows the guy who built the welcome center. No, he says, looking embarrassed. “Is there anything else to do in Bowman?” I asked. “No, there ain’t nothing to do in Bowman,” he says.
Traffic through town picks up — a steady stream of cars. And some of the cars begin to stop, their drivers hopping out to take pictures of the welcome center. There’s an accident on the freeway, they say, and their navigation software has rerouted them through Bowman.
We never meet Pendarvis. We do, however, meet an alien, or at least a Czech guy who pulls up and makes a crack about the words “Resident Alien” stamped on his green card — the green card that’s now expired, he says. He doesn’t want his photo taken. He says he’s friends with Pendarvis, who is too busy to come by the welcome center these days because he has too many girlfriends. Another joke.
Photo by Jonathan Sharpe
Photographer Jonathan Sharpe and I drive around Bowman. It’s true — there’s not much to do in Bowman. We poke around a crumbling set of buildings that appears to be a former dairy operation. Jonathan’s later research suggests it belonged to the Weathers family; state Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers comes from a dairy family with operations based in Bowman.
Bowman is only a handful of miles from Orangeburg. So when we’re done, we pick a barbecue joint and settle in for some lunch. In this case it’s the Dukes BBQ on Chestnut Street, with plain wood-paneled walls and an ample supply of pickles on the tiny buffet.
If Pendarvis happens to be at home when you visit the UFO Welcome Center, you can pay for a tour of the structure. But even if he’s absent, a trip to the shiny homemade tower is worth the drive. — Eva Moore
An old railroad trestle was repurposed into this 1,100-foot footbridge across the Broad River. Photo by Jonathan Sharpe
Someday, the Palmetto Trail will stretch across the entire state of South Carolina, a contiguous 500-mile strip of pathways. So far, though, it comes in chunks. And this passage of the trail, surprisingly close to Columbia, runs along an abandoned railbed through one of the more lovely, wooded parts of the state.
In the late 1800s, a rail line used to run between Columbia and Greenville — fittingly called The Greenville and Columbia Railroad, and later The Columbia and Greenville Railroad, before being bought by other railroads. The Palmetto Conservation Foundation bought an 11-mile stretch of the track in the ‘90s to convert into this trail.
The Peak-to-Prosperity Passage of the Palmetto Trail | Photo by Jonathan Sharpe
If one begins at the Alston trailhead near Peak, the very first part of the trail is an amazing 1,100-foot-long bridge built along a former rail trestle. The Broad River was muddy, deep and fast on the day we visited, with a cool breeze swirling up from it; turtles sunned themselves on water-skimming branches; buzzards coasted overhead.
David Williamson of Prosperity with his 1964 GMC truck | Photo by Jonathan Sharpe
After the bridge, one can stroll just a few yards along a side trail and buy a soda in the tiny former railroad town of Peak. In the 2010 census, 64 people lived there. One of the two Peak residents we met was friendly, letting Jonathan listen to the inline-six engine of his beautiful old truck. The other warned us angrily to stay away from his land, which parallels the trail to the north. Through later research, I learn there was serious antipathy toward the trail in Peak, with the Town Council passing an anti-trail resolution and residents forming a “No Rails to Trails Committee” that agitated against the Palmetto Conservation Foundation for years. Landowners along the line argued that land turned over to the railroad should revert to them. It wasn’t until 2009 that a judge’s ruling allowed the trail to be finished.
After six miles of mostly flat, gentle trail, one reaches the little town of Pomaria.
The Palmetto Trail’s website specifically mentions the amazing burgers at Wilson’s Grocery, which shares a parking lot with the Pomaria trailhead. So we tried one. Unfortunately, the patties are premade, and the folks at Wilson’s simply reheat them in a microwave. On the plus side, the fixins are good — well-melted cheese; good tomato, lettuce and onion; a fresh bun. Just know that you’re not getting a freshly griddled burger. We ate them at a little park with a picnic shelter across the highway from Wilson’s.
The trail continues another five or so miles to Prosperity, next to Newberry, if you’re so inclined. — Eva Moore
The Oakley Park Plantation and Red Shirt Shrine | Photo by Jonathan Sharpe
Oakley Park Museum and Red Shirt Shrine
Drive time from Columbia: 1 hour 15 min.
Tucked off the main road leading into Edgefield from I-20 sits the handsome but sagging antebellum plantation house Oakley Park, former home of Confederate Gen. Martin Witherspoon Gary. Gary never formally surrendered in the War Between the States, and the museum that his home has become feels steeped in that spirit of unreconstructed defiance.
Which makes sense, given that after the war Oakley Park served as the headquarters from which Gary orchestrated the “Edgefield Plan” to restore white supremacy to South Carolina — a campaign of violence, intimidation, bribery and electoral fraud that ended Reconstruction and brought about the multigenerational era of Jim Crow disenfranchisement for blacks.
It was from the balcony of Oakley Park that Gary rallied thousands of Red Shirts — predominately white Democrats, many of them Confederate veterans, who sowed fear and chaos among would-be black voters — giving the edge to another former Confederate general, Wade Hampton, in the 1876 race for governor. Today, visitors to Oakley Park can gaze upon an incongruous Lego recreation of Gary’s famous balcony address.
Legos aside, Oakley Park Museum and Red Shirt Shrine provides an authentic feel for the planter class’s living conditions in the early 20th century, but it also offers several fascinating relics of the era. Chief among them is an actual red shirt, from which the paramilitary group took its name, homespun and dyed with pokeberry juice after the symbolic jerseys became so popular that local merchants ran out of red fabrics.
Sharing the red shirt’s glass case is what purports to be a genuine carpetbag, presumably carried South in the war’s wake by a predatory Yankee profiteer. Asked how the carpetbag arrived at its current home, Elizabeth Ready, the museum’s genial director and president of the local chapter of United Daughters of the Confederacy, which operates the museum, speculated.
A cabinet of “Lost Cause” trinkets | Photo by Jonathan Sharpe
“We can only assume that Martin Gary got it in Columbia during the election of 1876,” she said. “He was a rebel through and through. He probably killed somebody and got it or stole it, but we don’t know the story of that.”
More mysterious than the story of the carpetbag is the fact that the Oakley Place outhouse is a six-seater, causing one to seriously question restroom customs of the day.
Also on hand is framed artwork, floral designs, woven from human hair that planters’ wives and daughters collected from their combs, a fad of the time.
Among a fine collection of Victorian Era bayonets, daggers and firearms is the 1860 Springfield rifle that future governor “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, also a son of Edgefield, carried into the Hamburg Massacre, the event that spawned the Red Shirt movement. A group of white Edgefield men, soon to be known as Red Shirts, incited a stand-off with a federally backed black militia before opening fire. Each side killed one of the other’s men during the exchange, but, once the outnumbered blacks surrendered, the Red Shirts executed six of them.
(While some Confederate sympathizers like Ready refer to the incident as the “Hamburg Riot,” mainstream history books, including The South Carolina Encyclopedia, call it a massacre.)
Which brings us finally to the uncomfortable nature of the museum, celebrating, as it does, proponents of institutional racism prone to mob violence. Oakley Park perpetuates a version of events once popularly held across the South, but refuted by serious historians and increasingly abandoned by younger generations of South Carolinians: that Red Shirts valiantly crusaded against the predations of corrupt Yankee interests, instead of terrorizing former slaves in order to deny them the freedoms they reserved for themselves.
A children’s T-shirt at Oakley Park | Photo by Jonathan Sharpe
Ready herself said she’d recently been reminded of the Red Shirts by the armed militias rallying around Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who got into a stand-off with federal agents after refusing to pay fees owed for his cattle grazing on public land.
“Pretty soon the Red Shirts are going to ride again,” Ready said. “The government doesn’t have a right to come in and take what’s yours.”
Ironically, Bundy’s brief stint as a conservative hero ended abruptly when The New York Times reported his rant about black people having been better off as slaves.
But, make no mistake, Edgefield’s Daughters of the Confederacy have done South Carolina a tremendous service in preserving this intriguing monument to our state’s least discussed and darkest era. Unlike the hooded and anonymous Ku Klux Klan, the Red Shirts were always straight up about who they were and what they intended. They were nothing if not bold. It’s hard to imagine them not wanting their full story told. — Porter Barron Jr.
To appreciate why local conservationists refer to the Cowasee Basin as the “green heart of South Carolina,” walk to the edge of this bluff, rising almost 100 feet above the river, and gaze upon the miles of tangled expanse below during the warmer months. The whole green panorama, buzzing with dragonflies, appears to writhe and pulse simultaneously, as a good jungle should. Just downstream, the Congaree and Wateree rivers meet to form the Santee. (Cowasee — get it?) There’s a 1.5 mile hiking trail, but the real draw is the observation deck, used by birders to count hawks August through November. From here, the Capital City denizen gets a good reminder of his proximity to this downstream primordial wilderness. — Porter Barron Jr.
Each May or June, for just a handful of weeks, the rocky shoals spider lilies in the Catawba River bloom. And if you go to Landsford Canal State Park and take a very short trail along that river, you can see these rare flowers, their white blooms spreading out across the shallow, rocky stretch of river. (If you have a canoe or kayak, you can put in at the boat access and paddle among the lilies.) Keep hiking, and you can wander among the remains of the canal system that allowed riverboats to navigate the river in the early 1800s. Call the park at (803)789-7116 to find out when the spider lilies will be in peak bloom this year. Also, on the way up, check out the wee town of Ridgeway. (Fun fact: The stuffed bobcat at downtown Columbia bar The Whig was purchased by the side of the road in Ridgeway.) — Eva Moore
Pearl Fryar is a self-taught topiary artist who’s transformed his Bishopville yard into an amazing display of natural and manmade beauty. If you’re picturing cartoonish, animal-shaped hedges, stop right there — Fryar’s works are abstract and off-kilter, both emphasizing and distorting the natural lines of the pines he trims into shape. Handmade metal sculptures dot the property, too. You’re free to visit anytime, but be aware that this is Fryar’s home. And you might drop some money in the donation box to help this amazing man keep up the property. (You can check out an example of Fryar’s topiary in front of the South Carolina State Museum right here in Columbia, too.) — Eva Moore
Dalton Stevens has covered a lot of things in glued-on or sewed-on buttons — the result of years of severe insomnia, he claims on buttonkingsc.com. Stevens also writes songs — including songs about buttons and songs about insomnia. He’s been a guest of both Johnny Carson and David Letterman. And a lot of those button-covered things he created are on display at his museum — a car, a piano, a suit, a guitar and more. — Eva Moore
South Carolina Cotton Museum, aka the unofficial Lizard Man museum
Bishopville, S.C. sccotton.org
Drive time from Columbia: 1 hour
The artifacts from King Cotton’s roughly 200-year agricultural reign are cool, but, for the amateur cryptozoologists on Free Times staff, the real draw is the museum’s collection of Lee County Lizard Man ephemera and relics. If you’re lucky, Director Janson Cox will be on hand to share local accounts of Bigfoot’s scaly cousin rampaging through Scape Ore Swamp, which may or may not have been known originally as Escaped Whore Swamp. — Porter Barron Jr.
Even if you don’t get NASCAR, or, more to your detriment, haven’t been initiated into that sublime Sabbath pastime, the NASCAR nap, in which the weary sinner is lulled to rest by racers’ droning laps, chances are you’ll find the story of stock racing a compelling one. Born of rural, Southern lawlessness during 1920s prohibition, the sport grew from moonshiners tricking out automobiles to outrun revenue agents, to racing one another for bragging rights, to standardized but still evolving competitions under the NASCAR mantle. It’s a colorful history, replete with pranksters and explosions. Get your greasy fill in Darlington, Dixie’s stock car racing mecca since “the track too tough to tame” opened in 1950. — Porter Barron Jr.
South Carolina Railroad Museum
Winnsboro, S.C. scrm.org
Drive time from Columbia: 30 min.
When you’re stuck on Assembly Street, your way blocked by a stopped train, you might think trains still rule South Carolina. But there was a time when the rail was everything to this state. The South Carolina Railroad Museum isn’t just devoted to all things train — it actually features a 10-mile round-trip train ride on its own rehabilitated rail line, the Rockton, Rion and Western Railroad. There’s also a gallery and a walk-through display train — and a gift shop, naturally. The train only runs on certain days, so visit scrm.org to plan your visit. — Eva Moore
In 1932, an ambitious gardener known to her Hartsville neighbors as “Miss May” began transforming a former dump on Darlington County’s Black Creek with camellias, tea olives, azaleas, wisteria and other exotic ornamentals. She called it “Laurel Land” after the native mountain laurel that flourished there on the 60-foot-high creek bluff. Three years later, the garden opened to the public as Kalmia Gardens (Kalmia latifolia being the Latin name for mountain laurel). Coker College took over the tract in 1962, and the historic garden remains a draw for nature lovers and solace seekers. — Porter Barron Jr.
Formerly a rice plantation, this tract on the Cooper River in Berkeley County became the retreat of New York City publishing tycoon Henry Luce in 1936. After residing there for about a decade, installing modernist buildings and formal gardens, his also-famous wife Claire Boothe Luce — the writer, philanthropist, LSD pioneer and Republican congresswoman — saw the property donated to an order of Trappist monks in 1949, having recently converted to Catholicism herself. Today, Mepkin remains an idyllic sanctuary. Aside from contemplating holy matters, the monks spend their days farming mushrooms, although not the sort their benefactress might have favored. They welcome day visitors to their church and grounds, as well as souls seeking longer spiritual retreats. — Porter Barron Jr.
God’s Acre Healing Springs
Drive time from Columbia: 1 hour
Legend has it that in 1781, wounded Redcoats retreating through the woods of Barnwell County encountered local Indians who guided them to a sacred artesian spring, where the soldiers drank and had their health restored. Word of the spring’s healing powers spread, perpetuated by a succession of white traders and farmers who came to own the plot, until July 21, 1944, when L.P. Boylston deeded the spring’s acre to God. Fortunately, God welcomes visitors and you can fill your own jug from the four-headed spigot protruding from His acre. While in the neighborhood, treat yourself to Goodland Barbecue in nearby Springfield, home of top-notch mustard-sauced ‘cue and exquisitely fried chicken. — Porter Barron Jr.
Cottageville, S.C. beecity.net
Drive time from Columbia: 1 hour 30 min.
Bee City is a little “town” made of beehives, and a place to learn about the importance of honeybees. It also features a pretty extensive petting zoo — though for some of us, petting zoos can be kind of a bummer, so proceed with caution. There’s a café with kid-friendly fare, and plenty of honey products for sale. — Eva Moore
In South Carolina, it’s often hard to come by an honest-to-god view, as the vistas are so often obscured by greenery. That’s not a problem at Forty Acre Rock. Though it actually only covers about 10 acres, according to the folks at the Department of Natural Resources, the rock is a vast, wide-open expanse of granite, covered in lovely colored lichens and mosses. Little pools dot the rock, some filled with water and wee plants. Though generations of visitors have defaced parts of the rock with spray paint, there are still plenty of parts where you’ll see nary a sign of human life. The short trail from the south access takes you by a beaver pond, a waterfall and a sliding rock; just off the trail to the north is a little cave. — Eva Moore
Carolina Adventure World is basically a redneck paradise — but you don’t have to be a redneck to enjoy this dense maze of ATV and dirt bike trails, plus a disc golf course, a competition dragstrip and more. The ATV routes alone cover some 100 miles of trail, all graded by difficulty like ski trails, with plenty of mud wallows along the way. (Carolina Adventure World is an especially popular destination after a hard rain.) If you don’t have your own ATV, you can rent one here. There are spots for camping and picnics, and somewhere to shower off all that glorious mud. — Eva Moore
Ridge Spring and Monetta, S.C.
Drive time from Columbia: 1 hour
Ridge Spring is just a little strip of a town, but it hosts some excellent thrift stores and antique shops, as well as one of the best chef-centered New Southern restaurants in the Midlands: Juniper. In nearby Monetta, the Big Mo Drive-In shows double features every Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the warmer months. The hardest thing about visiting Ridge Spring, honestly, is killing time between when the thrift stores close at 5 p.m. and Juniper opens at 6, because there are no bars in Ridge Spring. We solve that by driving to nearby Johnston for a beer at the Mexican restaurant. — Eva Moore
New Year’s Eve at Social
Don’t miss this Black and White Affair featuring Kap Slap. Tickets available online!
Relaxation, Pain Management, and Stress Relief
Licensed massage therapist Allison Morris of AMR Massage offers 50% off your first session and every 5th session free of charge. Click here for location, hours, and more information.
Ice Skate on Main Street
Columbia’s famously hot skating rink is now open! Additional information and discounts can be found here.
A Family-Friendly New Year’s Eve Carnival
From 6-11 PM on December 31st on Main Street, enjoy rides, games, karaoke, food, drinks and more! More information here.
Hickory Tavern Is Now Open!
Find us on Facebook, Twitter (@TheHickoryTav), Instagram (@HickoryTavern), and visit our website for more info. 907 Senate Street in the Vista!
Going someplace cool this weekend?
Let The Backpacker help you go lightweight, comfortable and in style! Patagonia, Prana, Merrell, The North Face and more! Click for location, hours and more info.
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Holiday Wish ListWhere to shop for gift ideas in Columbia this season:
U.S. Security Associates
Now hiring immediately for armed and unarmed security officers. WE TRAIN YOU! Columbia & surrounding areas. ussecurityassociates.com
F/T and P/T avail. Must have a clean driving record, organized and have a prof appearance. Please call for an interview or email resume to Kerry@crystalpool.com. Must bring a copy of your Driving record and a list of all past employers with duration of employment listed as well as telephone numbers for references. Call 803-865-1200
Real Estate Spotlight
SC HousingFinancing Housing. Building SC. To find out if you qualify or for more information visit schousing.com