Alan and I were out on a photo trek. We had followed the Triple C Railroad from Blacksburg in Cherokee County down to Smyrna in York County. We were now about to make our best discovery of the day and meet “that one guy what knows stuff” about the place we were to visit.
We left South Carolina’s smallest incorporated town, Smyrna, and headed south. Alan had created a Google Map with several targets for the day and we were going to try to hit as many as possible.
The next waypoint was St. John Baptist Church, outside of Sharon, SC. This looked like an older brick building with a newer facade that didn’t quite fit.
The cemetery was on a very steep hill. It seemed a bit impractical, but somehow they made it work.
There were some hand-carved stones, and one individual with a permanent reminder of his unfortunate nickname.
Next to the church was a the former Sharon Elementary School, now serving as a a multi-use community center.
The Western York County Museum is located in the center. Alan said that it was an oddly specific museum, but I still wanted to see it. Sadly, it was only open on Sundays or by appointment.
We entered downtown Sharon and found a place to park. There was a business district consisting of about six storefronts. These were in various states of occupation.
These buildings, along with the bank across the street are part of the Sharon Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.
Down from the bank was an old industrial building and a HUGE commercial building. We walked in that direction to explore.
The cotton gin/warehouse was impressive. There was a hopper to load trucks, wagons, whatever. Next to that was another old building, and both of these looked like they might have been next to the railroad tracks.
There were several concrete structures next to the gin. These looked like they might have supported large cylindrical tanks.
Alan and I could sort of make out the path of the tracks. A park north of us with a walking path probably followed the old route, and the railroad would have curved past these buildings then continued into what is now a thicket of bamboo.
The large building across the street had a sign identifying it as the Sharon Lawn and Garden Center. Since it looked like it was open for business we decided to head inside for a peek.
What we found was simply stunning, and went far beyond what we expected from a lawn and garden center. Columns supported open galleries on all floors. A grand staircase led up from the main floor then divided left and right at a landing. The first floor had incredibly detailed pressed tin ceiling panels. The interior looked like it had been restored and was lovingly maintained. It was like stepping into a different time and place.
The interior was set up for multiple functions. To the right there was a small art gallery with tables and space set up to teach art classes. The left side of the store had most of the retail space for the lawn and garden center, along with a few hardware items.
The grand staircase was open, so we decided to explore upstairs. In addition to providing more views of the interior, the space held antiques and collectibles.
There were some very nice items in their collection. It wasn’t jam-packed like so many other antique malls I’ve visited, but the items had space to be displayed.
In the corner another set of stairs led up to the third floor. Sadly, these were closed off so we couldn’t go up there. An open shaft for an elevator system connected all three floors.
Back downstairs we introduced ourselves to the proprietors, John Carter, Sr., and John Carter, Jr. They graciously answered our questions about the old building.
I’ll get to the early history of the store in a bit, but in the 1960s and early 1970s the building had been a feed and seed store. Chicken coops lined the area now occupied by the art gallery. Ducks were kept on the second floor gallery and chicken wire had been nailed across the staircase to keep them in place. Two huge hogs, named Mike and Ike, were kept in one of the large display cases in the front of the store. I’m sure it was a mess.
The Carters bought the building in 1986 and began restoration, which included hand scrubbing and polishing the tin ceiling with wire brushes and polishing and restoring the wooden floors and railings. The beautiful open galleries do extend to the third floor, but the Carters cover the third floor gallery with a white plastic sheet to help with heating and cooling. Apparently there is a spectacular skylight above the third floor gallery.
John, Jr. had done extensive research on the early history of the store, and has written several articles for the YC (York County) Magazine. His enthusiasm for the place showed as he gave Alan and me a tour of the building.
William Lawrence Hill was an early entrepreneur in Sharon. His endeavors included not only general merchandise, but banking, cotton ginning, and even John Deere and Ford dealerships. According to John, Sr., Hill got “a piece of every dollar that passed through this town.” In 1911 Hill began construction of what the Greenville News would describe in 1913 as “..the largest, best equipped, and most substantial store in South Carolina….”
Over 1,000,000 bricks were used in construction of the building, which took two years to complete. John Jr. said that the first two floors had three layers of heart pine topped with a layer of polished maple. The third floor had four layers of pine, then maple. Apparently Mr. Hill was proud of his maple floors. He preferred to keep the heavier items such as plows and carriages on the third floor, where the flooring was more substantial and scuffing wouldn’t be as apparent to casual customers. There is a full basement with a boiler room and other mechanical items, so the building actually has four levels.
The store opened in 1913 as the Hill Bank and Mercantile Company. In addition to the heavy items on the third floor, the store carried “all the items necessary to get you from the cradle to the grave,” as John Sr. put it. General merchandise included caskets, dry goods, hardware, and just about anything else. Banking services and lighter retail were available on the first floor.
The Carters had gathered as many artifacts from the Hill era as they could and had placed these on display around the store. The long-handle shovel for shoveling coal into the boiler hung over the office. There was also a cashier stand used for the bank and a glass display case with other items.
John Jr. opened the old bank vault for us. Inside was a small “bullet vault.” These small safes were round so that a corner couldn’t be pride open. They were also designed to deflect and lessen the effect of explosives, should someone try to blow the safe open.
Also inside the main vault the Carters had placed items found in the store. Some of these were the personal belongings of Mr. Hill and the Carters, such as military uniforms and other documents.
The collection included an Edison battery used with the telegraph system, which Hill used to place orders for his store. John said that means Hill was one of the very first online shoppers.
There were other articles that might have been sold in the store…
…as well as a collection of books. There was the biography of Mussolini, but the book that caught my eye was an oblong tune book. This one wasn’t shape note, though.
After our tour of the vault John gave us a demonstration of the elevator system. The elevator is hand operated, and was still in working condition.
Counter-weights and pulleys enabled the operator to move fairly heavy loads between floors. During Hill’s time, the chief elevator operator was a man known as “One-Armed Charlie.” Charlie McConnell lost his arm while working in one of W. L. Hill’s other businesses. After his recovery, Hill hired him to operate the elevator at the store. McConnell rigged up a series of knots and a catch that let him operate the system with one arm. Carter demonstrated how the elevator worked.
I could have just hung out in the store all day. However, the Carters had customers coming in and we had taken up enough of their time. We thanked them, and I bought a ball cap as a souvenier.
The impressive General Store, as well as the cotton gin, Hill’s residence across the street (which I failed to photograph), the old cotton warehouse next door, and the former Ford dealership across the street are part of the “Hill Complex Historic District.” These are on the National Register of Historic Places.
It was about lunch time, so we walked back to the other store fronts. Across from them in an old service station was the Sharon Grill and Cafe. The parking lot was full, so we figured it must be OK. We went in and found a seat among a surprisingly diverse group of customers. There was a fair amount of woodland camouflage, but there were also bikers in leathers with foreign accents. Both of our lunches were great.
We paused to take photos of the rather unusual Rainey Cotton Gin across the street from the cafe. It looked like this was now a private residence.
We had planned to go on down to the town of McConnells, but Alan had a wedding to get to, and the day was slipping away. We began our journey back. In the town of Hickory Grove we stopped at a historic marker where there had been an old school complex. The elementary school and old cafeteria were still standing. There was a brick house behind that both of us would swear looked like school architecture.
The town itself was a disappointing set of boarded up facades. If I’d been paying attention to my resources, though, we wouldn’t have missed another possible treasure. Apparently on the other side of town on a side street is an old Rosenwald School, a two-teacher east-west design. Oh well. I’ll just have to look for it when we come back this way.
But, we had still seen plenty. The old Hill Mercantile alone is worth the trip out this way. Alan had selected some great places for his map, and even though our exploration day was fairly short, it was certainly filled with discovery.