Charleston is officially hotter than a snow blister. The beaches are burning, the sun is searing, and you’ve got a chub-rub rash from wearing a way-too-tight bikini. There’s only one solution: go up a bathing suit size and get the hell out of dodge. We’re talking about the cure for the summertime blues: a fast car, four friends, and a cooler packed with boiled peanuts and bottles of Blenheim’s ginger ale. This ain’t no “On the Road with Charles Kuralt.” Hell no. This is your guide to South Carolina summer road-tripping, one quirky landmark at a time.
We Come From France
UFO Welcome Center, Bowman
There are three kinds of people in this world: those that believe in life on other planets, those that don’t, and those who are … aliens.
In order to assist those clueless extraterrestrial tourists who landed on Earth without a Fodor’s guidebook, Jody Pendarvis created the UFO Welcome Center, a two-story saucer-shaped building.
Recently, we took the road less traveled to Bowman to see the UFO Welcome Center. There, just off Main Street, stands the silver saucer, nestled comfortably next to a ramshackle trailer. Sadly, the Welcome Center has seen better days. The front door lies on the ground in pieces, and the welcome sign over the door is broken. The whole thing makes a rundown shack look like the Taj Mahal. Clearly, Pendarvis’ spaceship is in need of some much-needed TLC.
Sadly, we didn’t spot any aliens roaming about with travel brochures, lukewarm sodas, or soggy sandwiches in hand, but we did find a herd of eight mangy cats. Apparently, they’ve made the now-derelict UFO Welcome Center home.
Our verdict: While you can still pilot a flying saucer to the UFO Welcome Center, it’s a good idea to build a time machine first.
Heaven on Earth
Heritage USA, Fort Mill
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I think about the Gospel, I think about theme parks, which just goes to show you how much Tammy Faye Bakker and I had in common — that and a penchant for mascara-stained crocodile tears. (What? We just have a lot of feelings!)
Tammy Faye and her former husband, Jim Bakker, the two hosts of the televangelism program The PTL Club, opened Heritage USA in Fort Mill in 1978. The theme park came complete with a Main Street USA shopping center, an amphitheater, and a 400-unit campground. Word has it that at its height, the Bible-Belt wonderland attracted nearly 6 million visitors and was ranked just a notch or two below Disney World on a list of destination sites. And that’s because the place had it all: they offered visitors prayer and counseling services, water slides — ahem, the ultimate baptismal fount — and Jesus-shaped corn dogs with a “Have it Yahweh” sign next to the condiments. Mmm, sacrilicious. OK, that last one’s a lie, but two words: missed opportunity.
Joy Wise, a Charleston publicist, remembers Heritage USA well. “My whole family is Pentecostal, so we went many times, and I even heard Jim Bakker speak.” As a 6 year old visiting the park with her church group, Wise was blown away by everything, “There were funnel cakes and rides and a beautiful hotel,” she says.
All was well in the slip-and-slide holy land until 1987, when Jessica Hahn announced that she had an affair with Jim Bakker. She later told Larry King that the television preacher had seduced her by saying, “Listen to me, Jessica. When you help the shepherd, you help the sheep.”
Needless to say, one sheep got sheered. Hahn eventually posed naked for Playboy and later starred in a music video by late comedian Sam Kinison wearing only a nightie. Bakker, on the other hand, was defrocked and de-flocked. The bootycall scandal, along with the discovery that he had bilked followers out of $158 million, resulted in the destruction of his religious empire and the closure of Heritage USA.
“We were devastated when it closed,” says Wise.
Fort Mill Mayor Danny Funderburk says Bakker’s downfall wasn’t just disappointing, it was a blow to the economy too. “It was a big boon to the school system, and it has suffered since they left.” Funderburk says the Fort Mill school district hasn’t been able to recover the extra tax dollars they enjoyed when the preacher and his park were around.
So why go see it today? Well, visiting Heritage USA is a little like stepping into a parable. You know, something about never mixing sno-cones, greedy false prophets, and future Playboy bunnies.
Granted the property is slowly being developed and another evangelical ministry, Morning Star International, has moved in, but even so, it’s worth driving by just to gawk and see how quickly an empire can vanish — from theme park to scrap metal, dust to dust.
They Don’t Practice Santeria
Oyotunji African Village, Sheldon
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was 1973. The O’Jays were rocking some “Love Train,” the last soldier had just left Vietnam, and Carlton Jackson, Jr. was feeling disillusioned. He was working at IBM and studying anthropology at the University of California Berkeley when sometime around Easter he picked up a copy of Jet magazine. It changed his life. On the cover was a picture of a new community called Oyotunji African Village in Sheldon, S.C.
“I bought a one-way ticket and took no luggage,” says Jackson. He’s been there ever since.
Oyotunji is located just off Highway 17 near Beaufort. You’ve probably driven past the small community a dozen times and never realized it, but take a sharp right turn on your way down to Savannah and you’ll find yourself in a different world where residents have traded modern convenience for a chance to live the Yoruba faith and celebrate West African culture.
“Many of the African descendants that awakened in the 1960s and ’70s were hungry for ancestral traditions, values, and culture,” writes Iya Oyatolu Olejoye in Survival and Resurgence of the Yoruba in America. Walter King, a New York City-based dancer, was one of them. In 1955, King began his own personal exploration into African traditions with a trip to Haiti. In ’59, he headed off to Cuba and became initiated into the Orisha priesthood, part of the Yoruba religion. Wanting to share his faith and ideas with African Americans, he returned home with a plan.
“Oyotunji was started by King in 1970 on a plot of land on the other side of 17,” says village elder and root doctor Baba Akinwon. Dressed in a loose, maroon dashiki, Akinwon greets visitors at the village gate and is the go-to spokesman for the property. As the story goes, King, who came to be called His Royal Highness Oba Efuntola Oseijeman Adelabu Adefunmi, felt there was a “cultural amnesia affecting African Americans.” Oyotunji was his antidote.
Akinwon, who grew up in Beaufort, says he first saw the village in 1973, but he didn’t actually move to the property until 1991. “I wasn’t interested in religion at the time,” he says, but as soon as he met a pretty young lady at a club in Beaufort who lived at Oyotunji, things started to change. “The activities here opened my mind. And that lady I met is now my wife of 23 years,” he says.
The transition from modern-day man to village priest was no easy task. Akinwon says, “It was hard for me to come here because I loved to party and dress in nice clothes.” Once an individual becomes a member of Oyotunji, they’re asked to give up their material belongings, and their faith becomes the focus of their lives.
In keeping with that mission, the property is a delicate matrix of shrines. Oshun the god of energy and love, Ogun, god of metal and war, and Oya Mamaloja, goddess of changes like birth and death, all have their own individual places of worship. Respecting one’s ancestors is key as well, and on the day the City Paper visited, the village was celebrating an annual festival to honor the spirits of those past. One villager said this year she was honoring her father by serving her neighbors shots of Johnny Walker Red, her dad’s favorite. If that’s not a reason to visit, what is?
“People come here if they’re having a problem with the law, or they may come ask for assistance from trouble,” says Akinwon, who makes a good part of his living as a root doctor. During his tenure, Akinwon has seen it all, from folks looking for love and revenge, and even a local politician in Beaufort who asked the gods for an Election Day victory. There has also been a parade of celebrity visitors who come to “help their careers in Hollywood,” Akinwon says nonchalantly. We couldn’t get him to tell us which stars that included, but we’ve got five bucks on LaToya Jackson.
Vote for Pedro
South of the Border, Dillon
We’ve all seen the signs. We’ve all spotted the giant sombrero. But just how many of us have actually been to South of the Border? I’ll bet very few. It’s time to change that.
The Mexican-themed rest stop first opened in 1949 as a beer stand “south” of the North Carolina border; the county just over the line was dry. Owner Alan Schafer then built a diner, and, suddenly, business was booming. But South of the Border was missing a certain je ne sais quoi: It needed Pedro.
The mascot that we all know so well only arrived at South of the Border after Schafer took a business trip to Mexico, where he befriended two Hispanic gentlemen and helped them gain U.S. citizenship. The duo later became employees at the burgeoning rest stop’s hotel and, as the website tells it, “People started calling them Pedro and Pancho.” Eventually just Pedro stuck. Oh the ’50s, when a woman’s place was in the kitchen and ethnic slurs complimented every cocktail.
Here’s what Old Mexico looks like in Ben Bernake’s hometown:
Let’s start with the baños. They’re everywhere. Schafer must have known that, aside from the promise of a delicious meal at Pedro’s Casateria, the real reason people pull over is to use the bathroom. Restrooms are strategically placed across the property; they’re in every shop, restaurant, and gas station. And everything, baños included, is decorated in SOB’s signature kitsch veneer. It’s as if a chunk of the old Las Vegas strip landed in South Carolina. The giant sign that greets visitors is in a colorful fiesta font, dinosaur statues wear sombreros, and Pedro’s Pleasure Dome even has jacuzzis and a wedding chapel. Just add a casino and a raging hangover and you’d think you were in Sin City.
But wait, there’s more. SOB is also home to Pedroland, a mini amusement park that offers everything from a Ferris wheel to bumper cars. Plus, they have a new Reptile Lagoon with live alligators and crocodiles.
Former City Paper account executive Kara O’Neil recently visited the rest stop. “We bought a South of the Border ashtray shaped like a sombrero,” she says. “It’s our only ashtray. I love it.” What can we say? If this off-color tourist trap can provide just one small pleasure in the form of plastic ashtray, then we hope it stays open forever.
Sleep is for Suckers
Button King Museum, Bishopville
It’s no easy feat to find, but if you take Exit 108 off I-95 toward Summerton and follow the back roads through miles of farmland and puffy-clouded sky, you might end up in Bishopville, home of Dalton Stevens, retired DuPont worker, guitar player, and Button King.
While working for DuPont, Stevens realized he suffered from severe insomnia. Every night he’d sit awake. Bored and looking for a midnight diversion, Stevens turned to the one thing that could distract his mind: buttons.
“The first thing I did was that suit,” Stevens says, pointing to a denim leisure number. “That has 16,333 buttons on it. It took me two years and 10 months.” His Button King Museum contains the suit, two caskets, a car, a toilet, a hearse, a piano, and his latest project, a grandfather clock, all button bedazzled.
“After the suit, I wrote a button company and asked them if I could buy them wholesale, because I couldn’t afford to purchase so many buttons,” Stevens explains. Instead of cutting him a deal, the company sent him two drums full of buttons for free. That was plenty to get started and his buttoneering took off.
“The funeral home down the street gave me the coffins,” he says when he catches me staring. “One night, I was doing the inside of it, and the lid fell on me. I was trapped in that coffin for seven hours before my son let me out.”
Holy mother of claustrophobia.
Stevens shrugs the event off with a nod, then goes for his buttoned guitar and cowboy hat.
“You ever heard ‘Still Waiting’ by Hank Williams?” he asks, then launches into the song. Stevens is more than just a Button King; he’s an honest-to-God old-school musician. He plucks out the tune like a pro and tells us he performs weekly on his property. Cloaked in his button motif, guitar in hand, he looks like a cross between a young Roy Rogers and Elton John. It’s fantastic.
“I did Carson, Letterman, and Regis.” he says. He has also opened a NASCAR race and was featured on CNN as well. A wall of the airplane hangar that houses the museum showcases signed headshots from all the stars he’s met. I ask him if it was worth all the lost sleep. He smiles and nods, then rubs his hand across his tired eyes and says, “Well, I got to see the world.” He sure did.
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