Monday, September 29, 2014

Abbeville, History in every brick and board

Approaching Abbeville Square.
Drive up to Abbeville's square and you want to find a parking spot. Whether to sit on a bench in the shady park, to see what's showing at the Opera House or to explore what is inside the antebellum and early 1900s buildings, it calls to you.

Pull in and stay awhile.
There never seems to be enough time to do Abbeville justice which requires shifting your pace back 100 or so years.

Abbeville Opera House
Take the Opera House. Since 1908 Broadway's best have sung, danced and acted on its 7,500-square-foot stage. At the turn of that century, road shows traveled by train from New York to Richmond to Atlanta with an overnight stop in Abbeville. City fathers saw an opportunity and had the grand Opera House built. When movies began, it featured those, too, complete with orchestral accompaniment.

Imagine you imagine seeing plays from one of two stage-side boxes?
Today it has been restored to its 1908 glory with two additions, rocking chair seats and air conditioning. Stagehands still use the same rope-pulled rigging as in 1908. Named the official State Theater of South Carolina, Abbeville's Opera House is on the National Register of Historic Places, not to mention showcasing a year-round schedule of live productions.

I hope ghosts are still wandering around the Belmont Inn.
On one side stands the Courthouse and City Hall, across the street on the other side is the Belmont Inn, where those Scandals and Follies performers stayed, although they knew it as The Elysium. The venerable hostelry has been renovated by new owners since I spent a night there and I have to wonder if the ghosts stayed on.

The most notable was the chorus girl who wandered through the rooms looking for her favorite bracelet. She died never knowing it had been taken by another chorine. A colleague swore she had seen the apparition in her room during the night.

Burt-Stark Mansion
There isn't really anything left by the French Huguenots who founded Abbeville in 1764, but the town is rife with Civil War reminders.  It is, in fact, known as the cradle and the grave of the Confederacy. A tour of the Burt-Stark Mansion will explain.

On a hill now known as Secession Hill, the meeting that launched the state's secession from the Union was held on Nov. 22, 1860. According to our guide, the Articles of Secession were written at the Greek Revival mansion which had been built in the 1830s by David Lesley, a planter, lawyer and district judge.

Five years later, April 9, 1865, as the surrender of Richmond was expected any day, Varina Davis, wife of Confederacy President Jefferson Davis, and their children fled and took refuge in the house of their old friends, Armistead Burt, a former U. S. Representative, lawyer and Major in the Confederate Army, and his wife, Martha.

They left at month's end and around noon, May 2, Jefferson Davis arrived with his entourage. After eating, Davis, four of his cabinet members and five Brigade Commanders gathered in the gentleman's parlor for the last Council of War. Davis thought to gather the remains of the army and continue to Texas where they could raise more money and soldiers to fight on. His generals knew better and in the end, Davis was convinced that "All is indeed lost."

Did Judah P. Benjamin hide the Great Seal of the Confederacy here?
Also lost was the Confederacy's Great Seal. One theory has it being buried on the grounds around the mansion.

The Adam fan light of fleur de lis Burt had installed in the 1860s to honor his wife's Huguenot heritage; the red shows she was not of royal descent.
In all, Davis spent about 12 hours here, but they were decisive ones. Following the war, Burt, who had risked his life sheltering the Davises, was broke and in 1868, sold the house. In 1913 it was bought by cotton broker James and Ann Miller Stark. Their daughters were the last residents; in 1987, Mary Stark Davis willed the house to the Abbeville County Historic Preservation Committee.

We  ran out of time and couldn't see the Abbeville Historical Society's 1888 Queen Anne style McGowan-Barksdale House.

Anyone who claims there's nothing worth seeing in these smaller towns has never taken the time to visit one.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Wild Turkey Museum

The Good Girls have been known to run around like wild turkeys, chasing down a flight or a story. But, the National WildTurkey Federation's (NWTF) Museum, officially the Winchester Museum, is a place worth tracking down. We consider it one of those hidden gems, a small interactive museum with world class exhibits. The center is located in the NWTF's national headquarters, in Edgefield, South Carolina.

The Good Girls visit the Winchester Museum

The Winchester Museum is the only museum in the world dedicated to wild turkey restoration, management and hunting. It tells the amazing comeback story of the wild turkey. In the 1930s the population of wild turkeys was down to 20,000-30,000. By the early 1940s they were almost extinct. Then, work began to restore them using the capture and relocate method. By 1973 the population was back to nearly a million. Since then, the population has risen to full capacity at 7 million; however, wildlife management is still important or the turkey population could dwindle again. 

A museum tour begins with 3-D dioramas of the five wild turkey subspecies. It is interesting to note the colorful feathers of a male versus a female. Then, we came upon a Disney quality animated Cherokee Indian who shares legends about wild turkeys. I swear the movement of his hands is absolutely real. Around the corner, another incredibly life-like character sits in a rocking chair and tells more stories about the history of turkey hunting, conservation and the NWTF.

Native American Storyteller

The Good Girls entered a virtual reality theater that put them deep in a forest at the break of dawn. As light began to appear, we heard the sounds of nature mixing with early morning calls of wild turkeys as they flew down from their roosts. Did you know turkeys sleep in trees?

It's a lot easier to hit a wild turkey on the fly with a laser than in the wild.
One of my favorite parts of the museum was the interactive activity of shooting a  laser-like gun at a video of turkeys and a center for learning turkey calls. First of all, I had to learn what one was, as I am not a hunter. A turkey call mimics the sound of the bird and is used to entice them in your direction.

Here's a sample (Sadly, my video failed to record sound!)

Historic turkey calls donated by master turkey call makers Neil Cost and M.L. Lynch are some of the museum's most treasured collections. These items are pieces of art, exquisite works from extraordinary craftsmen. Through these exhibits, visitors can easily view the evolution of turkey calls spanning over the past one hundred years.

I climbed into a retired USDA Forest Service helicopter and watched as movie, much like an IMAX film, had me "flying," looking down on rangers tracking a controlled burn in a forest.

Turkey moms look after their young.
This museum was a significant eye-opener for me. I had no knowledge of wild turkeys before I visited, other than how to cook the domestic version for Thanksgiving. I learned that female turkeys are very good mothers who teach their offspring how to survive. Turkey males, on the other hand, are absentee fathers and in surplus, so hunters are allowed to shoot males. 

Statue outside the Museum in Edgefield
The biggest revelation, and this is actually a new scientific discovery, turkeys are descendants of dinosaurs.  Researchers compared turkey skeletons to dinosaur bones and found the similarities were astounding.  How cool is that?  

The NWTF recently acquired hundreds of acres surrounding their center. They are already developing them for various outdoor uses: camping, scouting, nature trails, skeet shooting and an amphitheater for presentations. In the future many more people will be drawn to the area. That's a good thing because this museum should not be missed.   


We couldn't leave Edgefield without visiting a pottery. After all, this is the locale of Old Edgefield Pottery and the style made famous by Dave the Slave Potter. His huge pots and poetic markings are even more desirable now than they were in the early 1800s. That style with its alkaline glaze is carried on today by Old Edgefield Pottery, but it was closed the day we arrived.

Jane Bess in front of her store.
Jane Bess Pottery Shop
Lucky for us we found potter Jane Bess opening up her lovely store. She showed us samples of her nature-inspired work but it was her most recent volunteer project that drew me in. 

Jane works with active military soldiers who have suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury. She is involved with a program that helps them overcome neurological, physical and emotional challenges. She makes pottery slabs containing an inspiration word like "Trust" and the soldiers break the slab. They then turn those sharp-edged, broken pieces into a resilient mosaic stepping stone. The soldiers put the pieces and their lives back together.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Lots of growing going on in Greenwood, SC

Like many county seats in the South, Greenwood, SC, has a charming, antebellum and turn-of-the-century downtown for its population of 23,000. Unlike many of the others, the movers and shakers here work to make sure their downtown - or uptown as they call it - thrives.

Kelly McWhorter of the Greenwood Regional Visitors and Tourism Bureau gave us a quick tour of three adjacent, re-purposed buildings on Main Street that had been turned into a cultural arts center, a community theater home and a science and history museum. All three nonprofits are interconnected as the Emerald Triangle.

Images from the center's files.
The Cultural Center is airy and spacious with well displayed art by regional artists in what was once a federal building built in 1911 as a post office and expanded in the 1930s.

Handsome inside and out.
Since opening in 2006, the 3,300-square-foot gallery space has had 180,000 visitors.

The Museum fills three levels with special exhibits plus permanent ones. The Regional History and 1900s Main Street exhibit takes visitors back in time. Naturally, we had to try on hats in the Milliner's shop.

How's this for 1914 chapeaus?
Given time we would have loved to explore the M. J. "Doc" Rhodes Gems and Minerals Gallery, the Epic Journeys of Animal Migration and the interactive Discovery Lab.

"Footloose" is the next production, opening Oct. 17, 2014.
The Theatre, once a movie house, is home to the thriving Greenwood Community Theatre. Executive Director Stephen Gilbert showed us around the 300-seat facility and talked about the group's success.

Musicals, staged with a 13-15-piece orchestra and at an average cost of $25,000 to $35,000 apiece, are particularly popular, playing to Standing Room Only audiences. There seems to be no lack of enthusiasm on the other side of the curtain: the recent "Wizard of Oz" production drew 212 auditioners for the 70-80-person cast.

It's a true year-round season with main and second stage productions, a children's theater, special events and movies when the stage is dark.

Connected to the Museum but located at the other end of Main Street, The Railroad Historical Center is a work in progress. Historically a railroad and textile town, Greenwood had five different lines coming through it in 1914. Now four of those antique cars are being restored and memorabilia and artifacts collected and displayed.

Speaking of Main Street, Greenwood's was once considered the widest in the world but reconfiguring it to add store front parking ended that status. It's still pretty wide and the convenient parking probably adds to uptown's success.

Topiary to show
Another reason for Greenwood's popularity is its festivals - barbecue, catfish, discovery, 4th of July stars and our favorite, flowers and the giant topiary featured during The SC Festival of FlowersIt began 47 years ago and peaks the fourth weekend in June. They start putting out the topiary in May and leave it up through most of July.
Prepping for new moss.

We visited horticulturist Ann Barklow, keeper and grower of the Disney-scaled creations, in the greenhouse where volunteers were preparing the beasts for their next plantings.

The original 13 have grown to 40. A giant tiger and gamecock honoring college mascots and safari wildlife from apes to elephants stand waiting for a fresh foundation of moss for the flowers that will make them standouts.

Lunch time brought us to Kickers, a tiny restaurant with huge flavors across from the Farmers Market, where Chef Abdel Dimiati and wife Andrea serve an international, innovative, organic cuisine. His soups are outstanding and dessert, , a fried Oreo, came as a lagniappe. Never would have ordered one but the almost pudding consistency of the cookie and the non-greasy crust was a flavorful surprise.

A surprisingly good fried Oreo.
Don't miss this little gem.

Note the quilt square on side of far left building.
McCormick was another tiny destination, but we were a bit disappointed. The gold mine over which the town is built was closed, the steam-driven cotton gin, one of two in the country, didn't work, the historic house was for sale (its exterior in need of TLC) and the vaunted Quilt Trail was a mere few stops long with small- to medium-sized painted quilt squares.
A quilt square in progress.
With the South Carolina portion of giant Lake Thurmond, the county does have three of the state's six state parks with excellent outdoor recreation facilities including a golf course. Alas, none of them were on our schedule.

Our list of next times is getting awfully long.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Tasting at Childress Vineyards: Sipping and Slipping

On a Sunday morning I took a short walk from the lovely Holiday Inn Express at the Vineyards (where I stayed during my Lexington visit) over to Childress Vineyards. The commanding 35,000-square-foot building is reminiscent of a Tuscan villa and features state-of-the art wine operations, educational tours, lunch at The Bistro, a seasonal concert series, and elegant banquet and meeting rooms.  

Childress Vineyards

NASCAR team owner Richard Childress fulfilled a longtime dream when he opened Childress Vineyards in 2004. When he first began auto racing in California, he visited many estates and became passionate about wine. Although he considered creating a vineyard in California and New York, he chose to grow grapes in his hometown: Lexington, North Carolina. The terroir, with its combination of humid climate, long growing season and gravely, red clay soil are the key natural features of the vineyards. 

Like his RCR Racing team, Childress employs top personnel and the best equipment at Childress Vineyards.  He lured award-winning winemaker Mark Friszolowski and put him in charge of the winery production. The August 12, 2014 edition of The Dispatch, a newspaper in Davidson County, NC, quoted Childress as saying: 

The reason this winery has survived is the quality of wine Mark has been able to make. If we had just average wine, we probably would have closed the doors years ago. I built this winery like a race team. On a winning race team you have to have the best. Mark is the driver, he is the guy who drives this business, and we have a lot of other great people on our team who have contributed to our success.

The Good Girls savored a gorgeous fresh fruit/chicken salad at brunch overlooking acres of grapes ready to be harvested and manicured formal gardens. They then made their way to the atmospheric cellar barrel room stocked with award-winning varietals, reserves, signature, dessert, sparkling and Muscadine wines. The barrel select tastings include eight half-ounce pours and a souvenir glass. They sipped on Sauvignon Blanc, Reserve Chardonnay, Sangiovese, Pinnacle (a Bordeaux-style red blend), Merlot, Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Three Red- the vineyard best seller, and a Finish Line Port. All were superb but I liked the Reserve Cabernet best. 

Prices generally range from about $10- $25 per bottle; the special select  2010 Richard's Red goes for $50. ChildressVineyards was recently selected as one of America’s top 25 tasting rooms by Wine Enthusiast magazine. 

A special appearance by Richard Childress, himself, was a most unexpected and delightful surprise. The Good Girls would have had their photo taken with the entrepreneur except --  Judy's hip replacement decided to pop out, incredibly while she was seated.  At least she had the wine to dull her pain!

Once again I watched EMTs carry Judy on a gurney (as happened on the Good Girls 2013 trip to Georgia) and met her at the local hospital. She received excellent and very timely treatment. We give the staff a thumbs up. By 4:30 the Girls were back on the road and off to Greenwood, South Carolina where the trip would continue. 

I would like to note that Childress Vineyards is a primary sponsor of the annual Lexington Barbecue Festival held in October each year. Artist Bob Timerlake designs the label and Childress bottles a special vintage called Fine Swine  Wine. Bottles go on sale the morning of the Festival and we hear they sell out quickly.  Sorry we will miss the extravaganza which has been called one of the Top Ten One-Day Festivals in the US. 

The Barrel Room at Childress Vineyards


Thanks Lexington Tourism for a fantastic time.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Swine-ful Progressive Barbecue Dinner in Lexington

Lexington, NC  keeps its pork lovin' residents content with 17 barbecue restaurants, all at very reasonable prices.  Although the Swine, Wine and Dine Tour aimed to sample each of them, seventeen in two and a half days was impossible. However, we did manage to cover three in one evening by going on a piggy progressive dinner. It was swineful.

We started at Speedy's Barbecue with a barbecue salad; slices of pork barbecue on top of lettuce with choice of dressing and side dipping sauce.  I chose blue cheese dressing and truly enjoyed the salad as I  had consumed trays of barbecue at Barbecue Central the night before and lunch platters at Lexington Barbecue: chopped barbecue, sliced barbecue, coarse chopped barbecue, barbecue with bark and without. Oh my!

Owner Robbie Johnson says Speedy's  has been in the same location for 50 years. His restaurant uses the rotisserie method of cooking the meat, which is more efficient and cleaner than the pit process. Robbie explained that the pork fat drips while roasting and saturates the pork shoulders below. He says meat cooked this way is very moist. Typically an 18-20 pound raw shoulder will shrink down to 12 pounds.

Speedy's serves an accompanying dip made from one third ketchup, one third white vinegar and one third water with a little salt, pepper, sugar and crushed red pepper added in. The comfortable joint was hopping with satisfied patrons,  but we had to move on.    

Next we went to Smiley's Lexington BBQ where the Good Girls were smitten with the pig statue outside the restaurant. He makes a great photo op.

"Hooray," I shouted, when I learned Smiley's is known for their barbecue chicken. I was delighted with the change to poultry from pork, although they, of course, keep all customers happy with pit barbecue pork, too. My chicken leg tasted moist and tender, truly delicious, and I also appreciated the coleslaw that was white, not red, like at most of the other Lexington establishments. 

Smokey Joe's Barbecue in Lexington

Carrot Cake 
Onward with full stomachs, we headed to Smokey Joe's Barbecue. This restaurant is one of several recommended by Southern Living magazine. They pit cook their pork for 10-12 hours, so the dishes served to diners were cooked the day before. Fortunately, for me, Smokey Joe's is also known for their cakes and pies made locally by The Cake Ladies of Welcome.  I was so full of barbecue, I skipped it and went for  dessert. I chose carrot cake and found the texture wonderfully dense from lots of grated carrots and layered with sweetness from cream cheese frosting. Yummy!  After a few bites, I could eat no more. Lexington, the barbecue capital, burst my seams. I now felt I blended in with all those adorable artworks from a fund-raising initiative known as the "Pigs in the City."

Here are some of the Lexington's famous pigs: