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may/june 2008

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BY MICHAEL KEATING
Originally the bucolic hunting grounds of the Cherokee, South Carolina’s Upcountry was dominated in the early twentieth century by the cotton mills that emerged as engines of a revitalized South. And Greenville—midway between Atlanta and Charlotte—became a mill capital surrounded by mill towns.

Life in the mill towns was tough and the work hard. The towns were usually built by and for the owners, who provided factory churches and factory stores, often with factory scrip. But in the cool of the evening families gathered to watch the men play baseball: The Textile Leagues were born.

At Brandon Mills, 13-year-old factory worker Joe Jackson had already earned a reputation. The eldest of eight children, he worked by day at his father’s side. In the evening, he was on the baseball field.

He was a phenomenon. He first played in the Textile League and then in the minor leagues for the Greenville Spinners. More and more people came out to see him. He was a natural—beautiful and graceful on the diamond. His home runs were known as “Saturday specials”; his line drives, “blue darters”; his glove, “the place where triples go to die.”

Once when new cleats had rubbed a blister on his foot, he took to the batter’s box in his stocking feet. As the ball soared into the outfield and Jackson dashed around the bases, someone in the bleachers shouted out, “Look at that shoeless son of a bitch.” A nickname was born: Shoeless Joe Jackson.

He entered the major leagues with the Athletics, where he was ridiculed as a hick and a rube (which he was), then he was traded to Cleveland, where he was admired for his style and his skill (which were unmistakable). These were the great years of Jackson’s career. He developed a swing so pure that Babe Ruth admitted copying it. “In 1911, his first full season, he hit .408,” wrote sports historian A.D. Suensdorf. “He was unerring in the field, had a powerful and accurate arm, and ran bases with savvy.”
He was traded to Chicago, and his career abruptly was ruined. He was one of eight players implicated in the Black Sox Scandal—where players were bribed by bookies to throw the 1919 World Series. His performance during the Series was his best defense: His fielding was flawless and his .375 batting average was the highest of any player on either team.

Unfortunately, he was gullible, naïve, and provincial—and unable to read or write. The lawyer he hired was more interested in protecting his boss. Nevertheless, a Chicago jury found all eight men innocent. But Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned all eight from the majors.

Eventually he returned to Greenville, where people knew him best and never believed the accusations—people who still vividly remembered the transformational athletic beauty of that boy who was one of their own. He opened Joe Jackson’s Liquor Store and died of a heart attack at 63.

Recently, Joe Jackson’s house was moved to a new location by the baseball field, where it will open as a museum June 22. There’s a statue of him on Main Street on the West Side.

The West End Field survives, now known as Fluor Field. The Greenville Spinners went the way of the Textile League, and Greenville is now home to the Drive, a Boston Red Sox farm team.

During the VVA Leadership Conference, the Drive will host games against the Lake City Captains on July 16, 17, 18, and 19, starting at 7 o’clock. The most expensive seats, which boast seat backs and arm rests, go for $8; the cheapest—lawn and deck seats—go for $5.

If prosperity came to Greenville with the textile mills, prosperity left with them, too. By the time the shopping malls dealt the final blow to the city, downtown was empty, squalid, and scary.

Renaissance means rebirth, and Greenville has been reborn.

Some of the best evidence of that lies right outside the doors of the Greenville Hyatt Regency, VVA’s host hotel. “It’s taken a lot of time,” mused Dicky Nix, former president of VVA Chapter 543.
“But it was all there on paper,” interjected his wife, AVVA Regional Director Nancy Nix.

“Now it’s really come about,” Dicky said with a little awe and a little disbelief. He’s seen the bad days. But as he leads a small tour of his home city, he’s both surprised and delighted to see how far downtown has come.

More than seventy restaurants are an easy walk from the hotel. Good ole Southern cooking? Sure. And rib joints? Got ’cha. But add to that sushi and Thai, excellent Italian, Tex-Mex, and a French café. And the list goes on.

Most of these restaurants are on or near Main Street, which is just behind the Hyatt. That’s a little complicated for those in wheelchairs, who will need to take the elevator to the hotel’s second floor, then take the walkway past the Hyatt’s restaurant to the exit at the back corner of the hotel.

A few blocks down tree-lined Main Street, sharing an intersection with an abandoned Woolworth’s, is a modest sculpture depicting two African-American students. Throughout most of the twentieth century, there was only one school in South Carolina’s Upcountry for black students: Sterling High School. The school consistently received the least funding, the worst equipment and furniture, and the greatest neglect. Despite that, a vibrant community developed around the school and those black students who pursued their education there.

In short, Sterling High School and its students were invested with all the hopes and dreams of the Greenville African-American community. In the late 1960s those students acted on those dreams and sat down at Woolworth’s lunch counter. With that simple defiant act, the movement was born that resulted in the integration of Greenville’s public buildings.

In 1967, during a senior class dance to raise money for Miss Homecoming festivities, the school caught fire and was destroyed. Although the fire marshal blamed faulty wiring, few believed him. Three years later, the Greenville school system was integrated.

Stroll several blocks further south, cross the bridge at Reedy River, walk down another block, turn left down the stairway (or take the nearby elevator), and you’re at Liberty Bridge. This 355-foot suspension bridge, an engineering feat supported only on one side, swings out over the Reedy River Falls. Once the site of textile mills and cotton warehouses, the 32-acre Falls Park is now a respite from city life with gentle walkways that follow the river.

It’s ideal for an evening stroll. But on Wednesday, July 16, starting around 7 o’clock, it will be a great place for music when Marvin King and the Blues Revival, a local “jam band with a passion to play,” takes the stage. The site is the Peace Center Amphitheater on the river. And it’s free, except for the beer.

Come back Thursday night and “shag the night away to beach music.” Also at the Amphitheater, it’s part of Larkin’s Rhythm on the River. The beach music—featuring the Out of Towners—costs five bucks, but it goes to charity. Doors open at 6: 30; the music starts between 7 and 7:30. Hot dogs and hamburgers will be on the grill and there’s a fully stocked bar.

Just a little ways down the river, past the Falls, the Upstate Shakespeare Festival will be in full swing with a production of Molière’s The Miser. All performances are free. They start at 7 o’clock (arrive early; it’s lawn seating), July 17-20.

If free music is what you’re interested in but you can’t make it Wednesday or perhaps the six-block walk was daunting, you’ll have another opportunity Thursday. Just a block south of the hotel on the west side of Main Street is Piazza Bergamo, site of Thursday’s Downtown Live! concert. Be there at 7 o’clock for beer and blues. Gas House Mouse will perform.

Friday night, July 19, the music moves even closer, with a free concert on the plaza just outside the Hyatt. As part of the Main Street Jazz series, vocalist Kellin Watson will perform with her band. You can’t beat the price. Hours are 6-9:30. Food and beer will be served: Not free.

You won’t find nice shops and restaurants north of the hotel on Main Street. But you will find, just beyond Springwood Cemetery and across from McPherson Park, a large Bi-Lo Supermarket and the closest liquor store. It’s only a few blocks, but on foot the hill is daunting, especially in summer.

Instead of the north-south walk along Main Street, you can go out the front door of the Hyatt and take a right on Beattie Place. That will take you past the Bi-Lo Center (named for the grocery chain) just a few blocks away, which is the place where all the big rock and country acts play. For concert information, go to www.bilocenter.com

Beyond the Bi-Lo Center is the Pettigru Historic District. Those who love historic neighborhoods will be disappointed. This area is not so much preserved as it is embalmed. No one really lives here; lawyers long ago snatched up everything for offices. It’s not the place to go to admire gardens or especially nice restorations. Even the local grammar school has been converted into a credit union (“Zero percent on balance transfers”).

However, you might want to stop by the Museum and Library of Confederate History, a bungalow converted into a repository of Confederate memorabilia. The collection is good, but not as interesting as the band of volunteer curators—people who are committed and well read. Although they keep fairly regular hours, they are delighted to accommodate members of VVA. They will stay open late or early, just give them a call at 864-421-9039. The museum is wheelchair accessible through the parking lot entrance.

Closer to the hotel, just a few blocks away at E. North and Church Streets, is Christ Church, one of the city’s oldest and most beautiful places of worship. During an early morning stroll through the cemetery, one will discover tombstones dating to the Civil War. Among the tombstones is one for Lt. John Julius Pringle Alston, who died of “typhoid fever contracted in the defense of his state at Ft. Sumter.”

It’s a handsome brick church. Should you get inside, the light in the simply adorned but large space is filtered through stained glass windows. The huge depiction of the Last Supper behind the altar came from a Munich studio.

If you slip out the front door of the Hyatt Regency and turn left (west), you will be headed toward one of the treasure troves of Greenville—its Heritage Green. On this tract of land, a mere two blocks from the Leadership Conference hotel, are located the Greenville County Art Museum, the Upcounty History Museum, a new gallery for the Bob Jones University Museum, and a library.

Don’t be fooled by its modest name. The Greenville County Art Museum has an extensive and remarkable collection. First and foremost, it owns the world’s largest collection of Andrew Wyeth watercolors. These are gorgeous, magical things. From a distance, only the exquisite technical and compositional control suggests that these are not photographs. But as one gets closer, everything on the paper disintegrates into quick and impulsive brush stabbings and doodles and seemingly random eddies of color wash.

These are not the small and precious works one often associates with watercolors. Some of Wyeth’s works measure three by four foot. Moreover, they span an amazing amount of time: Under Live Oaks, for instance, is dated 1938, while the very large Buttercups was painted in 1992.

With the Hyatt so near, one can luxuriate with this master’s work for a half-hour today, maybe an hour tomorrow. There’s never an admission charge and the museum is open Tuesday to Saturday from 11-5 (it’s open until 8 o’clock Thursday) and Sunday, 1-5.

While the Wyeths may make up the diamond necklace of the collection, there’s lots more to see. There’s a huge collection of work by South Carolina native son Jasper Johns and a very interesting if quirky collection of other American paintings. The museum collects only American painting, and the perspective is decidedly Southern. The Southern Collection includes such twentieth century masters as Georgia O’Keeffe, Thomas Hart Benton, and Edward Hopper. Be sure to take a look at George Bellows’ Massacre at Dinant and Red Grooms’ Painting from a “Play Called Fire.”

Bob Jones University is well known for its staunch conservatism. It’s not quite as well known for its vast collection of Christian art, which spans the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries and includes all the movements of Western Europe, as well as the icon traditions of Russia. Four hundred paintings are on view at the on-campus museum outside town. But a sampling of more than twenty Old Master paintings from that collection is now hanging at the Bob Jones University Museum and Gallery at Heritage Green. This new exhibit space, a former Coca-Cola building, just opened in April. Admission: $5.

Also be sure to visit the Upcountry History Museum. Covering most periods of Upcountry history, including the wilderness period, the Revolutionary War, the eviction of the Cherokee, the Civil War, the rise of the textile mills, and a display on Shoeless Joe Jackson, the museum is bright, airy, and still feels new. There’s a suggested donation.

If, however, it’s a nice day and you would rather go out for a stroll, just beyond Heritage Green off Butler Street is the Hampton-Pickney Historic District. Grand wooden homes wrapped in broad porches set back from crepe myrtle-bordered streets. Lush gardens unfold in the front yards and dogs and kids play in the back.

By Saturday morning, the last day of VVA’s Leadership Conference, restaurant food may be losing its charm. A three-block stroll down Main Street to the Carolina First Farmers Market might restore one’s delight in home-grown produce.

The market opens at 8 o’clock and runs till noon. It’s a cornucopia of Upcountry fruits and produce. Displays of blackberries and peaches compete with yellow squash, green beans, fat red tomatoes, and both white and yellow corn. While the emphasis is on local produce, there are masses of fresh-cut flowers and local herbs and spices to delight both eye and nose.

Additionally, beekeepers bring their wares and there are jellies, jams, preserves, pickles, and relish from local kitchens. Craftsmen from the region exhibit local products, including ceramics, baskets, and gourd work. And, of course, there’s fresh-ground coffee and a bountiful selection of breads and pastries from local bakers.

And behind all those booths are all those beautiful Carolina faces, sun-kissed and smiling, open and welcoming.

 

 

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