Blackwater Rising

February 2010
Written By: 
Sandy Lang
Photographs by: 
Peter Frank Edwards

Just fifteen miles east of Myrtle Beach, Conway’s eclectic shops, resident artists,
and lumbering river offer an escape from everything ordinary

Not long after sunrise on a Sunday morning, the Waccamaw River looked as slick as blackstrap molasses. We pushed in the canoe, and with each paddle stroke cut the surface as quietly as possible, gliding under the arches of Conway’s Main Street bridge. Tinted by the tannins of decaying leaves, the Waccamaw slips lazily beside the river town, first established by colonists in the 1730s. The river brought the town and the people (Conway’s population is about 12,000 today)—and, along with them, the businesses of turpentine and pine tar production, lumbering, peanut farming, and tobacco growing.

These days, the city fifteen miles east of Myrtle Beach still carries remnants of all of this history, along with plenty of art, music, and small-town charms, like the ever-changing displays of prom dresses and pageant gowns in the glassed-in, lighted gazebo in the yard at the Magnolia dress shop on Main Street. (I always slow down to see if sequins are still holding sway, and on my last drive-by, there were shorter gowns in fabrics of teal, red, and zebra stripe.)

The most scenic way to enter town is on 501-Business, with its two lanes that span across miles of cypress trees and swampland in the Waccamaw River backwater. Then the road rises from this wild and watery landscape onto a bridge over the river. From there you get a good look at the treetops, brick buildings, steeples, and streets of Conway’s historic downtown. The view alone invites visitors to stop and check things out, to walk along Main and Third Avenue and Laurel past the old courthouse of this county seat of Horry County, or along the paths and parks that follow the blackwater river.

On a recent morning over at Pop’s Glass Station, housed in a building that was a livery stable in the 1890s, Ed Streeter heated a blob of molten glass in a 2,380-degree furnace, and spun it on long pipe, shaping it, while his wife, Barbara, blew down the pipe to expand the glass. Working in tandem is the Venetian style of glassblowing, Ed explained. And that morning, the pair were making pumpkin-shaped orbs, with a French-crackle look to the surface. The handmade results of their work fill their bright studio and gallery, along with other contemporary art—from photography and paintings to collages and sculpture.

The Ocean Fish Market, in eyeshot of the glassblowing studio, is just beyond a nineteenth-century churchyard and a Spanish-moss-draped oak tree. In a small building that backs up to a side creek of the Waccamaw River, Ray Hardee sells fresh flounder, grouper, oysters, shad, perch, and catfish. He’s also got a kitchen and will deep-fry-to-order any fish he’s got. The most popular, by far, is the spot sandwich. “If we couldn’t get a hold of spots, we might as well close down,” he says. “It’s a local thing.”

And here’s how the saltwater pan fish is served: gutted and fried “head-on” whole, from the eyes to the tail, and then wrapped in white wax paper with a slice of soft white Sunbeam bread to go with each fried fish.

We ordered one of those spot lunches and I tried the soft-shell crab sandwich—which was tender and perfectly fried—and we sat, like everyone else, at the picnic tables under the oak tree. Ray sat down too for a while. He said the market has been in his family since the mid-1940s, and they’ve seen a lot of changes in fish and fishing, including the end of commercial netting of the spot runs in nearby Cherry Grove. He’s had to find other sources. And when he fishes himself, he likes to go up on the Waccamaw on his pontoon boat to try and hook a bass or bream, maybe a nice big catfish.

We also had the pleasure to meet and talk awhile with Jennings Chestnut and his wife, Willi, who own Chestnut Mandolins, around the corner on Main Street. Over a dozen years ago, Mr. Chestnut founded and still coordinates the big Bluegrass on the Waccamaw festival in Conway, held each year on the second Saturday of May.

His shop sells guitars, banjos, ukuleles, sheet music, even toy harmonicas—and, of course, mandolins (a stringed instrument with a hollow oval base that’s strummed or plucked like a lute).

Mr. Chestnut, who grew up in Conway and picked red-skinned peanuts as a boy to sell around the tobacco barns, told us how, in 1971, he traced his first mandolin on white paper and set to work making it, using white plastic from a margarine tub for the edging. His mandolins have gotten a bit more refined since then, with collectors and musicians from around the world visiting the store.

He makes them of curly maple and says there are seventy-six numbered Chestnut Mandolins. If you’d like to have one, there’s this: Mr. Chestnut says he won’t ship a mandolin, and won’t sell one to someone he hasn’t met. “Someone who wants to buy one has to come in to the store, stand right here … and I kind of have to like them.”

There are other shops with character, antiques shops and the forty-year-old Grady’s Jewelers, a live-performance theater, and a large independent kitchen store named Bodega. Over on Laurel Street, about halfway back along the aisles of Abrams Department Store and past the perfumed lotions and talc powders is a display of Barbie dolls that the clerk explains are not only from this year, but from inventory leftover from years and decades past. The classic department store is filled with such collections, from church dresses and men’s sport coats, to porcelain Gone with the Wind music boxes.

On other Conway trips, we’ve toured the river with a guide in an electric boat, eaten well at the Riverwalk Grille and at the modern, eclectic Crady’s Restaurant & Bar, taken some country drives, and spent the night at the very comfortable Cypress Inn, in a room overlooking the marina. There, the inn hosts shared their own wine stock with guests in the evening,
and cooked hot breakfasts for everyone in the morning.

Was it good? Let’s just say that hot coffee, mimosas, and pancakes are a fine finish to an early morning canoe paddle through blackwater, anytime.