Take a turn off U.S. 17 and explore South Carolina’s third-oldest city
If your knowledge of Georgetown is limited to its prosperous but occasionally odiferous paper mill, its uncomely steel mill, or its ubiquitous fast food chains, then you’re guilty of U.S. 17 tunnel vision. You may be one of the millions of southbound travelers who have never turned left off the highway to see the best parts of the third oldest city in South Carolina—a city that pre-dates the Revolutionary War, a city that acknowledges its sins of the past but is proud of its heritage, historic importance and quirky characters. And the best part? Getting there requires only a little effort.
Georgetown beckons travelers by land and sea to her brackish waterfront and tree-lined streets overarched with massive live oaks. In the Historic District you’ll meet the locals who tell ghost stories, be invited to tour grand homes of the Colonial and Antebellum eras, and welcomed to visit the city’s old churches, museums and nearby plantations. You may also learn some interesting facts about the city. If the locals like you well enough, they may tell you about Madam Hazel Weiss and her well-known brothel, the Sunset Lodge, with remnants still on U.S. 17. For decades the “lodge” ran with impunity and wasn’t closed until the late 1960s. Here in Georgetown you’ll hear stories that just can’t be true, but are.
Enmeshed within the city’s 300-year history, there are fabulous bed & breakfast accommodations, such as the luxurious Keith House, the historically important Mansfield Plantation and the stately Harbor House. There are excellent dining options such as the casual fine dining found at the Rice Paddy restaurant, Limpin’ Jane’s and Portofino’s. Maybe Buzz’s Roost, Big Tuna or the River Room are more your taste, or one of the handful of diners, cafes, bakeries and coffee houses.
Fabulous events and festivals each year give many more a reason to visit. They include the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Brass Quintet concert April 17 on the grounds of Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church, the inaugural Coastal Brew Festival April 27, October’s Wooden Boat Show and March’s Plantation Tours. The Swamp Fox Players provide community theater at The Strand, a converted movie house and theater first opened in 1941 at 710 Front St. The Strand now shows art house movies in between their productions.
Antiquing, open-air tram tours, fishing, shelling, sailing and pirate tours aboard a number of commercial vessels, plus enough to see and do for many days, make the city a picture-perfect spot for a day trip or an extended stay. There are many reasons that make that left turn more tempting with each trip through town.
Located on the coast not quite halfway between Myrtle Beach and Charleston, Georgetown is a river town, but barely. The Sampit River, on which Georgetown’s waterfront is located, empties almost immediately into Winyah Bay and then flows out into the great Atlantic. Native Americans, the Spanish, and then the English and French all used the natural harbor and confluence of multiple connecting rivers to conduct business and settle into Lowcountry living and commerce.
While there have been changes in the almost 500 years since European settlers first attempted to make the region home, Georgetown’s original four- by eight-block grid, laid out in 1729, showcases many original homes whose first owners were loyal Englishmen and French Huguenots. When the African slave trade and the accompanying crops of rice and indigo made these first settlers wealthy beyond imagination, Georgetown became internationally known.
When the American Revolution was underway, local hero Francis Marion—dubbed the Swamp Fox—led guerilla raids against the British throughout the Lowcountry.
Occupied by the British and later by Union armies during the Civil War, the harbor was first an important supply point for the fledgling U.S. military, and remains an important seaport today. For centuries the city was the largest settlement on the coast between Charleston and Wilmington, N.C. By 1840 the city’s port was the biggest exporter of rice in the world, though its working plantations are long gone.
Today, dozens of original colonial and antebellum homes and structures still exist, and together they have become the modern Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. With less than 10,000 residents (60,000 county-wide), the city is small compared to nearby Charleston and Mount Pleasant, who have a combined population of around 285,000. But that’s OK with much of Georgetown’s populace, including recent transplants who find the town folk to be community-minded and friendly. Its location is close enough to the big cities, but far enough removed to enjoy a slower pace.
An Afternoon, an Evening
and a Morning
To find out more about a town I thought I knew pretty well, I decided an overnight was in order, and I found a well-suited inn.
I checked in around 3 p.m. on a Wednesday at The Keith House, a bed & breakfast inn at 1012 Front St. owned by proprietors Brandy and Nick Davis, with day-to-day operations co-managed by Innkeeper Diane Seale-Kludt. The inn, which was the Davis’ home prior to opening in January 2012, served as my home base for an extended visit to a city some think of as a miniature Charleston. The charming B&B (circa 1825) was fully renovated in 2011. Four upstairs guestrooms, each with private baths, come with king or queen beds and big, fluffy pillows. I stayed in the The Lafayette Room, which has a private doorway leading to an east-facing outdoor veranda. A large armoire concealed a flat screen TV, while two full-length robes waited in the closet. A plush settee, an individual thermostat, cable and high-speed Internet made the room perfect for a relaxing, private and comfortable overnight.
After a quick change, I was back down the B&B’s original staircase, which is wide enough to accommodate the hoop skirts of its past owners. Though only open for a short while, the inn has already earned a reputation for its hospitality, modern luxuries within a centuries-old home, fine Southern breakfast and a perfect location in the heart of the District. “Our guests last week never once got in their cars,” said Brandy Davis. “They parked out back and could walk everywhere they wanted to be.”
I found it an easy stroll down the street to the District’s commercial core where I took in a late-afternoon cocktail and a cup of She Crab soup at longtime favorite local’s spot, Buzz’s Roost. While the cool and rainy weather drove us inside, on nicer days a rooftop bar and picnic-style seating on the Harborwalk affords views of beautiful sunsets and the many boats docked just a stone’s throw away.
Up and down Front Street some of the antique stores were open until around 5 p.m., which left just enough time for a quick spin through their assortment of collectibles and furniture, offering something for every taste and budget. Tomlinson’s department store has been a Front Street fixture since the 1960s, when the town was buzzing with commerce. “We had everything down here,” said Seale-Kludt, a lifelong resident who is a walking-talking historian of all things Georgetown. “My daddy came to work at the paper mill when it first opened,” she said. When I asked about the mill’s occasionally pungent aroma, she said, “We rarely smell it. You don’t even notice. And when we do, it smells like bread & butter to me.”
Industry vs. History
The International Paper Mill and the Steel Mill are big employers in the area and provide a livelihood for many residents. The challenge for the tourism industry, another enterprise with major economic impact, is to overcome the industrial image. While the industry has been important to the city, its large Historic District and the bustling waterfront are the reasons visitors and their out-of-town dollars show up.
At 729 Front St., the South Carolina Maritime Museum recently opened, with Director Susan Sanders working the phones and the counter inside. The large building will house maritime exhibits of the region and has room to grow. “We have a modest beginning here,” she said, “and as the Harbor Historical Association we’re the non-profit group that puts on the Wooden Boat Show each year. This has been 15 years of saving money to open this museum in this building.”
All along the ten or so blocks of Front Street, museums, home tours, gift shops and dozens of interesting establishments all were welcoming and glad to see a little action on an otherwise quiet afternoon.
With the sun setting, I strolled to the Rice Paddy at 732 Front St., where I enjoyed bacon-wrapped oysters accompanied by a basket of fresh, hot bread varieties served with real butter. The comfortable bar had plenty of room for a dozen or more patrons and a large dining room in the historic building slowly filled with groups large and small.
Across the street, Limpin’ Jane’s (713 Front St.) served $1 Pabst Blue Ribbon draft beer, offered great deals on cocktails, and presented a creative menu from trained chef and co-owner Tara Tracy. I sat at a cocktail table against a wall under real gas lamps attached to the exposed brick interior. Here the menu changes regularly, but generally you can choose from great starters ($3.50–$10), which may include marinated shrimp, pimento cheese, frog legs, soups and more. For lunch try an elk burger, Reuben or oyster po’ boy, or consider the Southern staple meat-and-two or meat-and-three. Entrees include a cowboy ribeye, stuffed flounder, lamb chops and shrimp and grits. Tracy and Bryan Shepler opened the restaurant about a year ago, after Tracy left her position as chef at Crady’s Restaurant in Conway.
While on to my next stop, I was struck with the sudden and delightful realization that Front Street was well-suited for a pub-crawl, with six or seven spots to choose from, all a short walk to the B&B.
Like most small towns, there’s a loyal, eclectic group of characters who inhabit the local establishments, and though they all know one another as friends, they were welcoming to a stranger in their midst. I shot pool, talked with local artists, discussed the state of the world and heard ghost stories and fish tales from real fishermen.
Overnight the rain gave way to sunny skies. The east-facing room’s large windows welcomed the morning sun’s warming rays, while downstairs a full Southern breakfast was well underway by the time I made it to the B&B’s kitchen around 9:15. By 9:30 breakfast was served in the dining room, including grits, sausage, homemade biscuits, soft scrambled eggs with chives, and plenty of coffee and orange juice. Then came more stories. “I tell everybody about Sunset Lodge,” laughed innkeeper Seale-Kludt. “They were great customers of our [family’s] florist shop. I’ve been here my whole life, and I knew Madam Hazel personally, and some of the girls. Miss Hazel owned a home on Sullivan’s Island. She had a son and grandchildren that never knew her business.” Small wonder.
After breakfast and check out, I took a short trip across the street to the Kaminski House, whose tour was well worth the small fee. The history of the house and the stories of its many families were captivating. The Rice Museum and old Clock Tower (currently without any hands) finished my Historic District visit before driving less than 10 minutes to Mansfield Plantation, just off of S.C. 701.
Mansfield Plantation (circa 1718) is not open to the public for regular visits and tours, yet. But as a guest of their B&B accommodations, you’ll have a virtually private, unfettered view of this property on nearly 1,000 acres. Mansfield’s slave street is one of the most authentic and original in the U.S. Nine whitewashed structures in various states of repair are what remain of the original village that was once home to around 100 slaves. Since the descendents of the original Parker family re-purchased Mansfield in 2004, they have begun restoring the structures.
Accommodations are available in one of three guesthouses, and breakfast is served within the main Mansfield home. While touring the grounds you’ll see one of the few remaining original rice winnowing barns in the South. Hand-dug rice canals surround the property, and the buildings and natural surroundings are so authentic, the plantation was used in the making of the 1999 Mel Gibson film The Patriot.
Plans for a museum and more public access will ensure that future generations can experience the beauty of this mighty plantation of the old South.
Georgetown is a city of extremes. It struggles to grow and come to terms with its industrial heritage and its historic importance, but seems to manage both well.
Visit this gem of a city less than an hour from Myrtle Beach, and see for yourself what lies hidden just off the highway. Here the Old South meets the contemporary in ways that may surprise you.