When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Kelo v. City of New London, a chill wind blew across the rural South. The Court upheld the decision of the city fathers of New London, Connecticut, to grant a private development corporation the right to condemn a middle-income residential neighborhood, evict the property owners, and construct a marina, high-rise office buildings, and upscale residential housing.
Thoughtful Southerners found Kelo particularly disturbing because, in their region, the developer is king—more admired and accommodated than football players or country-music singers. To pig-eyed mayors and councilmen, he is Moses, sent by the gods of getting-and-spending to lead the region out of Egypt. No candidate for local office has ever been elected by saying, “I don’t want this place to grow. And if the bigwigs at General Motors try to move their headquarters and production plants down here, they’ll do it over my dead body.” Big is better. Small is embarrassing.
Mega-cities such as Atlanta and Memphis and Dallas are not the only places where this ideology prevails. You can find it in the most insignificant rural town. Take, for example, Blackville, South Carolina. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the year 2000, Blackville had a population of 2,973. The Census Bureau estimated the 2004 population at 2,935, a loss of 38 people, or 1.3 percent. However, a website maintained by Blackville real-tors insists—against all evidence and reason—that the population is 5,149. It isn’t a lie so much as a fond hope.
If you drive through the heart of that town, you will see a weather-ravaged building with a sign that urges tourists to stop and visit “Three Flags Over Blackville.” You can be certain that the Devil is sitting inside, leaning back in his swivel chair, picking his teeth.
Over in the next county lies a town buried under coils of blackberry vines, kudzu, pine needles, fallen trees, rotten branches, oaks, and innumerable varieties of weeds. If you go there—and few people are allowed behind the high fences—you can see the remains of curbs, some wide places that used to be driveways, and one or two small bridges. The rest of the town exists only in memory. Today, it is called the Savannah River Nuclear Plant. Once, it was called Ellenton.
In 1951, the U.S. government, using its powers of eminent domain, condemned Ellenton and at least four other communities that lay along the Savannah River—Dunbarton, Meyers Mill, Hawthorne, and Robbins. President Truman announced that the action was taken in the interest of national defense. The word spread quickly: The feds intended to build a plant to manufacture heavy water for use in a hydrogen bomb. The residents of these small communities were stunned.
Most of the families lived on working farms. A few ran businesses: “the Long Store,” so named because of its shape; Brinkley’s grocery; and the Blue Goose, a tavern, where, for generations, the men had congregated to forget quarrels with their wives, squalling children, and the boll weevil. Most regarded the condemnation as cataclysmic.
Administration spokesmen, and South Carolina politicians, maintained that, far from being a tragedy, the “taking” was actually the best thing that had ever happened to Ellenton. People would be paid handsomely for the land. They would move to nearby cities. They would get better jobs. It was the same pitch the city of New London made to Susette Kelo.
Newsweek parroted this argument in a brief article on the subject. The reporter and a photographer swooped into town, located the village bum (every town has one) and his female counterpart, posed them in front of an abandoned farmhouse, and presented them to the nation as Ellenton gentry. Readers could see at a glance that these vacant-faced trolls would be much better off in Spartanburg or Greenville, working in a textile mill, making enough money to keep them in Moon Pies for the rest of their days.
The federal appraiser offered $20 per acre for the land and varying amounts for the buildings, some of which were good, sturdy farmhouses, several of which were antebellum showplaces. A case in point: For their spacious, five-bedroom clapboard farmhouse, the Dunbar family was offered $5,000. Combined with 800 acres of farmland—a good portion of it covered with timber almost ready to harvest—they received $21,000, just enough to build a three-bedroom, two-bath house in nearby Barnwell and for Otis Dunbar to buy his wife a half-carat diamond ring, a long-postponed engagement present. It was small compensation for land originally given to William Dunbar by a grateful English king and farmed by his direct descendants until the federal government drove them off.
For decades after they left, the town lived on in the imagination of the dispossessed, lit by memory. But as the years passed, the lights went out one by one, as the older folks died. Today, children who, 50 years ago, were snatched out of one world and plopped into another have grown old and forgetful. They have lost touch with one another and, consequently, with their shared past.
Some anecdotes survive to commemorate that small, irretrievable world. Here are a few: One late-fall evening long, long ago, three great-grandfathers came back from a hunting trip, ready for a hot meal. To warm themselves as they rode along on horseback, they had passed a jug of whiskey back and forth. When they reached the first house, servants told them that children from all three families had contracted bronchitis and that the women were congregated in one house to share the responsibilities of administering aspirin, reading stories, and applying mustard plasters. When the men came to the house much too late, the women and children had gone to bed. Only one gaslight burned feebly in a downstairs parlor. Full of spirits, they rode their horses up the steps and into the hallway. The host dismounted and walked unsteadily into the dining room, where he found a bare table. He peered into the kitchen and saw two pots boiling on the stove. Both contained mustard plasters. Starved, the three tethered their horses on the hall tree, sat down at the kitchen table, and ate the mustard plasters.
No one could have made up that story, and it could never have survived the years in New York or Chicago or even Greenville. Southern literature has its origins in places like Ellenton. In just such a small town, William Faulkner sat on a bench and listened to old-timers swap tales.
Hollywood, terrified of rural America, typically depicts its inhabitants as cruel and insensitive to the suffering of others. Even in the worst of times, people in Ellenton took care of those who needed help, in part because, in a small town, the needy were so easy to identify. Sometimes, it happened quite by accident.
Miss Mary Bush decided that she could no longer carry logs to the house from the woodpile, so she went into the field where her husband, Major, was working with several of the hands and called him aside. She told him she needed a boy to tote wood for her—not a child, but not a grown-up, either. He thought for a minute and then said, “I know just the boy. That fellow that’s living with the Ashleys. I’ll send somebody to fetch him right now.”
An hour or so later, Henry Todd showed up, the trace of a smile on his face. He was around 16 at the time, and he had a strong back. However, when you looked into his dull eyes, you could see he was “slow.” He worked hard, however, and he seemed pleased to be there. So, instead of returning him to the Ashleys, with their permission, the Bushes put him in a back room of the huge house, and he stayed with the family for some 60 years.
Everyone in Ellenton knew the Ashleys had been “hiding” him, though no one could say how he got there or precisely when he came. The talk was that they weren’t hiding him from somebody but for somebody, a family that did not want to acknowledge the existence of a retarded member, people with a public reputation to maintain. The Bushes may have extracted the truth from the Ashleys. Or they may have gained crucial knowledge from the boy himself, who was a moron, but not an idiot.
Whatever the means, at some point they learned that Todd was only his middle name. His last name—which his mortified family would not allow him to use—was Lincoln. According to what the Bushes found out, he was the unacknowledged son of Robert Todd Lincoln. Robert was the only child of Abraham Lincoln who lived to adulthood. So Henry Todd was the 16th president’s grandson.
After he had lived with the Bushes a while, they made contact with a member of the Lincoln family—Mary Lincoln Beckwith, who was then living at Robert Todd Lincoln’s estate house, Hildene, located in Vermont. Mary Beckwith acknowledged the family connection and, from time to time, contributed money toward Henry Todd’s keep.
When he reached adulthood, he grew a beard; and his resemblance to his grandfather was striking. He was not tall, but he had the same dark hair, a long, brooding face, and sunken cheeks. People in Ellenton noted the resemblance.
No one called him “Henry,” but always “Henry Todd.” “Hey Henry Todd, how are you?” “Fine, how are you?” He said little more than that, perhaps because he could not articulate complicated ideas.
Indeed, he never grew up. When one of the Bushes would return from town, a middle-aged Henry Todd would run out to the car to see if they had brought him ice cream. When they had not, he would sit down in the middle of the driveway and weep uncontrollably.
When the federal government ordered them to leave Ellenton, the whole family moved to Walterboro—including Henry Todd. There, they bought a restaurant and a motel, and Henry Todd did a little work for his keep; but by then, he had grown old. Up in his 70’s, he walked to town one day, perhaps to get some ice cream, and, in his usual daze, stepped in front of an automobile and was killed instantly.
Thomas Dunbar, who served as magistrate in Ellenton during antebellum times, appointed one of his slaves as his bailiff. Since the slave was illiterate, Judge Dunbar would read him the upcoming docket the night before, and the slave would memorize it and call out the names and cases flawlessly the next day. During Reconstruction, Republicans saw to it that blacks took over many state and municipal offices in South Carolina. In Ellenton, the predominantly black legislature appointed Judge Dunbar’s bailiff, now a freeman, as magistrate. The new judge immediately appointed his former master as his bailiff, and the two served in those roles for a decade, as if nothing much had changed.
A magistrate’s court hears cases involving petty theft, the failure to fulfill a contract, simple assault, criminal domestic violence, public intoxication, and any other misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to 30 days. Such arrangements could not have occurred in a full-blown city, North or South, since they depended not only on an infinitely subtle bond between two men of different races who knew and trusted each other, but on whole-hearted acceptance by the entire community, both white and black. That acceptance could only have come about because people knew precisely with whom they were dealing.
For many years, the all-male Ellenton Agriculture Club had convened once a month at its own two-story wooden clubhouse, where members ate barbecued pork, hash, rice, slaw, potatoes, peas, light bread, and pickles. (The menu was prescribed by the club’s constitution.) At these meetings, held every fourth Saturday, attendees heard a 30-minute speech on farming. If the speaker ran over the allotted time, chairs would scrape the floor, and members would begin clearing their throats.
Eminent domain signaled the end of farming for most Ellentonians. Yet they could not completely surrender a way of life they had known for generations. So, to maintain some sense of continuity with their past, members voted to move the clubhouse to Barnwell, where many of them intended to settle. They also moved Ethel, the black woman who prepared the barbecue, and provided her and her family with a place to live and an adequate income.
In Barnwell, they continued to hold monthly meetings, listen to talks on agriculture, and eat barbecued pork, hash, rice, slaw, potatoes, peas, light bread, and pickles. No one ever discovered a penumbra in the constitution that justified serving something new, like Lobster Newberg on rusks. In an ever-changing world, constitutions ought to mean what they say. Out of respect for the long dead, the club still meets every fourth Saturday in Barnwell.
Unlike Atlanta or New London or Blackville, Ellenton never tried to grow. It was content to let nature take care of the population. If, at the end of a year, more citizens were born than died, the population increased slightly. If more folks died than were born, the population decreased slightly. A few people moved away, and a few moved in. The last thing the town worried about was importing industry and growing to the size of Babylon, whose citizens—as Aristotle noted—did not know that they had been conquered for three full days.
Then industry came to Ellenton unbidden, and the town ceased to exist. On former Dunbar land, the nuclear reactor, which today looks as stark and majestic as one of the pyramids, is no longer in operation. It stands like a tombstone over the dead and anonymous dreams of an almost-extinct people.
As an exercise of its sovereignty, the government insisted on moving all the graves that lay inside the condemned area. However, at least one remained and remains to this day—that of William Dunbar, who died in 1735. Though ordered to do so by government officials, his descendants refused to reveal the location of his remains. Today, he lies there in the shade of bearded oaks, blanketed by tall weeds and snarled vines, a lone holdout against America’s proud and irresistible impulse to outgrow her own britches.
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