Click here and here to see other old views of downtown Sumter.
The Journey ... On a recent trip to my home town of Sumter, SC to attend a huge social gathering of high school friends, I spent several hours early in the morning on Saturday when it was still cool, cruising all around Sumter to see her up close. I knew that things change over time and I was expecting that as I drove around and visited all the places that I used to frequent on a regular basis 56 years ago. However, what I was not expecting was the degree of changes that I encountered.
When I left the Holiday Inn Express hotel that I was staying at out on Broad Street just past Alice Drive, I first headed for the Sumter Cemetery on Oakland Avenue to visit the graves of my mother and other family members. After coming back towards Sumter on Broad Street, I turned on Bultman Drive and headed towards the cemetery.
There on this corner used to be the greatest hangout place any teenager could hope or dream of -– Cole’s Drive-in Restaurant where every kid in Sumter went to cruise around the parking lot and later stop long enough to order up some food from one of the many car hops who serviced all the cars in the parking lot around the building. My heart ached to see the old restaurant but it has been long gone -- replaced now with a modern Walgreens Pharmacy -- boring.
To me, this pharmacy was built on hallowed ground where all us teenagers in the 50s and 60s met to renew friendships, show off our cars and dates, and sneak a beer or two when we thought we could get away with it.
We hung out all round each other’s cars and talked, laughed, taunted other “cruisers” as they drove around Cole’s and headed back down Broad Street to Big Jim’s Restaurant -- our other hangout location.
To be cool, you had to hang out at least 30 minute at each location every Friday and Saturday night. The game therefore, was to cruise up Broad Street, whip into Big Jim’s, park and visit for at least 30 minutes and then head further out Broad Street to Cole’s and do the same thing there before heading back down to Big Jim’s and starting the whole cycle all over again. All night long -- from 6 PM to Midnight -- the parade of cars continued.
Now, both places are gone. Their absence made me feel like I had a hole in my memories –- since I could no longer see them or feel their presence around me, etc., their absence tended to make my mind want to say, “They were never here, Mike … you’re just dreaming.”
Anyway, as I continued on down Bultman to where it joins Guignard Drive and then on it to Oakland Avenue where the cemetery was located, my mind cried with memories from long ago about all the wonderful times I had when I used to be one of the weekend cruisers between Cole’s and Big Jim’s.
Of course, when I drove past where the old Sumter Airport used to be there at the intersection of Bultman and Guignard Drive, I was further haunted by all the great times and exciting memories of going there as a child and hanging around all the old airplanes -– including the time when I was 12 years old and went up in one of the old bi-planes.
The pilot, whose name shall forever remain a secret, let me take control of the stick and rudder petals after about 15 minutes of instructions with my hands on the stick and feet on the rudder pedals at the same time as him so I could “feel what was happening,” and then with his hands raised high in the air, he yelled out, “You got the plane, Captain … let’s head for home!”
For almost 15 minutes, I was Captain Bailey and buzzing all around Sumter in an old WWII bi-plane which included a fly-over of my home on Church Street.
Meanwhile, back on Guignard Drive -- needless to say, by the time I reached the cemetery, I was already in a down mood and I was feeling very lonely and sad.
Anyway, I visited with my family there at the cemetery and stood by my car in front of all the head stones (6 for my family) and chatted with all of them. I’ve done this before and for whatever reason, it seems to satisfy some need in me and after I leave the cemetery, I always feel better from having chatted with everyone and letting them know how all of us still here in this world are doing and most of all, how much we still love them and cherish all the memories of them we have of when they were here with us in this world.
Leaving the cemetery, I went back out on Guignard Drive and headed for the downtown area. To get there, I followed Guignard Drive all the way until it ended on Pocalla Road, turned and headed back towards town. Soon I was on Manning Avenue and approaching the “Overhead Bridge” as the bridge over all of the railroad tracks near downtown Sumter was commonly known as. This is my favorite way to approach downtown Sumter.
Approaching Sumter this way has always been special for me. My Uncle John (Humphries) who I grew up with as he lived at grandmother’s house there on Church Street also, was a city of Sumter Fireman. Every Christmas season, they (the firemen) strung the multi-colored Christmas lights across Main Street –- from the bridge to the courthouse up at Calhoun Street -– 6 blocks of lighted holiday dazzle that signaled to all who lived in Sumter, “Christmas is almost upon us and Santa Claus would soon be here!”
These lights were just your regular old 60-watt light bulbs that were hand dipped into paint cans filled with all the bright colors of Christmas -- red, blue, green, and yellow -– and then screwed into regular light bulb sockets, spaced a foot apart, that the firemen had attached to long lengths of heavy wire that hung across the street.
After they were first put up, Uncle John would take all of us that would fit into his car to go see the lights. To maximize the surprise, he always went the way I described above -- backroads to Pocalla Road, then back into town on Manning Avenue so that we could drive up and over the Overhead Bridge and BOOM -- there they were -- a dazzling display of multi-colored lights strung across the street from poles alongside Main Street for as far as we could see.
As a child, I was mesmerized by the view of all the thousands of lights twinkling in the night and realized later when I was grown and had a family, that this childhood memory of mine is where I got my “thing” for stringing up thousands of Christmas lights out in my yard every year at Christmas time.
However, on this day of revisiting Sumter, I was not greeted with that view or anything like it.
What I saw before me tore my heart out -- I was speechless -– I could not believe what I was looking at as I came down off the bridge and started my slow drive up Main Street.
My heart sank as I looked out of my car and saw nothing but a virtual ghost town laid out before me.
It was 8:30 in the morning on a sunny, warm Saturday in early August and there was only a single car -- for as far as I could see –- on Main Street.
Not only were there just this one car, there were NO PEOPLE on the sidewalks.
My mind was reeling in disbelief with the images I encountered as I drove slowly down Main Street towards the center of town -– the intersection of Main and Liberty Streets.
As I drove through the intersection and looked both ways on Liberty Street, I was rewarded with the same view -- no cars, no people. I had tears in my eyes so bad by then that I pulled over into one of the empty parking spaces in front of the old Sumter Theater/Opera House -- the same building where the tall clock tower is located.
I had not only been greeted by no cars and no people on my journey so far, but as I looked around and remembered what I had already seen on my trip from the bridge and up Main Street so far, I realized that I was also being greeted by what looked like, empty store after empty store after empty store.
It was totally depressing.
As I sat there in the car and tried to take all this in and make some sense out of it, I started having vivid flashbacks –- memories -- of when I was growing up here in Sumter in the late 40s and 50s and remembering how it was on this very same street back then.
Back then, at 8:30 or 9 o’clock on a warm, sunny Saturday morning, the sidewalks would have been so crowded with shoppers you could not have stirred the people with a stick nor could you have found a place to park anywhere between the Overhead Bridge and Calhoun Street and the same for at least 2 blocks each way on Liberty Street from Main Street.
There would have already been a traffic cop standing out in the middle of the Main and Liberty streets intersection directing traffic and trying to keep some sense of order as everyone was in a hurry to go here, there, whatever. Your ears would be ringing from listening to all the car horns beeping, truck horns blaring, plus all sorts of additional natural street noises coming from the cars and throngs of people going about their business to be “shopping in downtown Sumter” on a beautiful Saturday morning.
On this day, my mind was screaming to hear anything but alas, no sounds were present. It was as if someone had reached up and turned the volume off on the TV -- leaving me alone on the street in stone-cold silence to just look around at an empty town.
This main intersection now is a far cry from what I remembered. Gone from the NE corner was the beautiful old 7-story Dixie Life building. Built in 1912 -- with classical facade architecture features of decorative stone window ledges, scrolled stone work around the building above the 1st and 2nd floors and then again above the 6th floor and topped off with a large decorative ledge around the top of the 7th floor -- and then torn down in 1973, it was Sumter’s one and only “skyscraper.” Columbia had nothing on Sumter -– “we had a skyscraper too!”
Click here to see a view of Main Street from the top of the Dixie Life building. This picture was taken sometime in 1973 as the movie that was showing at the old Sumter Theater at the time was "Enter The Dragon" staring Bruce Lee.
Some sort of water display now occupies the corner where the beautiful old building once stood. Across the street from it on the SE corner now sits another water themed park. Centennial Plaza replaced the old Sumter Dry Goods store that graced that corner for many years. I used to spend hours in there on Saturdays when I went to town with my Aunt Ethel and she “shopped” every nook and cranny of the store.
Yeah, the water themed places are nice but who cares -- boring –- you can’t shop in the fountains!
But the sight that tore at me the most was across the street from the Opera House.
Where the old Rex Movie Theater used to stand was now nothing but an empty grass covered plot of land -- another “pretty place” with benches to sit on, etc., but boring. You can NOT shop in a park that took the place of at least 5 building they had to tear down.
The Rex Theater is where all of us in the 40s and 50s spent our Saturdays at the movies. Please note that the photo of the Rex Theater was taken just before it was torn down.
Seeing the Rex Theater gone was a blow to my mind. The empty lot I was looking at was like life was trying to steal or erase all my memories of all the wonderful times that I and so many of my friends had been blessed with when we had been glued to our seats in the darken theater and were totally enthralled by all we saw and heard on the big screen.
And, by the way, all this for just 24 cents –- 9 cents to get in the theater, 10 cents for a drink, and 6 cents for a box of popcorn. Best deal for a quarter there ever was!
As I sat there in my car parked on Main Street, I thought about other places (businesses) in downtown that were long gone but left many memories for me to recall –- like The Capitol, Brody’s, and Belk Stroman Department Stores, and S. H. Kress 5 & Dime store to name a few –- including my Uncle Lyons’ Drugstore that was on S. Main just before Bartlette Street. When I would go to the Kress store with my Aunt Ethel, I swear she looked at and picked up everything in that store to examine closely.
What was funny about this is that she did it every Saturday! I asked her one time why she did this and she said, “Well, they might have bought new stuff.”
This same need to “shop” was brought to a dramatic conclusion when in the 80s, they built Clark’s Department Store on the corner of Crescent Avenue and Broad Street -- just 3 blocks from our house on Church Street. Aunt Ethel thought she had died and gone to heaven -– a brand new fully stocked department store like Kress just a few minutes away from ”410.”
Most missed, from a memory stand point, was Lawson’s Pharmacy there on the corner of Main and Hampton Avenue. This was where all of us growing up in the 50s learned to be, and became, certified “Drug Store Cowboys.” Another great place where we loved to go and hang out as drug store cowboys was at Ellis Pharmacy out on E. Charlotte Avenue.
Of course this place too is long gone as having been torn down and replaced with a car service station when they built the “US-15 North-South Bypass” (Lafayette Street) around Sumter along the pathway of an old railroad that ran right by the pharmacy when it crossed over Charlotte Avenue. When we were hanging out there at Ellis’ place in the 50s, we’d slip outside and put pennies on the railroad track and wait for a freight train to come by and smash them flat.
Mr. Ellis finally put a stop to that when on one day, we had a bunch of pennies on the track and when the train wheel hit them, it pinched them somehow that made several of them go flying off the track so fast that they hit one of the windows on his store. Penny pinching by trains stopped that day!
Meanwhile –- back on Main Street -- my watch told me it was past 9 am so I cranked up my car and drove on down Main Street towards Calhoun Street.
More empty store fronts, one parked car, and one person walking on the sidewalk greeted me.
Depressing to say the least. By the time I got to Calhoun street I was totally bummed out as my last favorite memory -- my Uncle Hugh’s B&H Service Station on the corner of Main and Calhoun -- had long since been demolished. They replaced it with another one of those plain looking bank buildings -– another example of the new modern age, square box, lots of glass architecture that in my opinion, is plain, boring looking and shows no hint of style, creativity, or effort to build something that is truly a pleasure to look at and admire.
Give me any day, a building with an outside facade tied to the classical architecture elements as shown on lots of the older buildings still lining Main Street like the old Bank of Sumter building there on the corner of Main and Liberty Street. We’re talking style here -- all the way.
Anyway, I miss the friendly service that we all used to get there at Uncle Hugh’s B&H as they took care of our cars as THEY put the gas in and checked your oil for you and -– ta ta -– opened your front doors and swept out the floor boards for you. Question … when is the last time you had that service provided to you at a “filling station?”
All this for just 19 cents a gallon gas -– what a deal! I could put $2 worth of gas in Mama’s old 1948 Oldsmobile on Friday afternoon and had enough gas to cruise up and down Broad Street between Big Jim’s and Cole’s all weekend long!
After longingly looking at where Uncle Hugh’s station used to be, I turned right on Calhoun Street, went one block to Harvin, turned right and drove all the way back towards the railroad tracks near the Overhead Bridge, turned right again and headed out of the downtown area on Oakland Avenue. This side strip up alongside (parallel) to Main Street was just as eye-opening as Main Street -– no cars, no people, and lots of closed businesses along the way.
Where were all the people in Sumter -- it was past 9 AM?
I spent the next hour crisscrossing Sumter –- driving first west and east between Harvin Street and Guignard Drive along Oakland Avenue, Bartlette Street, Liberty Street, Hampton Avenue, Calhoun Street, and finally on Haynsworth Street.
When I was cruising on Calhoun Street, it pained me to see that my old junior high school -– McLaurin Junior High –- was long gone and replaced by a Church. So many memories of those years flooded my mind as I drove past it.
Later when I was checking out Haynsworth Street, I passed by where I went to high school -- Edmunds High. Now half of the buildings are gone (actual high school moved to some place further away) and the old auditorium building has been turned into some sort of civic theater.
Anyway, talk about being flooded with memories. High school is where we approached adulthood and were getting close to that time when we were anxious to stretch our wings and go flying off into the future -- ready and able to conquer the world. It was also a time for romances that stole our hearts and gave us dreams to last a lifetime. There were good times and bad times, but we all made it and flew away.
Even when I was passing by where I went to grammar school, between Hampton and Liberty streets alongside Washington Street, I was greeted with more sad feelings as all remnants of the school place, except for the tall stone Sumter District Monument to the Confederate Dead, were long gone.
Here once were three beautiful standalone buildings -- Washington School (grades 1 & 2), Central School (grades 5 & 6), and Hampton School (grades 3 & 4) -- and large areas of play fields. What was unique about the three buildings was that all three were of totally different designs. Washington was old style -– beautiful multi-story Victorian -- whereas Central was more like a multi- story classic train station or bank building and Hampton was a beautiful brick multi-story Greek style looking building with huge white columns on the front.
Situated there now was another non-descript modernistic bank building and some church and lots of paved areas for parking cars. Like I have said before … boring.
After my crisscrossing town from east to west, I then drove north and south back and forth between Broad Street and Oakland Avenue along Washington Street, Salem Avenue, Purdy Street, Winn Street, then on to Highland Avenue back out to Broad Street.
From here, I headed back to Church Street, turned left and headed towards Riley Ball Park at the end of Church Street.
I crept along Church Street and eventually, passed by “410”, as my home on Church Street was affectionately known as (worldwide, I might add). Now, she sits there lonely, and falling down as she has been deserted for over 15 years. My heart cried for her -– she deserves to be lived in and enjoyed as my family did from 1916 to 1996.
As I continued on around Riley Park and back out to North Main Street to the US 378 Bypass and back to my hotel out on Broad Street, my heart was pounding with pangs of regrets, loneliness, despair, and just a touch of happiness for seeing some things that were still there that I remembered that were not yet torn down.
As I drove along, it became crystal clear to me that my journey had shown me in very graphic images that the old saying … “You can never go back home” … was an absolute fact of life.
In some ways, I felt like I was on a haunted journey -- seeing nothing but ghosts from times long since gone. People, buildings, places -– all gone and/or replaced with new faces or structures.
Oh, I admit that some things were the same -- like the Overhead Bridge, the physical streets that I grew up on and roamed at large, a lot of the old buildings in downtown, my church (Trinity Methodist at the head of Church Street at Liberty Street), etc., but so much else had changed and/or was just plain gone.
For example, as I drove my crisscross path back and forth across Sumter (between Harvin and Guignard Streets), I was blown away by how many deserted, neglected, and abandoned houses I encountered on my journey. These ranged from old small houses just rotting away in disrepair to once fine, beautiful old style large homes that were built on a grand scale in the late 20s, 30s, etc. Most of these fine old homes had tall pillars holding up sweeping porches that once were used by folks who sat out there and watched the world go by and waved at friends and strangers alike as they passed by.
Now, they sat there covered in dirt and vines, like my “410” –- forgotten and lonely. I felt -- I could literally sense -- that they were trying to tell me in some way that they saw me and wished that for just a moment or two, I could stop and walk up on their porch and just sit a spell.
Back at my hotel, I was brought back into reality with the cars zooming along on Broad Street, the TVs going full blast about the upcoming election, and kids hollering and laughing and having a great time swimming in the indoor pool.
This was all nice but as I walked down the hallway to my nice clean hotel room, I wished with all my heart that I could sneak into the old Rex Theater and watch Gene Autry chase after the bad guys just one more time and then watch Captain Video save the world from the evil Vultura on the planet Atoma!
Maybe then I thought, after hearing old Gene sing one of his cowboy songs, that the haunting images that had filled my mind during my visit back home would fade away and let me be at peace with myself so that only the good memories of those times long ago would remain.