Tuesday, October 29, 2013

An Important Piece Of Charleston History Rolled Into Summerville Monday-The Replica Of The Historic "Best Friend"

The purchase of my first train set is the typical boy's tale revolving around the saving of tips from paper delivery. After accumulating the necessary funds, I purchased it from a discount store, no longer in existence. It was an HO scale train set with two blue-gray diesel locomotives. As time passed-by, I expanded the tracks, added more cars and more accessories. Spent countless hours at my cousin's house setting up the trains and running them. Classic boyhood fun and all part of the love affair with trains.

The real-life, full-scale versions have fascinated people since the steam locomotive's first appearance in the late 1700's and continue to fascinate the masses today, especially the massive iron horses of the 1800's. There is something soothing about the sound of the clickety-clack of the steel wheels on the steel tracks that brings to mind simpler times and massages our curiosity on how our predecessors experienced life. Summerville's place in that history is well documented as evidenced by Monday's festivities.

Our "Best Friend" rolled into town and Summerville's residents came out in large numbers to greet and celebrate the historic arrival. It was the final stop of a long journey that began six years ago. After leaving Summerville, "Best Friend" will complete the journey in downtown Charleston where permanent residence have been arranged, a glass enclosure on John Street. It is the famous steam locomotive owned by the City of Charleston.

This "Best Friend" was built in the late 1920's for the centennial of the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company. It is a replica of the original "Best Friend", which made its first run on December 25, 1830 for the Southern Railway System. Summerville was the first stop out of Charleston on the railway.

The replica was displayed in front of the Summerville-Dorchester Museum on E Doty Ave next to the tracks not far from where the train stations once stood. Patrick Barber, owner of Superior Transportation and the flatbeds used to transport the brightly painted replica, beamed with pride.

We chatted and I asked questions. I knew the original "Best Friend" was only in service a short time due to an accident, but Patrick detailed the unfortunate event. "The locomotive was destroyed by a boiler explosion later attributed to the ignorance of the engineer who seeking to take a nap under a tree disabled the safety valve with his bandanna to prevent it from making its usual loud hissing noise," Patrick explained.

Chris Ohm, director of the Summerville Dorchester Museum, orchestrated the event and fielded questions from the onlookers. Chris and I both agreed building a replica of Summerville's first train station would be a huge tourist draw for Summerville. "The idea of building the train station has been proposed. Maybe, sometime in the future it will be a realistic possibility." The first train station in the 1800's was a classic Victorian Style station decorated with an elaborate gingerbread trim.

E Doty Ave was lined with vendors - peanuts, popcorn and a stand with lemonade, cider and of course, sweet tea. Steel drum music filled the air. Ken Burger, author of a trilogy of South Carolina stories and "Baptized in Sweet Tea", sported a face painting of the historic locomotive in celebration of the event.

The gathered crowd, boiling over with anticipation, eagerly awaited the storied arrival and when it finally pulled in, expectations were more than satisfied. It was monumental. Cameras and cell phones clicked in concert. Train enthusiasts basked in the nostalgia. The older residents recalled it. The adults amazed at it. The kids loved it. I wondered how the engineer dealt with the weather elements and what it would have been like to ride in the open-air coaches.

During the festivities, a freight train on its way to Charleston cruised past blasting its powerful horns repeatedly in respectful recognition of its forerunner as the engineer waved to the crowd. A reminder the Southern Railway System extending out of Charleston with Summerville its one-time first stop, the first railway to carry U.S. mail, is still actively hauling freight today. Although not passengers, there is always the dream. It was Summerville's day to blow its whistle and bath in the glory.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A One Of A Kind Distillery On Charleston's Only Winery-Firefly and Irwin-House Winery

On the port side of Charleston, discreetly tucked away on moss-draped Wadmalaw Island, is the Lowcountry's only winery featuring vino made from domestic muscadine grapes and distilled spirits imbued with locally grown tea. Located on a road that ends at a fish hatchery, blanketed with the gnarled branches of age old oaks and a peek-a-boo view of the intercoastal waters of Wadmalaw Sound, two modest brick pillars marked the beginning of a long, winding stone-packed driveway leading to two unpretentious wood-constructed buildings - the humble tasting rooms of Irwin-House Vineyards and Firefly Distillery. Out of this simple island setting comes five of the South's finest wines and the world's first hand-crafted sweet tea flavored vodka.

On this beautiful morning of October, for the first time since moving to the Lowcountry, I visited the Irwin-House Vineyards finally fulfilling a long standing want - to see and taste first-hand the sweet tea flavored vodka that was featured in a drink I had the pleasure of consuming while dining at the Husk in Charleston. It was there I saw the name Firefly for the first time and after finding out it was brewed locally, visiting the brewery became an unrelenting desire.


Irwin-House Vineyards spreads out over the island some 48-acres consisting originally of 2,700 vines planted by Jim and Ann Irwin in March of 2001. Fulfilling a dream, Ann's gardening and painting and Jim's wine making, they purchased the property and converted the original farm barns into a winery and distillery with tasting rooms for each. Ann's gardening hobby is apparent by the large fenced in area where sugar cane and an assortment of indigenous plants grow with a small weather-worn shack in the middle rising above it all. I asked if that was the sugar cane they use in their distillery process. "We grow the sugar cane on our farm on John's Island," Mr. Irwin informed.

As you drive up the long winding driveway, the vineyard comes into view. Fenced-in rows and rows of mature muscadine grape vines spread out before you. After parking my truck under the tall oaks, it was a short walk to the rustic buildings housing the tasting rooms. A patio with a variety of chairs, potted plants, overhead strung lights, Firefly signs, and two joggling boards separated the buildings. There was a large group of parents, mostly mothers, with their children eating at tables scattered about the grounds outside of the Firefly tasting room, which was my first stop.

The interior was farm modest and down-to-earth island simple, one main bar and two smaller bars. Bottles of Vodka and Moonshine lined the walls, accompanied by a couple of electric guitars and a popcorn machine. There were six other patrons standing at the main bar chomping on popcorn and downing shots of Firefly.

I paid the $6 for a choice of six tastings from a list of Firefly's offerings. My choices were Sweet Tea, Raspberry Tea, and Peach Vodkas, Sea Island and Java Rums, and Raspberry Moonshine. My bartender served a shot glass of each one at a time while two ladies standing to the left of me, captivated by two puppies running around at the feet of the bartenders behind the bar, oohed and ahhed at their antics.

I savored each pour. They were all uniquely tasty and very smooth. Picking a favorite was difficult, but Sweet Tea and Raspberry Moonshine won out at $20 a bottle, although the Java Rum was very tempting. "The Java is very good in making Black Russians," she added.

You are free to roam among the vines where clusters of aging grapes still hung. You will likely be greeted by a friendly white Brahma bull that also roams freely among the vines. I walked around the distillery building containing a room full of barrels and another room designated the laboratory. There was also a shiny, silver still and huge vats housing the fermenting spirits. I watched workers bottle and package the Firefly brand.

It was an informative and relaxing day. I did not do the wine tasting, saved that for the next visit. For now, I achieved my goal. Address: 6775 Bears Bluff Rd, Wadmalaw Island.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

For An Entertaining Night Of Eccentric Nonsense And Philosophic Conversation, "Picasso At The Lapin Agile" Is A Must See

Put on your thinking caps and bring along your funny bone and head to the James F. Dean Theatre for some passionate humor with Steve Martin. Not Steve Martin the actor and comedian, but Steve Martin the writer. Picasso at the Lapin Agile, pronounced with a French flare, just opened Friday night and will be running the next two weeks.

With a sparkle of eccentric nonsense and philosophic conversation, the play explores the idea of what might have happened if two historical figures in their early twenties and on the verge of achieving greatness, such as Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, were to have bumped into each other.

The play takes place at a trendy bar in Montmartre, France called the Lapin Agile, which literally means "Nimble Rabbit." It became known by that name when artist Andre Gill in 1875 painted the bar's sign depicting a rabbit jumping out of a saucepan. By 1904, the year the proposed meeting takes place, the bar was a favorite spot for struggling artists and writers, thus the reason for all the pictures hanging on the wall of this one scene play.

The play begins with the bartender, Freddy(Geoff Jordan), preparing for its open. The first person to arrive at the Lapin Agile was an older gentleman(Larry Wineland) followed shortly thereafter by waitress Germaine(Blair Cadden) and then Albert Einstein (David Barr), who proceeds to state his reason for being there - an expectation of meeting up with a red-headed woman(Victoria Hartshorn) he had just met.

Although the prearranged rendezvous was supposed to take place at another establishment, Einstein reasoned he would likely meet her at the Lapin Agile despite the agreed upon location. "We have similar minds," Einstein confidently stated with scientific certainty. "I am here, so she will come here." Conversations between the characters ensue with Einstein weighing in occasionally with his perspective. Einstein identifies himself and Freddy expresses doubt over his claim until Einstein proceeds to mess his hair up, and from that singular moment the laughs begin.

Freddy tells a supposedly funny story of a man wanting a baker to make him a cake in the shape of an "e" that nobody gets and Einstein proceeds to demonstrate why out of the alphabet the choice of "e" made more sense. The older gentleman tells a sad story about a woman he made love with and makes constant trips to the bathroom because he has a problem common to men his age. The very same bathroom from which an unnamed man(Alan Garner) with long sideburns and blue shoes emerges in a puff of smoke from the future. Germaine conceals a dirty little secret and Pablo Picasso played by Peter Ferneding gets to kiss all the pretty girls because Pablo loves woman about as much as he loves his art, but is notorious for using them. There was also a ponderous amount of discussion aimed at a painting of sheep.

The play contains a diverse assortment of characters fitly compiled by director JC Conway and assistant Jean Gatson. The wildly dressed oddball by the name of Charles Dabernow Schmendiman, a character who claimed to be as great as Einstein and Picasso, was amusingly portrayed by Robert Frank. Watching him perform reminded me of Harold Hill from "The Music Man" only hopped-up on red bull, and I mean that in a good way. His comical enthusiasm lit up the set. What would a play about Picasso be without a testy art dealer named Sagot(Chad Estel) and a beautiful blonde for a pleasant distraction by the name of Suzanne(Lizzie Mears).

A few enjoyable highlights were David Barr's engaging rendition of Einstein explaining the logic of the pie made in the shape of an "e" and Blair Cadden's depiction of Germaine's sagacious chastisement of Picasso for his love'em and leave'em ways. And then, there was the "dueling of the pencils."

There are moments that will leave you thinking, "Wow, I didn't know that," long after the play ends. If you pay close attention, you will be able to catch the subtle, historical tidbits intertwined with the punch lines.

For a delightful evening of comedy Steve Martin style, pick a date and come on over to the home of the Flowertown Players, the James F. Dean Theatre in Summerville. For show times and to purchase tickets, click on this link- Picasso at the Lapin Agile.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

An Unusual and Bizarre Legend Associated With One Of Summerville's Famous Train Stations

Summerville's 1800's Victorian Style train station,
moved to Ladson in 1900 as pictured here.
Although I have not seen any official documentation, and you can correct me if you know differently, it makes perfect sense to me as to how Summerville got its name. The following explanation details how I arrive at that conclusion.

Some of the wealthy residents of early coastal Charleston seeking refuge from the oppressive heat of summer and disease carrying insects of the coastal regions established a village among the shadows of Charleston County's tall pines. Summer retreat + village and voila, you have Summerville. As to the exact date the village received the name it was destined to be known by is not absolutely clear, but the fact there was an "Old Summerville" and a "New Summerville" is documented. The distinction occurred with the advent of the railroad.

In 1827, the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company was organized and chartered by a group of citizens from Charleston. The railroad trustees eyed the emerging community of Summerville as a place to develop a large tract of land with a rail station as its center.

The tract of land would be a square grid in the form of a checkerboard with broad streets and every other square designated as parkland, a layout created by Thomas Jefferson in 1805 to fight yellow fever, a prevalent disease of coastal Colonial America. Called the Detmold Plan, it was named after the Company's most creative engineers, C.E. Detmold. The chosen tract of land was adjacent to what is now called "Old Summerville," the area of the first settlement where the wealthy planters built their summer residences.

In 1831, the tract of land was purchased and "New Summerville" was established - 1,500 acres at 37 cents an acre according to the Charleston Courier of Aug. 20, 1831. It was the first stop on a 136 mile planned railway line. The South Carolina Railroad when finished would extend from Charleston to Hamburg near Augusta, GA. Completed in 1833, it was honored with the distinction of being the longest railway line in the world and the first to carry U.S. mail. "Best Friend" was the name of first locomotive to operate on the line. It was also the first locomotive built in America. Destroyed in an accident, "Best Friend" was replaced with "The Phoenix."

In 1848, the first commuter train between Charleston and Summerville was begun, running in the summer months only, no doubt transporting the wealthy residents of Charleston to their summer retreats and back. Yellow fever epidemics ravaged Charleston between 1852 and 1858 leading to an upsurge in Summerville's population, which in time led to its famous reputation as a health resort. The commuter train began to operate throughout the year and continued to do so until its termination in the 1960's.

1920's Town Square with train station in background
The center piece, the train station, would occupy a plot facing town square where the railroad tracks crossed Main Street. The last one was built in 1900 - replaced the smaller classic Victorian Style station decorated with an elaborate gingerbread trim, which was moved to Ladson. It was an impressive 100 feet long and 25 feet wide passenger station constructed from wood with wainscoting about halfway up and stuccoed the rest. But the station that existed in 1886, the smaller Victorian station, is where all this history is headed and where my story takes a bizarre turn on the tracks into the Twilight Zone.

Summerville's 1800's Victorian Style station at left-center
The date was August 31st. The time was 9:45 pm. The inbound train had just passed Jedburg. Awaiting its arrival, stationmaster Frank Doar was peacefully sitting in his chair drifting in and out of sleep, when he was suddenly startled by an elderly blackman who appeared out of nowhere on the depot platform. The agitated old fellow excitedly told the stationmaster several miles up the line the tracks were a twisted mess and he needed to immediately release warning flares to alert the incoming train of the impending danger.

Frank ordinarily would have been doubtfully apprehensive, but on this occasion he sensed the old man was being sincere. Frank quickly released the emergency flares called torpedoes, then turned to speak to the old man, but realized he was gone, as if he vanished into thin air.

Frank removed his pocket watch and glanced at it, the time was now 9:50 pm. At that moment, an eerie hissing sound enveloped the town followed by a massive explosion. The ground began to shake violently. Walls of nearby buildings began to collapse and swaying trees were ripped out of the ground by their roots. A massive earthquake struck Summerville and the surrounding areas of the Lowcountry leaving in its wake a path of tremendous and costly destruction - the largest recorded earthquake to ever hit the southeastern United States.

The train coming in from Jedburg was struck by the earthquake. The engineer applied the brakes to no avail. The shock waves mercilessly accelerated the train as the earth rolled up and down like the waves of the ocean. Miraculously, the train survived wave after wave. On its approach to Summerville, the engineer saw the warning flares and applied the brakes again. This time the engineer succeeded and the train of frightened passengers rolled to a stop a mile from Summerville with no one injured.
Damaged railroad tracks
Further up the rail line from Summerville towards Charleston near the Woodstock Station, the tracks had become bent into a S curve by the violent upheaval, which would have spelled disaster for any train passing over it. The flares Frank Doar deployed saved the commuter train of passengers. No one was ever able to thank the old man. He was nowhere to be found.

Frank Doar did not take any credit for being a hero. He was convinced the old man was an angel. At least, that is the way Frank told the story. Hey, it's October. I hope you enjoyed the article.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Larger Than Life Legacy Of A Charleston Grand Dame With A Summerville Connection

Few people have heard of the name Gertrude Sanford Legendre and highly unlikely the average person would have unless you are a history enthusiast. Up until recently, and I am a history enthusiast, I had seen her name only once and it was simply Mrs. Legendre. The occasion; I was reading a history article about Summerville's James F. Dean Theatre.

My curious nature spurred me on to find out who the Legendre's were and how deep a connection they had with Summerville. What I uncovered about Gertrude in my research was truly fascinating and best summed up in her own words, "I don't contemplate life, I live it." What most of us conjure up in our wildest, black and white dreams, Gertrude lived in true to life cinematic splendor.

As I perused the written pages of her life, I thought of movies like Out of Africa and The Great Escape, names like Amelia Earhart, and characters like Charles Remington of The Ghost and the Darkness.

Her unusual story began years before she became Mrs. Legendre. Her birth name was Gertrude Sanford. She was born in the horse country of Aiken, South Carolina. She was daughter of Henry Sanford, a New York rug magnate and U.S. House of Representative, sister of Stephen Sanford, a famous polo star nicknamed "Laddie", and sister to Sara Jane Sanford.

A restless debutant and reluctant socialite, Gertrude forsook the soft social life for a rugged, outdoor diversion. As a young teenager, she shot her first elk while on a hunting trip to the majestic Grand Tetons of Wyoming. From 1923 to 1929, she went on expeditions to territories that would have been considered wild and untamed in her time, places like South Africa, India, Iran, Alaska, and Canada. Through her hunting expeditions, Gertrude contributed rare animal specimens to the Peabody Museum and the Smithsonian Institute.

It was after an expedition in 1929 to Abyssinia for the American Museum of Natural History she married co-leader Sidney Legendre, a home owner in Summerville. Sidney was a partner with his brother Morris, owners of a chain of Southern theaters with their headquarters in Summerville.

That same year, Gertrude and her new husband bought a piece of real estate in Berkeley County dating back to the late 1600's for $100,000. The historic Medway property, in Mount Holly on the Back River, included a 6,200-square-foot English country-style main house built around 1686 and considered the oldest masonry residence in the Carolina's. The Legendre's built Medway into a 6,695 acre enchanting plantation.

In the early 1930's, the Legendre's built a theater on the corner of South Main and E. Richardson in Summerville. Gertrude lined the walls of the theater with some of the big-game heads she acquired from her many hunting expeditions, a practice authenticated by preserved photos and recalled by those old enough to have witnessed. I spent a rewarding evening in an interesting conversation with one of Summerville's long-time residents who recalled attending the theater as a child. "Marion Rhanes was the projectionist at the old theater. He would play movies in his home for some of the young children of Summerville," he recalled fondly.

In 1944, the hunter became the hunted. During World War II, she worked for the Office of Strategic Services - forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. The agency transferred her to Paris as a second lieutenant. While visiting the battle front, she found herself pinned down by German sniper fire and was forced to surrender. She became the first American woman captured in France. After six months as a prisoner of war, she escaped and boarded a train to Switzerland. The train stopped just short of the border. After exiting the train in an attempted dash of desperation, a German guard ordered her to halt or be shot. She ignored it and gained her freedom.

In time, the queen of the hunt acquired a love and appreciation for the natural order of things and became a conservationist and philanthropist. In her later years, the Medway Plantation was turned into a nature preserve and she founded the Medway Environmental Trust for educational purposes. She also established the Medway Plan to provide medical help to countries devastated by war.

Gertrude Sanford Legendre is known as one of the grand dames of Charleston, and even though it may seem small in comparison, her connection with Summerville is indelibly transcribed in its annals of history for all times. You can read her autobiography The Time of My Life.