A walk through Walterboro

February 1, 2012

It’s nice to see the Tuskegee Airmen get some attention with the recent release of the film Red Tails, however negatively the actual film might have been reviewed. While the Tuskegee Airmen — more properly the 332nd Fighter Group — had their roots in Tuskegee, Alabama, not many folks know that many of them trained just up I-95 in Walterboro, South Carolina, at the old Walterboro Army Air Field (now Lowcountry Regional Airport) from April 1944 to October 1945.

You can see a well-done memorial to the Tuskegee Airmen at the Lowcountry Regional Airport just on the outskirts of Walterboro, in an area where you don’t need to pass through any security measures:

While it’s not technically true that the Tuskegee Airmen “never lost a bomber” during their escort missions over Germany in World War II, who cares? They had an excellent wartime record and helped contribute mightily to the eventual desegregation of the U.S. armed forces during the Truman administration immediately following WWII.

But there’s a lot more to Walterboro. It is quite simply one of the most delightful small towns in the South, all the more enriching in that for the most part it seems to have weathered the economic recession that has devastated so many small towns in the region.

For most visitors to Walterboro, the first thing they notice is the beautiful array of moss-draped Live Oaks all around. Walterboro has one of the finest urban canopies you’ll see, and they know it too, as evidenced by the frequent Live Oak silhouette often used on marketing materials.

Silhouettes actually have a history in the Walterboro area as a form of folk art, first popularized in antebellum days and now experiencing something of a revival. The back of the old circa-1950 drive-in screen — which closed in 1990 — features a huge stylized representation of these folkloric silhouettes.

The 1950 drive-in, now dormant

The main drag of Walterboro is Washington Street, now dominated by dozen or so antique shops, the single major influence in the economic resurgence of the town. A forward-looking and savvy marketing campaign, mostly targeting travelers on I-95, has funneled customers to this charming avenue in search of affordable quality antiques.

The view on Washington Street

The stores themselves are quite nice, with a selection of goods funky enough but also upscale enough to attract big-market antique dealers from all over the region, who use Walterboro’s retail shops almost as a wholesale outlet.

But the prices in Walterboro aren’t big city — the typical piece at a Walterboro store is probably half or even less than what you’d pay for the same piece in a shop on Antique Row on Charleston’s King Street — a piece which that shop may have actually purchased in Walterboro!

Another imaginative bit of marketing in Walterboro’s effective multi-pronged outreach strategy is the “red rocking chair,” central to their slogan “Front Porch of the Lowcountry.”

Here’s a red rocking chair at an outbuilding on the grounds of the wonderful South Carolina Artisans Center:

The S.C. Artisans Center is a cooperative showcase for dozens of regional artists. Their wares are far more than tourist kitsch and might really surprise you with their overall artistic integrity and ingenious handiwork.

The South Carolina Artisans Center

But the big news is the relocation and significant upgrade of the Colleton Museum (Walterboro is in Colleton County, S.C.). Once located in the Old Jail building, the Museum has moved into a beautifully restored place a few blocks down Washington Street from the antique stores.

The new Colleton Museum & Farmers Market

In my time as a travel writer documenting South Carolina and Georgia, I’ve seen quite a few small-town museums. They’re all charming, but some are better than others. The Colleton Museum puts the rest in the shade.

The number of exhibits is significant, and they’re all presented in a very aesthetically pleasing fashion. There is a small exhibit honoring the Tuskegee Airmen, but most of the exhibits detail in lovingly nostalgic fashion some element of the daily lifestyle and folkways of old Colleton County, from prehistory to plantation through the modern day.

An exhibit at the Colleton Museum

And admission is always free.

A recreated church scene within the Colleton Museum

If you get hungry while in Walterboro, I suggest heading straight to Duke’s Barbecue. There are a bunch of places throughout South Carolina named Duke’s, but it’s not actually a chain. Most of them owe their culinary ‘cue provenance to the dispersal of an old Orangeburg barbecuing family, the Dukes.

The legendary Duke's Barbecue

Needless to say, the Duke’s in Walterboro uses the tangy mustard-based barbecue sauce particular to the South Carolina midlands, a legacy of the original German settlers to the area brought in by the Lords Proprietors in the colonial era as a spur to populate the hinterland. It’s an unusual taste, but once acquired becomes somewhat addictive.


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