Abbeville is rooted in history and sweet treats

April 22, 2013 

It was a wet day, but that did not dampen our excitement. We were heading for one of the few places in South Carolina that my good friend, a South Carolina native, has not visited – Abbeville.

From here, there is only one way to this French-named town with deep Southern roots. The scenic route is a beautiful, restful drive through tiny towns and rolling farm lands.

We knew we arrived at our destination when our vehicle left the tarmac for the cobbled surface of the town square. Parking is plentiful along the square itself, as well as on the side streets. Our first stop was the Welcome Center.

The available literature is a boon for anyone interested in historic architecture and art. Once a bank, the building hosts not only the center and the chamber of commerce, but painting by Wilbur George Kurtz. A 1930’s Works Progress Administration project, his art showcases Abbeville’s Civil War history.

Of the available literature, the Historic Sites Guide helped us get an understanding of how much history is here. Most of the buildings described in this guide, such as the Trinity Episcopal Church, Burt-Stark Mansion, The General’s House, Abbeville Opera House and Belmont Inn, are either on the square or within walking distance.

After we decided how we were going to accomplish our goal of visiting everything we could in a few hours, the first shop we visited was Court Square Market open Thursday-Saturday. There is a large Mennonite community, called Coldsprings Community, in Abbeville. Its influence can be seen and tasted in the delectable wares at the market. After some sampling, my friend suggested we bring a cooler on our next visit, so we can take home some of the handmade treats and fresh cuts of meat.

Eat and shop

Other Mennonite establishments include The Dutch Oven, Main Street Coffee and, on the next block at Highway 28 Bypass, Swartzentruber’s Bakery.

Coming into town is Yoder’s, a mainstay in the area. Buffet-style, it serves generous portions of meat/fish dishes and sides, and don’t forget dessert. My friend said it was the best shoofly pie she has had.

Mexican and Italian restaurants also are on the square. Of course, good ol’ American fare can be found at Rough House. Rumor has it, the restaurant received a mention for the “Best Hot Dog” in South Carolina.

We perused the modern accessories at Uptown Girl and Everyday Presence, a Christian card and gift shop. Since we both enjoy the hunt as much as the history, we were happy to stop at Courtyard Creations. Owned by Sherry Stewart-Manley, there are three floors of antiques, collectibles and what-nots. The view of the square center, with its Confederate monument and ASPCA water trough, from the third floor (packed with period furniture) is worth the walk up.

Curios and Curiosities, owned by Diane Shephard, is aptly named. The corner dedicated to baby material and finished goods is worth a look.

Wolf Tracks Gallery, owned by Bill Yuandell and Tony Leopard, is a glorious place showcasing art, pottery and handcrafted jewelry of 53 Indian tribes, including Navaho, Zuni, Hopi and Santo Domingo. Interestingly, tucked in the back, is space dedicated to WWII memorabilia and hand-carved knives.

On the other side of the square is Marilyn’s. A quaint collectible shop, Marilyn was still putting the finishing touches on this newly reopened business.

Down Trinity Street, on the way to the Trinity Episcopal Church, we passed the Antique Mall and stopped by Slots of Fun to watch the slot car races.

The sites

At the Abbeville Opera House, we met Executive Director Michael Genevie. He was getting ready for the Saturday matinee, but spared time to share to talk to us about the history of the opera house. Known as the official state theatre of South Carolina, Abbeville Opera House came to be in 1908 when local residents realized they could take advantage of all the Vaudeville shows traveling by train from New York on the way to Atlanta.

Designed along the lines of Broadway (New York City) theaters, the opera house boasts four box seats, seating for 218 (including balcony) and a 7,800-square-foot stage. Performances are held year round. This is a favorite destination for group tours.

After undergoing serious renovations, it still retains a bit of theater history. It’s the only “hemp house” in the South. There are more than 8 miles of rope rigging over the stage. Genevie said they did historical digging and were able to get replacement sand bags from the same upstate New York theater that supplied them when the opera house opened.

Across the street is the Belmont Inn. Originally built in the early 1900s to accommodate railroad men and “drummers,” salesmen serving the Southern textile trades, it had 30 rooms and one bath. Now, the Belmont is in the middle of a top-to-bottom refurbishment thanks to the energy and vision of its new owners Tatjana and Juergen Aatz.

Tatjana graciously gave us an impromptu tour of the three floors that make up the inn. Now, there are 25 rooms with private baths and two conference rooms. There will be two restaurants —Tatiana’s upstairs and a grotto-style bar and grill downstairs, just off the main lobby. Tatjana said they will be serving American fare, and contemporary Mediterranean food with a German influence.

“Everything will be fresh,” she said. “When we serve food, we know your eyes eat with you.”

She also pointed out guests should not be surprised if they run into George, the local ghost. It is said he is a regular visitor to three places on Abbeville Square.

We had quickly run out of day. On our way out of town, we swung by the Stark-Burk mansion. I love looking at buildings with history, and I must say Abbeville offers some of the most fabulous historic architecture I have seen in such a small geographic area.

This mansion, built in the mid-1840s, was hosting the annual Oyster Festival. We were told the home is honest to the period and is a must-see tour.

The Oyster Festival is just a sampling of all Abbeville has to offer. Coming up this weekend, April 19-21, is the Abbeville French Heritage Festival. The weekend is jam-packed with activities that include church and cemetery tours, French wine tastings, an antique show, scholarly presentations, music, opera and garden tours.

My friend and I made plans to come back this summer, because we need another day just to visit the historic buildings, the antique mall, the bakery, maybe a matinee and ...

Abbeville, S.C.

The details: Abbeville Chamber of Commerce for all event and town information, 864-366-4600, abbevillechambersc.com/visit-abbeville-county

What to see: Abbeville Opera House. Group rates available. theabbevilleoperahouse.com

Where to stay: Along with the Belmont Inn, there are bed and breakfasts in town.

Directions: Take I-77 south to Exit 77. Follow Highway 72/121 south to Chester. Stay on Highway 72 south through Whitmire and Clinton to Abbeville.

Susan Doyle of Rock Hill is a freelancer writer.

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