Thoughts of a South Carolina getaway usually conjure up images of horse-drawn carriage rides on cobblestone streets in Charleston, the luxurious beach paradise of Hilton Head, or the Southern charm of Beaufort. These are all lovely destinations, and I highly recommend them. But if you’re game for getting off the beaten path and exploring some unusual — and often quirky — roadside destinations, then pull over on the backroads and discover these interesting South Carolina small towns.
Settled in the 1800s, originally as a stagecoach stop, Bishopville lies within Lee County, the largest cotton-producing county in the Palmetto State. Although small in size, the town boasts a number of memorable attractions that make it worth the detour.
Button King Museum (55 Joe Dority Road)
Seeking a cure for restless nights, insomniac Dalton Stevens turned to sewing to pass the nighttime hours. His evening hobby soon turned to obsession, with Stevens adorning everything from clothing and shoes to guitars and cars with a colorful array of buttons. Proclaimed the “Button King,” the Bishopville resident achieved notoriety with appearances on Johnny Carson and David Letterman, and his button-laden objects turned folk art were eventually curated in an old Bishopville airport hangar.
Please note that the Button King is deceased, and the museum is now open only sporadically by his son. Though the local tourism office confirmed that as of April 2022, the museum is still operating, the museum phone number they provided is no longer in service. Your best bet is to try visiting on a Saturday between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when it’s most likely to be open.
Pearl Fryar’s Topiary Garden (145 Broad Acres Road)
A three-acre monument to self-taught topiary sculpture, this special garden attracts horticulturists from across the world. Fryar was in his 40s when he started gardening as a pastime from his day job at a canning factory. Determined to be named “Yard of the Month” by the local garden club, Fryar often worked late into the night by flashlight. Fryar had to battle stereotypes still current in the 1980s that African-Americans didn’t maintain the kind of yards that win awards and that a self-taught factory worker couldn’t produce such exquisite plants with hedge clippers and his imagination. Now 81 years old, Fryar continues to maintain his garden and is the subject of the documentary A Man Named Pearl featured on Netflix and Amazon Prime.
A recent donation has funded considerable renovations and upgrades to the garden, so I highly recommend checking this out, especially during the springtime when everything is blooming.
Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free but donations are accepted.
South Carolina Cotton Museum (121 W. Cedar Lane)
Located in the heart of South Carolina cotton country, highlights of the South Carolina Cotton Museum include the world’s largest boll weevil (a giant model, at least), a cotton-spinning machine, and an animatronic mule. Open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission fees are under $10 per person.
For decades, locals have claimed sightings of a “Lizard Man” living in the swampland in Lee County on the outskirts of town. Originally appearing near a Bishopville butterbean-drying shed in 1988, the infamous creature was known to tear pieces off of cars and terrify local residents. You can find Lizard Man memorabilia in the Cotton Museum, including plaster casts of his footprints donated by the sheriff and butter beans salvaged from the original shed. You can also buy Lizard Man souvenir t-shirts.
Located five miles west of Aiken, Graniteville is named for the state stone and traces its origins to cotton mill owner William Gregg, who built the town of nearly 100 homes, churches, and schools. Many of these original shotgun-style mill homes remain standing in good condition. Small in size, in its 70 years of existence, this quaint town has harbored more than its share of grief that belies its bucolic appearance. A tragic railroad accident caused poisonous gas to be released in the town in 2005, killing nine people and injuring hundreds. A memorial stands in a town park at the site of the accident.
The historic Graniteville Cemetery includes an obelisk commemorating Gregg’s burial site and a 92-foot-tall steel cross overlooking a stunning view of the town. The most famous eternal resident’s identity, however, is unknown. Referred to only as the “Little Boy”, the mystery child fell ill while traveling alone and was removed from his train in Graniteville. Local hoteliers tried to save him, but sadly the boy died and was buried by townspeople. Since his death in 1855, the tombstone has become a place of solace and comfort for those who have lost children, and toys and mementos are regularly on the grave.
Graniteville’s Red Shed Diner (pictured above) has sadly closed, but the local tourism office highly recommends the burgers, seafood, and hand-cut fries at the Blue Top Grill located at 212 Aiken Road in Graniteville.
3. Mars Bluff
Atom Bomb Crater (Crater Road, 4776 Lucius Circle)
In a peaceful subdivision of Mars Bluff outside of Florence lies hidden a bizarre and fascinating piece of America’s atomic history. A wooded area behind a row of ranch homes was the unlikely crash site of a nuclear weapon in 1958. A B-47 jet passing overhead accidentally dropped the missile due to a faulty safety pin. Luckily, the bomb’s impact, while destroying a local home, caused only minor injuries to the nearby residents. What remains is a large crater, informational signage complete with newspaper articles and firsthand accounts, and a wood replica of the bomb. The site was once open 24/7 but has been closed due to safety concerns. Today, you can learn about the nuclear mishap and Atom Bomb Crater at the Florence County Museum.
Swamp Fox Murals
It’s not every day you can enjoy original artwork in a Piggly Wiggly parking lot, but the small community of Manning boasts some extraordinary large murals that attract history buffs and tourists alike. The many exploits of Francis Marion — also known as the “Swamp Fox” — fighting the British in the Revolutionary War are depicted with epic grandeur in 12 murals throughout town, complete with historical markers. Follow along the entire Swamp Fox Murals Trail through the adjoining towns of Paxville, Summerton and Turbeville to see all 30 paintings and capture the full history of Marion’s Southern Campaign.
The Big Mo Drive In (5822 Columbia Highway North)
The tiniest town on this list, Monetta merits inclusion as home to one of the three remaining drive-in theaters in South Carolina. Founded in 1951, this cultural icon closed in 1986 and had become a junkyard until current owners Richard and Lisa Boaz purchased and lovingly restored the site. Closed during COVID, the iconic Big Mo is set to reopen mid-May, offering double features and classic concessions including hot dogs, hamburgers, sno kones, and boiled p-nuts.
Laura’s Tea Room (105 N. Palmer Street)
I stumbled upon Ridgeway in search of a non-franchised restaurant while road tripping through South Carolina last year. After driving through town after town with boarded-up main streets and Dollar General chains dotting the landscapes, I discovered this picturesque oasis. Laura’s Tea Room is housed in a lovingly restored mercantile shop, with the original woodwork and sliding ladder still intact. They feature a high tea with scones, Devonshire cream, and lemon curd served on a stunning collection of china. The gift shop is filled with antiques and homemade crafts, making a stop here a true trip to the past. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., reservations are required for High Tea.
World’s Smallest Police Station (160 N. Palmer Street)
Not much larger than an outhouse, this building served as the police station for Ridgeway from 1940 until 1990. It features an old wooden desk, a small file cabinet, a black rotary phone, and a small wood stove. It was featured in the 1989 film Staying Together and served as an official rest stop for the 2006 Olympic Torch Relay.
Oyotunji African Village (56 Bryant Lane)
Perhaps the oddest of places featured on my road trip list is the Kingdom of Oyotunji, a 27-acre expanse that is considered by its residents to be a free and sovereign nation. Founded in 1970 by King Ofuntola Oseijeman Adelabu Adefuni I, who fled New York City in search of a peaceful sanctuary where he and his followers could practice their African religion, the Kingdom features concrete monuments and the 200+ residents happily greet visitors and provide tours. They even have a gift shop selling incense, homemade jewelry, and African-inspired clothing. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Visitors are charged admission.