BLACKVILLE, S.C. -- There is not much left to suggest the former grandeur of the old Shamrock Hotel, a brick shell with wisteria growing inside.
And while many Blackville residents don't want to admit it, the upside to a maximum-security prison the state wants to build in the town -- despite public opposition -- may be the impetus it might add to the Shamrock's renovation.
Local businessman Ray Miller, a devout Mennonite who believes in miracles, says he is neutral on the prison issue -- something few residents of Blackville can claim.
Mr. Miller, whose popular Miller's Bread Basket restaurant is a block and a half from the old hotel, says the presence of a prison or any industry could underscore the need for overnight accommodations or livable suites. He also sees that the proposed prison could tarnish the town's image and discourage economic growth.
The town council invited prison officials to locate a 1,500-bed prison in Blackville, and the state has purchased 365 acres inside the city limits to do that. Proponents point to 500 jobs for local people and a $14 million annual payroll, plus $30,000 a year for the town in utility fees. Barnwell County expects $300,000 a year from water and sewer services.
But there are signs in yards all over town urging a referendum, and prison opponents say it would make Blackville an undesirable place for new homes and businesses.
As it is, on the Shamrock's side of Main Street and within its block, a lone boutique and hair salon struggle to do business amid ruin. Except for the Blackville Fire and Rescue building on the other corner, everything else is vacant, long closed. The turn-of-the-century hotel itself has gone from a mainstay of a thriving town to a symbol of the fragility of small towns like Blackville. Only 10 miles away, it took only a huge flea market to finish off declining businesses on a Main Street where abandoned stores harbor kudzu.
Nor is the scene uncommon across the South and the nation, except for the names of the weeds.
At the Shamrock, elegant brickwork has crumbled, the roof is gone, and the silence of a solitary walkthrough is shattered by the sound of broken glass underfoot. Rusted wrought-iron gates, a chain-link fence and sign warning of danger separate what remains of the historic structure from Main Street.
The hotel that once flourished as a stopping point on the Charleston-Hamburg Railroad ceased operations as a hotel in 1967, although businesses on the first floor stayed open as late as 1982. The Shamrock has twice appeared on South Carolina's list of the 11 most endangered historical sites -- 11 because "it is literally the 11th hour for these sites, and they will be lost forever if something isn't done to preserve them," said Rusty Sox, spokesman for the state's Department of Archives and History.
The banner above the crumbling facade says it all: SOS, for "Save Our Shamrock."
Mr. Miller and a nonprofit organization, Historic Business Ventures, holders of the deed to the hotel since 1996 -- the year after its roof collapsed and Blackville's town council tried to force its demolition -- are trying to raise money for its resurrection. They have a $19,000 grant from Archives and History and plan to apply for another share of the funds the state agency allocates for such projects.
They also are looking for private investors.
Other ideas on tap include commissioning a professional artist to do numbered prints of the Shamrock vision and possibly hiring a professional fund-raiser.
But the organization is a long way from the $1.5 million to $2 million that preservationists estimate it will take to restore the hotel. There is about $50,000 in the pot now, and the proposed renovation is admittedly "an uphill battle," said Vice President Hugh W. Quattlebaum Jr., whose father once owned the hotel. His family lived there and ran it when he was about 13.
"We've got a wealth of ideas, but not much money," Mr. Quattlebaum said -- a problem because most grants have to be matched.
"It would be a miracle to get another grant from the state after getting $19,000 once," Mr. Miller said. "But that's how God works -- in miracles. I've been told by many people that it would be a miracle to obtain all the money and support we need to save the Shamrock. But if God can work one miracle, he can work two."
Historic Business Ventures wants to create a bed and breakfast in a new building constructed within the Shamrock's facade. They envision overnight and wedding suites; suites for long-term guests or residents, possible in assisted-living settings; a dining room and kitchen; conference facilities; office space; and a marble soda fountain like the one that graced the hotel in its heyday. In its new incarnation, the Shamrock would also serve as an information center for the Heritage Corridor.
Mr. Miller has firsthand knowledge of the powerful pull of history and what it can mean economically. An Indiana homestead where his family once lived sold for 10 times what they had paid and became a tourist attraction reflective of simple Mennonite life, he said.
The Shamrock, in its own way, also reflects a simpler time.
Records are not clear about how old the building is. Archives and History files date it to about 1901. Articles in The Barnwell People in 1913 and 1914 refer to the then-new hotel, built for $20,000 on property owned by the Farrell family, Irish immigrants who had settled in Blackville.
It was a local gathering place as well as a haven for strangers when the railroad was the primary mode of transportation for most people and when the Blackville Farmer's Market bustled. According to a history compiled by Myrtle Quattlebaum, whose husband owned the Shamrock from the late '50s to the mid-'70s, the motif was green and white from the white metal-embossed ceiling to the white-tiled floor, with "The Shamrock" spelled in green tiles. Green tiles in the pharmacy spelled out "Wessinger," the name of the first family to operate a pharmacy, complete with popular comics rack, on the first floor.
Guests ate from china embossed with shamrocks, set on white damask cloths over carved walnut and oak tables. Four large, wooden columns rose from the first floor through the second-floor dining room to support the third floor, where most of the guest rooms were.
Mrs. Quattlebaum recalled gleaming four-light chandeliers with ribbed glass shades and an old-fashioned eight-day regulator clock on the dining room wall.
The walls were tongue-and-groove wainscot to 3 feet high, topped by smooth plaster painted in pastel colors, mainly light green.
A balcony wrapped around the front of the hotel was one place to catch a breeze. Picture postcards of the day show it with concrete urns and green plants with roadsters angle-parked below.
By mid-century, the old hotel even had a resident ghost, Mrs. Quattlebaum said -- that of an elderly woman who had lived there. She walked on crutches because of a broken hip improperly healed.
"The man who stoked the coal furnace during the long winter nights remarked that he often heard the eerie sound of crutches thumping the floor while on his treks to and from the furnace room," Mrs. Quattlebaum wrote. "One night something brushed against him as he entered the furnace room in the dark, really giving him a fright. The furnace malfunctioned soon after that and was never repaired."
What devotees like Ray Miller hope for is to reinstate the Shamrock as a focal point of the town, not only to revitalize the section of Main Street where it sits, but also to recreate what he calls "the heart of the town," with or without a prison nearby.
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