When biologist Frankie Arnold Brooks walks the vast Savannah River Site, watching out for endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers and bald eagles, she sometimes finds her way home.
The gnarled oak tree where a children's swing hung 50 years ago still stands and "almost always brings a tear," she said. "I remember sitting in that swing and looking up at the clouds, daydreaming when I was a girl."
The oak tree is one of the few things left of the farm at Dunbarton that the Arnold family had to leave when the town was erased, along with several others, to clear 200,000 acres for the nuclear-weapons plant.
A younger sister, Aiken artist Trish Arnold, was a small child when Dunbarton was dismantled and everything she knew disappeared. "When they tore down the houses, I thought they had torn down the whole world," she said.
That world was 1,500 acres, with the nearest neighbor a quarter mile away and the town of Dunbarton proper a comfortable place where everybody knew everybody else. The Arnold children went to school there and roller-skated on the sidewalks.
At the old farm site, where the Arnold children went barefoot, drank from the streams and teetered on homemade seesaws, the red, rambling roses that Iona Arnold planted still spread every spring. The tiny stand of bamboo her husband, Hitt, grew so he could cut his own fishing poles now covers five acres, said Mrs. Brooks. The old well remains, and the foundations of the house, half a century later, hold up empty air.
Trish Arnold visited the former site of Dunbarton a few years ago and was surprised by what remained. "The sidewalks where I had skated were still there. The driveways were still there, and the shrubs, but the houses were gone."
She found she could look toward the ends of the empty drives and recall by name who lived where.
As difficult as it was for adults to leave the homes they had established, it was terrifying for small children, Ms. Arnold said. In 1994, destruction on the other side of the globe reminded her of the fear and confusion she had felt in 1951:
"It struck me when Sarajevo was bombed, and I saw people with their possessions on their backs, their homes destroyed around them, that I knew how they felt. It was pretty much what happened to us, that we were left with what we could carry away. To a child, it doesn't matter if a bomb drops on it or something else happens - it is still a world destroyed. And every child is at the center of his own world."
Iona Arnold died last month, 13 years after Hitt and nearly 50 years after they left the countryside and moved to town with their four children.
They settled in Jackson, a small town now, but then swarming with 40,000 or more people who'd come to build and work in what everyone called "the bomb plant." There were people living in mobile homes, packing crates and tents, so many that for five years children went to school in shifts.
For the first time, the Arnold children had to learn to distrust strangers and to understand that some people are dishonest and mean. The peace and safety of Dunbarton seemed far removed. There, the two-cell jail had been for the occasional Saturday-night drunk to sleep it off.
The little town that was evacuated in 1951 had 300 or so residents, most of whom could trace their families back to the early 1800s, when the settlement was started, or at least to 1910, when it was incorporated as a town. Not everyone had electricity, and there were only two telephones in the whole town, one in Mayor "Ham" Dicks' office and one in Dean Roundtree's general store.
What Dunbarton did have was a sense of community that remained even after the federal government took it over along with nearby Ellenton, Meyers Mill, Hawthorne, Robbins, Leigh and Sleepy Hollow. It was that sense of home that made moving difficult and a memory to last through life.
Dunbarton had two cotton gins; a fertilizer plant; Schumpert's Lumber Mill; several grain and syrup mills; the Leigh Banana Case Co., which made packing crates; a train depot; a bank; a barber shop; a gas station and garage; a drug store; and general stores.
The Western Carolina Trading Co., Barnwell County's first department store, had just opened in 1950, when the owners learned in November that their venture would be short-lived.
What children remembered most was the school. It had once been a consolidated school, but by the time the Arnold children attended it, nearby towns also had schools. That meant a handful of Dunbarton children "rattled around" in a huge building intended for many times their number.
"I started school when I was five because there weren't enough children to make a class," Ms. Arnold recalled. "There were four boys in my class, and I was the only girl. I was the queen of everything because the boys wouldn't wear dresses for plays and things that required it."
The school's auditorium was swank with sloped floors, velvet curtains and a big stage, warranting frequent appearances by touring members of the Grand Ol' Opry, including Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams and Little Jimmy Dickens. People came from miles around.
It was a compact world with little need for most folks to go anywhere else. If they did go, they didn't go far.
That, too, made it hard for families and friends to scatter.
"If something like that happened today, the government would bring in counselors to help people understand and cope with it, especially for the children," Ms. Arnold said. "We had nothing like that."
She said she was unable to feel she could make a home until recent years, although Aiken does feel like home now. And she remains conscious that "it could all be taken away so easily."
And she never forgot the lonesome feeling as a child. "All I knew was that all my friends were gone. It didn't occur to me that they were still as close as Barnwell or Williston, some of them in Jackson, where my family moved. They were just gone."
The memories show in many of her paintings - scenes that she remembers from Dunbarton and Ellenton and fields similar to the ones her father farmed.
Mrs. Brooks and another sister, Jeannie Arnold Franklin, still live in Jackson. A brother, Hitt Jr., lives in Alabama.
Of the four, Mrs. Brooks is the only one in frequent touch with the physical remnants of a past they all remember so well.
"I am fortunate that my work keeps me outdoors most of the time, and it takes me all over the (Savannah River) Site. Sometimes I run across family cemeteries in the woods. The churches mostly moved their cemeteries, but family cemeteries were left behind. Where our home was and where the town was, I can see where things were and remember them the way they were."
It is both sad and nostalgic, she said, "but I can see the better side of it, too."
Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.
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