Spartanburg, S.C., savors its Colonial-era past and its BMW present

By Becky Krystal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 2010; F06

"What brings you to Spartanburg?"

I heard the question more times than I could count during my 2 1/2 -day stay in the unconditionally friendly city in South Carolina's upcountry. It was a natural query, falling somewhere between small talk and the genuine interest many of the people I came across seemed to take in me.

My standard answer was a variation of "I wanted to go somewhere I'd never been before." It was true.

As a writer looking for a story, I find there's a temptation to construct a premise before I even arrive. Given Spartanburg's former heyday as a railroad hub and the massive BMW manufacturing plant nearby, I flirted briefly with the notion of a transportation theme. But my pre-trip research showed me that the city, with six institutions of higher learning, a relatively new cultural complex and a healthy dose of Revolutionary War history, refused to be pigeonholed. So with trepidation I backed off as a Type-A planner and decided to see where my pursuit of fun took me.

Naturally, a theme did emerge over the course of my long weekend. It was one of reclamation, a reinvention of place reaching back to pre-Revolutionary days and continuing into the present century.

My home base, the Inn on Main, was a perfect example of that kind of rebirth. Built in 1904 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the house stayed in the same family for generations before a chiropractor purchased the property at auction in the 1990s to save it from the fate of many of the other historic buildings that had disappeared along the same stretch of East Main Street beginning in the mid-20th century.

Eight years ago, Susan and Wayne Sease, a retired microbiologist and a textile product developer, respectively, bought the house with the idea of turning it into a bed-and-breakfast. It became a 17-month odyssey of repairs, restoration and inspections. People "we didn't know from Adam's cat" said that a B&B in Spartanburg would never work, Susan recalled, but the couple pressed on. Some of the locals now consider the inn a sort of gathering place where they can grab a delicious breakfast with the owners.

Before checking in, I stopped at the Spartanburg Regional History Museum, which occupies an upstairs gallery in the Chapman Cultural Center. The multi-building complex opened in 2007 and hosts, to name a few occupants, a ballet, an art museum and a theater company.

The history museum is relatively small but was a perfect size to occupy me for a few hours. I learned about the area's beginnings as a Cherokee hunting ground and then its evolution into a cotton-growing area, a railroad hub, a World War (both) training base and a mill town.

A few photos documented the various layouts of Morgan Square, the heart of downtown Spartanburg. It's named after Daniel Morgan, hero of the nearby Battle of Cowpens (1781) whose statue stands in the square. It has been variously incarnated as a gathering place for the wagons of those with business at the courthouse and a wide, automobile-dominated thoroughfare.

Today, it has been taken back for pedestrians. A grassy area hosts weekly jazz concerts in the spring, and sculptures peppered throughout the area encourage walkers to tarry. On my first evening in town, I took an after-dinner stroll around the square and admired a tiled fountain. The setting sun left behind an almost violet canvas that slowly enveloped the Morgan statue and the 1881 town clock.

The next day, leaden from the Seases' diet-killing breakfast, I set off for a stroll at Hatcher Garden & Woodland Preserve. I had plenty of company. The temperate spring day brought out a cheerful sampling of the Spartanburg populace, everyone from ladies lunching to curious children and a wedding party.

The vignette surely would have pleased Harold and Josephine Hatcher, who, starting around 1970, began amassing the cotton-damaged 10 acres that would become the urban oasis. The couple's project eventually evolved into a community-wide effort.

For some reason, I had pictured a manicured botanical garden, but I found the forestlike reality just as satisfying. Animals darted over dirt paths. Flowers blossomed amid tangles of greenery. Pretty impressive, considering that not all that long ago the area was collecting discarded mattresses.

After lunch at a bustling deli across from scenic Converse College (itself worth a visit), I drove 10 miles to tour Walnut Grove Plantation. King George III provided a land grant to Charles and Mary Moore, and they commenced construction in 1765. The Moores' descendants donated Walnut Grove to the Spartanburg County Historical Association in 1961, and it opened six years later as a museum.

I joined guide Molly Foster and three other visitors on a tour of the manor house and several of the outbuildings, including a school and a kitchen. In a front parlor, I noticed that the wainscoting had buckled. Yes, Foster said, at some point the time would come to rescue the house from old age and gravity by taking its levels off one by one to stabilize the structure before reassembling it.

Back at the inn, I studied a series of photos describing the rise and fall of Spartanburg's textile mills. They're closed now, but rather than concede defeat, the town repositioned itself as a different kind of business center. Within walking distance of Morgan Square are the headquarters of hotel chain Extended Stay America and Denny's. And not far south of town sits a huge testament to its reinvention: the BMW plant.

The factory opened in 1994 and today employs 5,000 "associates," as they're called in company parlance. The site includes the sleek Zentrum, a museum and events venue. What drew me there on my last morning in Spartanburg was the factory tour. Donning safety glasses and headsets that would allow the 20 of us on the tour to hear our guide, Degmar (could there be a more perfect name for someone who works at Bavarian Motor Works?), over the whir of production.

I'm not sure what I was anticipating when I signed up for a 90-minute tour of a car factory, but it far exceeded my expectations. We dutifully followed Degmar, avoiding cars coming off the line, forklifts and sparks. "The sparks won't hurt you," she advised, "but if you get hit by a forklift, it will." I can see why she persisted in keeping us moving. It was too easy to stay in one place, transfixed by the choreography of vehicles and parts soaring overhead.

I had adopted similar poses throughout the weekend: reclining on the veranda at the Inn on Main, being hypnotized by the rhythmic spurts of the Morgan Square fountain. If I stood still long enough, perhaps I could see the city changing around me.

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