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Portrait of Lone Star: The ghost town that won’t disappear
Visiting the nearly abandoned town of Lone Star, about 80 miles from Charleston in Calhoun County, SC, is truly to step back in time. I’ve been to this ghost town half a dozen times, at least, over the past 50 years, documenting a disappearing little hamlet, and ghost town icon, over the passing decades since I first photographed it in 1974 with my friends Eddie and Ralph.
Each time I visit is different, and yet oddly the same. It’s an experience in imagining what this part of rural South Carolina was like in its heyday when the the Main Street bustled on Saturday’s when farmer came to the general stores and trains stopped at the now-gone railway station. Those railroad tracks put the emerging town on the map in the 1880s. The county was once a prime cotton-growing area. There are farms and houses in the vicinity now, but the once prosperous town of Lone Star is no more.
Here is one of my first essays on Lone Star from May 13, 1999. It brings back many memories.
“About 25 years ago, in the spring of 1974 — actually, just about this time of year — two friends and I were exploring the countryside and backroads in the middle of the state when we came across a small community surrounded by cornfields that seemed lost in time. Its little main street of about eight frame and brick false-front buildings stood to our left as we stopped the car and got out to look around. Immediately to our right, was a railroad track that ran through the area, the iron rails rusted. We wondered if trains ever came through there anymore. Looking up, we noticed a wooden sign, about to fall down, with large white letters proclaiming the name of the town. It said, “Lone Star.”
“I thought at the time, and I still do today, that this was a curiously beautiful name for a community. I tried to figure out how it could have come to be named that. In the late 1800s was it perhaps the surest beacon in the dark country night, an outpost of civilization, a “lone star?” I will have to look into the origin of that name at the library, for I think about that place, even today. When I was traveling across the country a few years later, I passed through the communities of Morning Star and Evening Star in the Ozarks of Arkansas. I was struck again by the names.
“One of those friends and I had recently completed a photojournalism course together, and we had our cameras that day. Black and white only, of course. We were into the art of photography, and we were exploring documentary themes. Our subjects were along country roads in that part of the South. ‘Blue Highways.’
“I took one photograph of the street and railroad scene at Lone Star that came out just the way I wanted. The general store, the post office, the gas station, the abandoned brick mercantile building — all were captured in a freeze-frame of history that spring day in 1974. The perspective is slightly looking up, which gives it a bit of a wide-angle feel (I didn’t own one of those lenses at the time). In the center, slightly to the left, is the Lone Star sign adjacent to the railroad tracks.
“It is a picture lost in time. I have an enlarged, framed print hanging on my dining room wall now. The early morning sun lights up the scene and takes me back to those more innocent days of my early adulthood. It seems like I was a mere youth then, when I look back now, and in a sense I was. But what exciting adventures we young photographers had. I would later go on to have more of them, taking photographs for stories I wrote while working for weekly newpapers during the 1970s.
“In June of 1998, I made the third of my return pilgrimmages to that town, the most recent one until then having been in 1991. The first thing I saw when I arrived in the community, well off even the slightly trafficked state road that passes through the area, was an intriguing old abanonded house, tilted at about a 30-degree angle on its foundation, just waiting to crumble into a heap of boards and twisted tin. I photographed it first from a distance, with a newly emerging corn crop coming up in the foreground. Spring planting had occurred a few weeks earlier, and everything was still green from earlier rains.
“Next, I took a number of pictures of the house from close-up. Nothing was boarded up. You could have walked inside and risked your life, for the whole structure could have come crashing down on you with the merest movement of feet on rotten floor boards.
“The house’s distinguishing features were two twin, square cupolas that form a kind of second story. I’ve never seen a house that looked quite like that one. Each of the cupolas could have been a snall room. They really didn’t seem to have any purpose other than as decorative detail. Each had four broken-out windows.
“Then I went into town and took pictures of the stores and boarded-up buildings, focusing on doorways perhaps never to open again, and vine-covered sides of buildings, their entryways also boarded up.
“So perfect an artifact of a little lost town is Lone Star that a movie company came through years ago to film there, and even painted a Coca Cola mural on the side of one of the general stores, the one next to the Lone Star Exchange. It’s there today for all to see and admire. (The store with its sign has since, thankfully, been re-located, along with two other old, abandoned general stores, to the site of a barbecue restaurant in Santee, SC).
“The first few pages of a big photo album of pictures I took last year contain these images of Lone Star. I’m looking at them now, remembering that trip and how green and lush the fields and woods were. A month or two later, the terrible drought of last summer had set in, and the crops literally dried up. The corn hardly had a chance to pollinate. Crops across the state were a disaster. The small main street of Lone Star baked and dried out some more in that hot sun, too.
“I’m amazed that the place has changed so slowly over the years. The sign next to the railroad tracks is gone, but everything else looks pretty much as I photographed it in 1974. There’s still one general store open for the community. It isn’t all dead. There’s some life in that place. There was even talk that a new highway and bridge across the big lake nearby would revitalize the area. I haven’t heard or seen anymore about that.
“I just like to look at those pictures occasionally and think about the sunny times of youth, when I was starting out in the world, had two good friends along with me, and a camera to record and document what I was seeing out in that larger world I was entering for the first time.”
My first photo of Lone Star taken in 1974 and the abandoned house that collapsed into rubble not long after I took this picture:
This set of photos was taken in 1998
My most recent set of photos of Lone Star taken on May 6, 2016
As you can imagine, I’m overdue for another visit. Soon!