Columbia photographer and author Tom Poland's soon-to-be released book, "South Carolina Country Roads: Of Train Depots, Filling Stations and Other Vanishing Charms," published by The History Press of Arcadia Publishing, highlights rural communities across the state, including the Orangeburg County towns of Holly Hill and Branchville.
A description of the book on Arcadia Publishing's website invites readers to: "Venture off the beaten path to forgotten roads, where a hidden South Carolina exists. Time-travel and dead-end at a ferry that leads to wild islands. Cross a rusting steel truss bridge into a scene from the 1930s. …Tom Poland explores scenic back roads that lead to heirloom tomatoes, poke salad, restaurants once gas stations, overgrown ruins and other soulful relics."
The town of Holly Hill and its legendary Sweatman’s BBQ found their way into Poland's book. An excerpt reads:
"When they closed that location (an older location), they limited their cooking to family gatherings in an old dairy a few yards from their home. The hankering to operate a barbecue restaurant just wouldn’t go away, and the Sweatmans found themselves in business again in 1977, when they purchased the old farmhouse. For more than three decades, they served up great barbecue. When they retired, Mark Behr bought the business. He knew a good thing when he saw it, and besides, he was a fan. The Behrs grew up eating Sweatman’s barbecue.”
In a recent interview, Poland said that before writing his latest book, he had written about genuine S.C. barbecue for "South Carolina Farmer" magazine, and "that led me to Holly Hill and the story of Mr. and Mrs. Harold Sweatman - Bub and Margie - who opened a small barbecue place in Holly Hill when Ike was president, 1959.”
In the book, Poland writes about the process that makes Sweatman’s barbecue unique and heralded across the nation.
He said he was also drawn to write about the town of Branchville.
“I first heard of Branchville when I worked as a ticket agent for Southeastern Stages at the bus station in Athens, Georgia. And then, lo and behold, some 45 years later I see the town to where I sold a ticket to a man all those years ago. There was no way I wasn’t going to write about Branchville. I wasn’t visiting a town so much as I was visiting the past.”
“I saw a handsome red caboose with bright yellow trim. On its side was the word 'Southern,'" reads an excerpt from "South Carolina Country Roads."
"Nearby were old wagons ... the kind mules pulled. Nearby also were benches, empty, for no passengers were around. Dark clouds scudded overhead. It was a somber day. Still, a restaurant, The Eatery At The Depot, appealed to me. Too bad it was closed. Out back, where people could dine beneath the depot waiting area roof, hung a sign, 'Good Eats.' It looked like a good place. Someday I’ll check it out.
"Trains ... I’ve long associated them with romantic ideals. When I was a boy, I could hear the train rolling through McCormick County from my Grandmom Poland’s farmhouse across the line in Georgia. And then there was the one Amtrak trip I took back in the 1980s. We hurdled through darkened countryside, swaying side to side in a rhythmic clacking that would be our accompaniment all night. Approaching crossings, the train would sing its forlorn song: two long blasts, a short blast, and a final long blast. Percussive clacking and airy weeping goes the night train anthem: how mournful in the dead of night, how lonely to those in blackened countryside lying in beds. Perhaps a few envy the travelers piercing their night. ‘To what magical places do they go?’”
Country roads have taken him many places, including back home to Georgia when his late mother fell ill, said Poland, who grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia.
“Back in 2012, my mother who lived over in Georgia became seriously ill, and I made many trips over there to help take care of her. On my return trips to Columbia, I took all sorts of routes back, never on an interstate. The back roads provided good places to reflect on life, hers and mine,” he said.
“She died March 26, 2015. That sad time provided the seed from which this book grew," Poland said. "I like this kind of subject matter because it is beautiful, meaningful, and in some cases, vanishing. I think of myself as a blue-collar historian, and my photos can show people down the road how things used to be.”
He categorizes himself as a "Georgialina writer."
“I grew up on the state line, and then I landed a job in Columbia while I was in graduate school, and that’s pretty much the deal," Poland said. "I have spent 44 years in South Carolina, all the while going back and forth to Georgia."
“And remember all those trips to see my dying mom. So my 'beat' is all of South Carolina and eastern Georgia, aka ‘Georgialina.' Fate cast me here,” he said.
In his new book, Poland writes about towns accessible via country roads throughout the state.
“I wrote about Edgefield and its camellia tea and fascinating history; Georgetown and its fabulous rice plantations; Mt. Carmel, which is a ghost town," he said. "Old gas pumps, the ghost signs old wall dogs painted on brick buildings and vanishing tenant homes, which I know Orangeburg has, and that’s just a smattering of the subjects I touch on … mill villages, for example, and country stores.”
“I wrote about a fellow who grows heirloom tomatoes where Sherman marched on Columbia; Harold’s Country Club down in Yemassee and North and South Island … remote wildlife havens, where a man who owned the Boston Red Sox, a millionaire, lived in a mobile home … aka trailer,” Poland added.
He said he probably drove more than 10,000 miles for the book, deliberately avoiding the interstates to see what was out there. He said he found a lot.
“Driving a country road is therapy, good for you. As I write in the book, on a back road your blood pressure goes down and your gas mileage goes up,” Poland said.
A photographer for 40 years and writer for 31, Poland is the author of nine books and more than 1,200 magazine features and columns. His work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. People first came to know his work in "South Carolina Wildlife" magazine, where he was a writer and managing editor.
Among his recent books are "Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia," "Georgialina, A Southland As We Knew It" and "Reflections of South Carolina, Volume 2." " Swamp Gravy," Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama group, staged Poland's play, "Solid Ground," in 2011-2012.
He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle and changing culture, and he speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.
Poland earned a bachelor of arts degree in journalism and a master's in media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia.
"South Carolina Country Roads: Of Train Depots, Filling Stations and Other Vanishing Charms" is scheduled to be released in April.