"The Prettiest Town in Dixie" is a pretty big claim to make. Having traveled fairly extensively around the south in my life, I've seen some really beautiful towns. But this claim is certainly an enticing one and a bold one, so I had to go and see for myself. The town that made this claim? Tiny Cheraw, South Carolina. I got there first thing in the morning with the intention of staying maybe an hour or two, and ended up being there the better part of the day. It really is a beautiful town, steeped in history and with one of the best tourism infrastructures I've come across in a town this size anywhere. I came knowing almost nothing about Cheraw, and left charmed by it and knowing it's a place I will return to.
Cheraw is in the north of the state, about midway between Myrtle Beach and Charlotte. Its position at the beginning of the navigable portion of the Great Pee Dee River is both the reason for its location and for its success. Cheraw is one of the oldest towns in inland South Carolina, tracing its roots back to around 1740. The town gets its name from the Cheraw Indians who once had a settlement in the same location, right there on the river. Apparently bacon was one of Cheraw's early industries, which was apparently of such high quality that it was being shipped back to England for the Queen herself. Rich soil and river access made Cheraw a major cotton region during the 19th century. Today, Carolina Canners, which produces and packages soft drinks, and a screwdriver plant for Stanley Tools are the biggest players in the local economy, but they're making a big push for tourism as well.
When I opened the door to the Visitors Center right there next to the Town Green, the head of the chamber of commerce literally dropped whatever he was doing to come out and greet me. He was so enthusiastic about his town and about sharing all of the wonderful things they had to offer that I was immediately impressed. He gave me some literature on the town which is of really excellent quality. It's enough information without being too much information. One pamphlet included a cell phone tour of the town - essentially a self-guided tour with numbered stops which you can get information on by calling a number on your phone and entering your stop number. I also noticed that these maps were available in racks outside the Visitors Center, the museum and City Hall in case you arrived outside of business hours (so simple and yet so rare). In something I haven't experienced before, he also gave me the keys to my first stop, Old Saint David's Church. He showed me how to get in and told me to lock up behind myself. I thought what a wonderfully Southern small-town thing - to just hand the keys over so I could have a look around at my own pace. He also gave me a lunch recommendation, but I told him I probably wasn't sticking around that long. With a smile, he sent me on my way.
Old Saint David's Church was built around 1770 and was the last church established under British rule. After independence, as the Anglican church was not in favor, it fell out of use. Several congregations took up residence in the church over time, and today it is a popular wedding venue. I enjoyed being able to unlock it and see the inside, and had it all to myself during my visit. It really is a beautiful church, inside and out. The cemetery is also a fascinating place. Local soldiers from all of America's wars are buried here. As is Moses Rodgers, the captain of the S.S. Savannah, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The first Confederate monument in the country is also located in the cemetery, but it doesn't mention the Confederacy specifically because it was erected while the war was still going and the town was occupied by the Union Army. One of the most interesting things in the cemetery though, which is from fairly modern times and about which the great folks at the Visitors Center were as perplexed as I was, is the burial site of half a person, the other half of whom is apparently buried in Virginia. I've tried to find more on his story online, but haven't had much luck. I guess if you just can't decide where you want to be laid to rest, this is certainly one option.
From there, I proceeded into the residential part of the historic district. It was a beautiful spring day so I decided to walk. The tour route was a very pleasant walk - long, but not too long, with plenty of stops along the way. I also found I could listen to the information about the next stop as I walked. The cell phone tour was excellent. The map was easy to follow and gave enough information about each stop to guide me to the places I really wanted to see. The information I got when I called was brief, informative, thorough and well presented and also often offered more information on a stop if you found it particularly interesting. Having used these cell phone tours in the past and having quickly lost interest because there was too much information, Cheraw's cell phone tour could stand as a model of how this can be properly done. Not only would I recommend the tour in Cheraw, but I would recommend the idea to places looking to expand their tourism horizons in a fun and modern direction. Signs are okay, and Cheraw has those too, but this adds another dimension to the experience.
The walking tour took me through many different eras of Cheraw History. From a house where the Marquis de Lafayette apparently danced on the roof after the American Revolution, to the house used as General Sherman's Headquarters when he occupied Cheraw during the Civil War, to the former home site of Cheraw's most famous native son, jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie, now a wonderful park in his honor, it was a wonderful romp through town and its history. There was even a stop (the John Campbell House) where Sam Houston apparently proposed to one-time U.S. Congressman Campbell's sister Maria, and one at a supposed haunted house where the rocking chairs on the front porch mysteriously move on their own. My favorite story came from the occupation of General Sherman where a young boy apparently felt the top of the General's head for horns because people around town had told the child that Sherman was the devil.
As I wandered out of the historic district, I realized it was lunchtime, so I followed up on the gentleman at the Visitors Center's recommendation and enjoyed a wonderful meal at the River's Edge Restaurant and Bakery. Not only was my meal delicious, but they had a wonderful collection of old quilts for sale around the room. They were really interesting to look at and see the descriptions of when they were made and what styles they used. I only regretted that I didn't have room for dessert, as their selection looked amazing.
On my way out of town, I stopped to joke with the folks at the Visitors Center that I had told them I only had a couple of hours and their wonderful town had kept me there half the day and I hadn't even seen it all. They smiled and told me that I was just going to have to come back then. I have no doubt I will.
For a PDF version of Cheraw's Cell Phone Tour Brochure, or some of their other wonderful literature including their African American Heritage Trail, click HERE. Cheraw would make a wonderful day-trip from Myrtle Beach, Columbia and Charlotte, NC.