GAFFNEY — A striking, peach-shaped water tower along Interstate 85 here is taking its star turn.
The 135-foot tall “Peachoid” was constructed in 1981 as an infrastructure upgrade and as an homage to the small town’s then-booming peach production. But the orange-and-yellow painted spheroid is taking on another role: the center of an episode of the recently released Netflix-streaming political drama “House of Cards.”
The fictional show’s protagonist — or antagonist depending on one’s viewpoint — is the fast-talking and loose-moraled Francis Underwood, the Democratic U.S. House majority whip who hails from Gaffney.
On the third episode of the series, Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, is forced to return to the town to put out a political fire that ensues after a teenager crashes her car while texting her boyfriend about the resemblance the Peachoid bears to a certain part of the human anatomy.
Underwood is drawn into the fray as a result of his past support for leaving the tower intact rather than tearing it down.
It’s not altogether surprising that the show seized on the angle: for years, some have referred to the water tower as “the peach butt” or worse.
But ask residents and officials around town what they think of the portrayal of the area’s most famous landmark and you’ll mostly be met with a collective shrug.
“As the old saying goes, any publicity is better than no publicity,” Henry Jolly, the longtime Democratic mayor here, said in a relaxed drawl as he leaned back in his office on a recent afternoon. “It’s certainly not controversial in reality. Really honestly, it’s probably one of the best things the board of public works has ever done.”
Jolly, who doesn’t have a Netflix subscription, has only seen parts of one episode of “House of Cards.” And indeed, a random survey of Gaffney residents in some of the town’s popular gathering spots yielded much the same reaction: many had heard through the grapevine that the show spotlights the town, but hadn’t seen it for themselves.
Kim Fortner, who’s worked for almost 17 years at the public works board that built the Peachoid, has heard all the cracks about the tower before.
“We live in a society where everything can be a joke, and you can’t take yourself so seriously. So we aren’t really offended by it,” she said.
Fortner said the Peachoid has helped people become familiar with the town when they may not have otherwise.
“They’ve stopped and shopped our malls, they’ve come and stopped and eaten at our restaurants, and that brings revenue into the area,” she added.
“House of Cards” didn’t bring any of that direct economic stimulus.
While the Underwood character returns to what the show identifies as Gaffney in the episode, in reality the setting was a small Maryland town, Havre de Grace.
The show’s executive producer and lead writer Beau Willimon said moving the Maryland-based production to Gaffney for the shots would have cost too much (another episode of the show is set in a fictional version of Charleston).
Willimon counts himself among the admirers of the Peachoid, calling it a “public works example of imagination.”
The idea to have the Spacey character hail from the small South Carolina town near the North Carolina border sprang from a conversation Willimon had with his father while the show was in development.
Willimon’s father, who grew up in Greenville, had spent some time in Gaffney as a child and recommended it to his son as a possible pick for a small Upstate town that could fit Underwood.
From there, Willimon researched the area, spending a few days in Gaffney that included a meeting with Jolly. Willimon decided a Peachoid-centered controversy would represent the “small ball” politics the show’s writers wanted to put in focus.
“It just was too delicious, no pun intended, to not incorporate it,” he said.
Reach Stephen Largen at 864-641-8172 and follow him on Twitter @stephenlargen.