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A day in the life: From king cotton to odd jobs, those in forgotten South Carolina do what they must to make a buck

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A day in the life: From king cotton to odd jobs, those in forgotten South Carolina do what they must to make a buck

Hispanics hired by Vallentines Cotton Gin under the federal government's temporary foreign workers program help clean a bale cotton brought in from farms within a 50 mile radius of the tiny Orangeburg town of Cope. They work 12 hour shifts during the 24-7, three- to four-month-long ginning season that begins with the Fall harvest. Tuesday January 8, 2013. (Wade Spees/

COPE – A couple inch layer of fluffy white coats the shoulders of the main road through this tiny Orangeburg County town, as if the remains of a snow flurry.

But it's not snow, It's cotton that escaped from the stream of trucks feeding giant loads of one of the state's major cash crops to Vallentines Cotton Gin.

The gin pulls cotton from 70 farms over a 50-mile radius, and runs 24-7 from the fall harvest until done.

Will Workman runs the family business, and although his gin sits in a town few have heard of, he's competing in a cut-throat, global business where prices fluctuate wildy. For the last few years, he said, cotton has enjoyed record-high prices that he believes have entered a downward cycle.

Cotton helped make Charleston one of the richest cities in early 19th century America. The crop collapsed with the Civil War, and later overfarming and the boll weevil wreaked havoc on the industry.

Better farming practices and science's win over the weevil have brought cotton back to South Carolina.

But it's not the same. Farming it no longer requires a large labor force, and gins are highly mechanized.

Workman, a Citadel graduate who still looks the part, wanted to hire only locals, but it's low-wage, seasonal work and he had trouble doing so.

He turned to the federally approved temporary foreign workers for most of his 21/2 dozen employees.

It's a familiar story across rural South Carolina: Legal and illegal immigrants have seized much of the low-skill, low-pay work, and higher-paying jobs are hard to find in a region of double-digit unemployment and a decade-long loss of manufacturing jobs.

Still, most of the people of Forgotten South Carolina find ways traditional and unique to make a living in the place they love. They include:

Donald Steedly, who grew-up in the Salkehatchie Swamp near Ehrhardt, and boasts of wading in to catch allegators. He made a living testing down-stream creek and river water for factory pollution. Now, at 77, he likes to wear a rebel cap, keep his long, white beard wild and collect sellable trash. “I'm a junkman,” he said.

Shemuel Yisreal, 56, of Yemassee, gets along on $200 in food stamps and $300 a month in handy-man jobs. He doesn't expect much, but works hard and will do almost anything to earn a few bucks.

Some think he's a little off. Others say he's a good guy who helps them out. When he needs peace, he plops down beside his favorite slow-moving creek to listen. “This is my medication, my insane assylum.”

Frank Craft, 65, moved his job to rural Jasper County when Hilton Head grew too big for his taste.

He opened Craft Restoration, where he restores old cars. His shop overflows with everything from a Korean War Jeep to a 1932 Ford Deuce Coup.

He wouldn't make enough to keep it up if he had to rely on local business, but he built a reputation in Hilton Head and gets work from all over the country.

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