BRANCHVILLE — The historic heart of this tiny town has been tagged: Condemned.
The white building inspection notices have been taped to the cracked windows of a shattered brick row of century-old downtown storefronts. The struggling owners of those stores are at either end of a conflict felt all across Branchville more than a week after a 150-mph tornado tore its Town Hall and tiny business district to shreds.
Do you demolish the history that is your identity, or scratch for loans your modest businesses can't afford in order to pay the millions needed to restore the town?
Branchville is afraid it will become one more crumbled little town swept aside in a disaster that's not so big for others, but too big for it. The storm destroyed or ruined 13 of 20 family-owned businesses that pump economic life into the place, including its grocery and The Churn, the walk-up ice cream stand that was the place to go for the community.
On Tuesday, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency still crunching numbers to see if the damage across the state was enough to merit aid, Gov. Mark Sanford asked President Bush to declare a major disaster in nine counties, including Orangeburg, where Branchville is located, and Berkeley.
A declaration could open the way for unemployment money and other individual assistance, but getting a declaration normally depends on reaching a FEMA benchmark in damage costs. Early indications are that South Carolina won't make it.
"We recognize we might not be eligible for aid, but we wanted to do everything we could on the state level," said Joel Sawyer, Sanford's press secretary.
Even with a disaster declaration, the best business owners could hope for is low-interest loans. Mayor Tim Cooner has asked U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., who represents the district, for more help for the businesses. Clyburn is due in town today, but on Monday was still looking for a way to do it.
Right at the center of town is the taped-off pile of 19th-century bricks that were part of the storefront of Dukes Feed and Seed. Inside, Charles Dukes, 50, sits at a desk surrounded by empty shelves, one hand cupping his head. The store and its adjoining hunting/fishing shop have condemnation tags that read, "Unsafe." He's been told to get out.
"People think I'm just letting these buildings go," he said. "But it's about made me sick."
Two doors down, Clifton Ott, 49, sits under the sagging ceiling of the stocked Henderson Hardware with his legs spread, his pale eyes looking defiantly out the window where the condemnation tag reads, "Restricted." He's not going anywhere.
"I reckon when they go to bulldoze it down, I'll be in the middle of it," he says.
The stores the men own were built from the 1890s to 1920. They gave the place its hometown feel, an ambience harking back to earlier times.
Dukes' grandfather built the corner store that his father, by the 1970s, had turned into one of the largest Purina feed suppliers in the state.
Dukes had been gradually turning the shrinking feed business into the sports shop, sinking $40,000 into renovations that kept its brick and hardwood beauty. He's retained other touches, such as the original steel ladder that slid back and forth along ceiling-high shelves to fetch dry goods in the 1890s. The store is prominent in the earliest surviving photos of the town.
Dukes talks about going to Orangeburg to file for unemployment, then applying for a substitute teaching job. He stops talking and vacantly eyes the fractured walls.
"I want to be here in Branchville running my little store. I'd like to see the buildings saved. It's just that I'm in a situation where I just don't have the monetary means. My main thing is I have to get back open in some frame, form or fashion," he said.
The county has told the owners it won't condemn the buildings if they find a structural engineer to declare the buildings safe. That's not an option for Dukes. A masonry professor told him you could pick off the bricks one by one without using a brick hammer. They've shaken loose from their mortar.
Down the street, where an old wooden wagon axle hangs high on the wall with "Henderson Hardware" imprinted on it, Ott's store has somewhat less damage. He said he was told all his cracked, foot-thick bricks need is fresh mortar. He's hired his own engineer. He's called S.C. Archives and History and other groups for support.
Not everyone in town is happy with that either. Ott's obstinacy makes the town look bad, some say; it might stand in the way of getting the needed help to rebuild.
"Oh, I've lost my religion," he said about the condemnation and opinions in the community. "They just want to tear down everything and have steel buildings on this street. I guarantee, you go to those old buildings in Charleston, you're going to find cracks."
Across the street, Town Hall has been leveled to a dirt lot. It will be rebuilt as a copy. So will The Churn. So will the crumpled ruins of the town grocery. Mayor Cooner has been taking the phone calls. He knows what's at stake.
"This is an historic street," Cooner said. "But these are merchants and this is their livelihood. I'm going to abide by what the county does. We were going to try to keep as many of those historic old buildings as we could. But sometimes that's hard to do."