ALLENDALE — The evening light faded in wisps of pink and purple as 16 weary workers stepped from a chrome-lined charter bus and shuffled over to a line of idling cars waiting to ferry them home.
Few among the group offered a wave or a nod of farewell to their fellow travelers. They'd be seeing each other again soon enough.
Each day at 4 a.m., a revolving cast of bleary-eyed workers, mostly women, gathers at this scrubby spot along U.S. Highway 278 to make a two-hour journey to Hilton Head Island, where they clean hotel rooms, cut lawns or wash dishes for high-end restaurants. With any luck, they return home by 7:30 p.m. and get a chance to kiss their kids goodnight before stealing in a few hours sleep and repeating the process all over again.
For many in Allendale, this grinding pilgrimage is a means of survival. Jobs and industries are scarce in this rural county of 11,000, which has the highest unemployment rate in South Carolina. Roughly 17 percent of the population is out of work, and nearly 35 percent live in poverty.
"There's nothing here. Everything's closed down," said Maude Fields, 55 and jobless. "I've lived here all my life. It's home. But we are all pushed up against the wall here."
Allendale is like the sickest patient in a ward of the gravely ill. The neighboring counties of Orangeburg, Bamberg and Barnwell also posted double-digit jobless rates last month to earn spots among the top 10 unemployment areas in South Carolina.
Round after round of layoffs in recent months has only added to the scarcity of jobs in a region that has struggled with poverty and despair for decades.
Just ask 46-year-old Jeanner Moseley, who lives with her husband, Jake, in a squat, cinderblock home they rent for $170 a month along a dirt road in Orangeburg. The tin roof leaks, chipped paint curls from the ceilings, gaping holes pock the walls and yellowed curtains hang in rags from greasy, paint-smeared windows. It's all the couple can afford on the $600 disability check Jake Moseley receives each month.
A mangled backbone prevents 66-year-old Jake from working. But Jeanner, who has high blood pressure and diabetes, keeps putting in applications, hoping she can land her first real job since being laid off as a housekeeper three years ago.
"They always say that they will call me and let me know if something comes up, but nothing ever does," she said.
Two projects in the planning stages in Orangeburg County could bring thousands of jobs and restore lost luster to the region. Jafza International plans to build an inland port and office complex on 1,300 acres here. And World Trade City Orangeburg LLC wants to build a massive business center and manufacturing plants on 1,200 acres.
Corey Pitts, the Orangeburg area director for the state Employment Security Commission, wants to see these projects succeed, but he knows any real benefit is years away. His more immediate concern is the 800 or more people who have been laid off in the area in the past few months. Hundreds show up at the commission's offices every day, desperately searching for new work. "It's just continually increasing," he said.
These are people like Ruby Lee Huggins, a 53-year-old widow and mother of four who was laid off two months ago after working 21 years for an outdoor products company. "I don't never stop looking," she said, folding her arms across her chest. "As long as I got my health, I'm going to work."
The ripple effects of this employment gap are felt among small businesses throughout the area. Hong Platt of Bamberg County can testify to that. She runs Poole's five-and-dime store in the tiny town of Denmark, where streets stood nearly empty on a recent afternoon.
Platt's store offers everything from clip-on neckties and sink strainers to fabrics and malted milkballs, but she hadn't rung up more than $10 in sales all morning. She stood behind the register, ironing a blouse, while she waited for customers. Doing clothing alternations on the side helps her stay afloat.
"It's a ghost town around here," she said. "No one has any money to spend."
Times weren't always this bad. The town of Allendale, just three square miles wide, once boasted dozens of motels, restaurants and mom-and-pop shops that catered to the ebb and flow of Florida-bound tourists along U.S. Highway 301. The road threaded through Orangeburg, Bamberg and Allendale counties like a ribbon of prosperity.
Then came Interstate 95, about 35 miles away, which siphoned off thousands of travelers almost overnight. Many of the old motels, diners and gas stations on U.S. 301 now sit empty and in disrepair, the skeletal remains of their signs jutting up from the tall grass and weeds The road now seems like a worn belt, binding the region in poverty.
"This used to be a place you were proud to be from," said Glen Kinard, an Allendale native who owns Southern Fried Chicken along U.S. 301. "It's a bit depressing to see it go south and end up like this."
He's stuck with the town, but so many others have left. Of the 70 people Kinard graduated with in 1967, only about a dozen remain in Allendale County.
It's not hard to see why. Boarded up and empty buildings line Allendale's downtown area. The town's median income of $16,632 is less than half the state average. The county's teen pregnancy rate leads the state while its schools are among the worst in South Carolina.
To be sure, glimmers of hope appear on occasion. Some new businesses have popped up downtown, and Grant Forest Products has invested some $300 million in its Allendale County facility, bringing more than 120 jobs to the area. But the help wanted section in the weekly newspaper last week was telling — just one entry-level job was listed.
At age 25, Alex Moore is too young to remember Allendale's glory days. But he's trying to hang on here and raise a family after losing his job at a wood flooring mill in a recent layoff. As he spoke with a state employment counselor last week, his prospects for new work didn't look good.
"How much you willing to work for?" the man asked him.
"Ten dollars an hour," Moore replied hopefully.
The man shook his head. "Not gonna happen. You only made $7.70 at your last job."
"Then I'll take that, whatever you can do," Moore replied.
Nearby, Moore's 16-month-old daughter squirmed in her mother's lap, growing impatient with the wait. Her mother gently kissed the top of her head. "It's OK, baby. We might have to move soon if no job comes along."
Eddie Dath, a 50-year-old construction worker, already has decided to go, just as soon as his wife finishes her nursing degree in two years. He's had enough of driving 50 miles or more to work while waiting for things in Allendale to pick up.
"I just want to get the hell out," Dath said, while nursing a cold can of Bud in the Lobster House bar. "There's nothing for anyone to do here but grow old and die."
DeWayne Ennis, Allendale's town administrator, has heard the gripes, but he refuses to give up. The town has pulled in more than $4 million in grants in recent years to create a master plan, spruce up downtown and complete other projects. The University of South Carolina's Salkehatchie campus, once in danger of being shuttered, is now adding sports programs and other services.
If people can just stay the course, Allendale might blossom again, bringing growth and jobs, Ennis said.
"One key thing we have here is we definitely, definitely have faith," he said.