SOCIETY HILL — As Brian Gandy sifted through the soggy letters in a plastic bin inside the Coker Rogers Store, he realized he was handling pieces of history more than a century old.

His sense of excitement soon turned to a feeling of urgency as he brainstormed about how exactly he could salvage a deteriorating and irreplaceable part of Darlington County's past.

Gandy, director of the county's historical commission, began by calling his mother: "Get in your car and come to Coker Rogers Store ASAP."

But the bin of letters is only a fraction of what's waiting to be discovered here in this small town.

This area, along the Great Pee Dee River, was where Welsh Baptists from Pennsylvania and Delaware settled in 1736 in one of the earliest frontier settlements outside Charles Towne. Some consider Society Hill, an area also known as Welsh Neck and Long Bluff, the cradle of the Pee Dee.

But time gradually passed the town by, as neighboring communities like Cheraw, Darlington, Hartsville, Bennettsville and Florence grew.

And while the town's leaders don't expect Society Hill to regain the regional import it held during the 18th and 19th centuries, they do hope for a kind of rebirth, one that builds on its rich past — and one that could begin with a handful of its most historic buildings now sitting empty and waiting new life.

"If life gives you lemons, make lemonade," Mayor Thomas Bradshaw said. "Society Hill has been given an incredible past, and I think we can improve Society Hill's future by enhancing its past."

'The soul of the place'

The game plan has begun to take shape.

It focuses on eight abandoned, historic buildings that sit on more than 12 acres across U.S. Highway 52 from Town Hall — buildings that a state preservation group recently bought and is seeking to sell to a preservation-minded buyer.

All told, the four properties include two historic stores with several old outbuildings as well as two historic homes, all nestled together near Main and Hall streets. Their combined list price is less than the price for some bungalows north of Charleston's Hampton Park: about $350,000.

It's one of the most ambitious preservation efforts to date for the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, which is changing its name to Preservation South Carolina, Director Michael Bedenbaugh said.

"It's the soul of the place," Bedenbaugh said. "It's also the soul of its redevelopment."

Bedenbaugh already is in conversations with some serious potential buyers. Anyone buying the properties must agree to restore them to the U.S. Secretary of Interior's preservation standards, and they must provide a timetable in which their work will be done.

A buyer who doesn't stick with the timetable would allow Preservation South Carolina to buy the property back.

"That gets ride of irresponsible dreamers," Bedenbaugh said. "We need to attract professional, business-minded folks."

What's for sale

The buildings up for sale are sort of like the letters Gundy found in the bin: valuable, irreplaceable but not in the best condition.

They include Sompayrac Store, the original portion of which dates to about 1815. "We think it's one of the oldest framed mercantile buildings outside of the tidewater region of South Carolina," Bedenbaugh said. The wooden frame store has been closed and unoccupied for years, with some of its merchandise, such as oil lamp globes and steel wool, still on the shelves. A few 19th century outbuildings still survive out back.

Farther off the highway is the Caleb Coker House, a two-story house built in the early 19th century. Its large rooms and tall ceilings speak of the area's antebellum wealth, created mostly by agriculture. The Trust has made some repairs on the house, which is dry inside, but the next owner has much to fix. Bedenbaugh said it could be a residence or event space.

Next door is the biggest challenge: the Coker Rogers Store, which is the largest building and also the one in the roughest shape, as water leaked through the back. It's where Gandy found the soggy letters.

But Jay White, a Charleston architect and new Preservation South Carolina board member, recently took a look and said that it — like the Caleb Coker House — is not as bad as it looks.

"With the lights off, the dust everywhere and the detritus, it looks like it's in near ruins," he said. "But I'll put it this way: If they were in the (Charleston) BAR's purview, we wouldn't tear them down. The buildings are actually in pretty sounds shape."

White said the advantage that all of these buildings share is wood-frame construction that allowed them to hold up despite vibrations from passing traffic along U.S. Highway 52.

A reason to slow down  

Inside the Coker Rogers store is a fascinating time capsule with much more than letters. Unopened bottles of Tab soda still sit in a crate. Dispensers for ribbon, electrical wires and nails are scattered about. Upstairs is a storage area full of graffiti including what may be the oldest surviving painted version of the town's name.

"I've been told there was no hope for this building," Mayor Bradshaw said. "That it was a lost cause."

Bedenbaugh said the trust would prefer to see this large area renovated for use as a restaurant. Its dark shelves and curious bric-a-brac recall a Cracker Barrel, only this one was built more than a century before the first of that chain's restaurants was built in Tennessee.

"Wherever there is good food, people will come," he said. "This would make a perfect restaurant, and as an anchor, other stores could feed off of that. People will drive for an experience."

Bedenbaugh said Society Hill has had an undeserved reputation as a speed trap, but renovating the store and nearby buildings "will give folks a reason not just to slow down to 35 mph, but to stop."

Bradshaw said the town would welcome any new use that would help secure the future of the buildings, which also sit across the street from the town's historic 1822 library, the second-oldest lending library in the state.

"Right now, we don't have any zoning. That's something we do need to address," he said. "We're sitting on a gold mine as far as history is concerned."

The final property is around the corner, off Hall Street, and is another antebellum Greek Revival home with spacious rooms off a large central hall. Its front porch columns are supported by brick piers located a foot or two beyond the porch itself.

A new approach

The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, now Preservation South Carolina, was founded in 1990, and Bedenbaugh has wanted to tackle ambitious real estate projects such as Society Hill ever since he became director of the statewide preservation group in 2007.

But the Great Recession stepped in.

Since then, the nonprofit has worked on smaller-scale projects, such as restoring African-American homes on Daufuskie Island while keeping them in those families. And it has worked to build financial capacity to tackle larger-scale preservation.

The group aims to advance preservation in communities too small to have a preservation society or a similar nonprofit. Columbia and Charleston both have their own historic foundations that spearhead preservation advocacy, but smaller cities often lack such a voice.

Preservation South Carolina is tackling Society Hill as part of its Pee Dee Preservation Fund, which got a shot in the arm with proceeds from the recent sale of Red Doe Plantation. The nonprofit also has similar funds in the Lowcountry, with work centered around Walterboro, and in Spartanburg. Its Spartanburg Endangered Places Fund is working to restore the Montgomery Theater.

The increasingly ambitious efforts also have prompted the name change to Preservation South Carolina, which Bedenbaugh said more clearly describes its mission. The old Palmetto Trust name also got confused occasionally with an Upstate financial institution.

Bedenbaugh said he ultimately hopes his group can have active and growing revolving funds in every corner of the state.

"When buildings are in bad shape, it takes true patience and creativity to get to a point where the buildings can go back on the market again," he said. "People who ride by them all the time and see they look bad think they're always going to look bad. They seem to be a burden, but that's just an illusion."

Reversing a long decline

Society Hill didn't thrive over the years because rivers became less important as a means of transportation. While it was near the center of the Cheraw district, it found itself on the edge of three counties, as commerce and most government activities shifted to neighboring towns.

One of its most famous native sons, James Lyde Coker, would found the company that became Sonoco packaging giant as well as Coker College. But that was done several miles away, in Hartsville, not here.

Society Hill's population peaked around 848 in 1980, and it's trickled down to 563, according to the last census.

"It's been a gradual process," Bradshaw said. "The town just failed to ever grow, but it's a beautiful little small town."

Unlike many of South Carolina's other first frontier settlements, this didn't disappear. 

Sarah Spruill, a Preservation South Carolina board member who lives in the nearby city of Cheraw, said these properties now up for sale are more than just potential economic assets.

"They're also beautiful, and they give you a sense of place," she said, adding their restoration "can pull the whole community back together."

So Bedenbaugh and town leaders remain optimistic that a private investor will emerge to tackle most if not all of these properties and put them to a new use that will give the town new life.

"They can't all be museums," he said.

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.