GEORGETOWN, S.C. — John Witzl Walters is not entirely sure how he survived the fire last month that gutted seven waterfront commercial buildings and destroyed the painting studio and apartment he rented above a 140-year-old store on Georgetown’s Front Street.
But three weeks after the blaze destroyed nearly a full block downtown, he is one of many trying to figure out what the future holds for a town that for a century and a half has struggled to recapture its antebellum glory and, at least before the fire, felt like it was on the right track.
“My first thoughts after the fire were, ‘I’ve got to leave, I’ve got to go away from here,’” said Walters, a painter. “Now I’m not so sure.”
Georgetown is South Carolina’s third-oldest city, behind Charleston and Beaufort. It was founded 248 years ago at the confluence of the Great Pee Dee, Waccamaw and Sampit Rivers. Georgetown produced a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Lynch Jr., whose Hopsewee Plantation still stands along the North Santee River. According to Mayor Jack Scoville, the residential district, shaded by Spanish moss-laden live oaks, holds 28 pre-Revolutionary War buildings and homes, a number comparable to those of Charleston or Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.
During antebellum years, slaves cleared primeval cypress swamps, making Georgetown a hub for vast plantations whose indigo dye and “Carolina Gold” rice created one of the richest cities in America. But the social and economic upheaval of the Civil War was compounded when a series of hurricanes obliterated the levee system that enabled rice cultivation. That was followed by the fire sale of plantations to northern industrialists and various ill-starred enterprises.
“First it was marketing hunting,” said Tee Miller, Georgetown’s economic development director, who owned the building that housed Walters. “Come down and slaughter all our wildlife. Then it became fish out all the sturgeon for caviar and deplete our fisheries.”
Georgetown became a booming sawmill town in 1903 and for much of the past century was dominated by two manufacturers, International Paper, which in 1937 opened one of the world’s largest pulp mills, and the Georgetown Steel Co., which opened in 1969. These factories generated jobs, while their pollution created contention. A rusty oxide dust that stained downtown houses, cars and boats came from the steel mill, and the paper mill’s emissions of volatile organic compounds could blanket the town with a rotten egg smell.
International Paper today steadily employs just over 600 people, down from 1,000. But the steel mill, which once employed over 1,300, went bankrupt and closed in 2003, and then reopened in 2004. It has since closed and reopened, but employment hovers around 250.
And while Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand farther up the coast have boomed in the last 30 years, Georgetown’s population declined from 14,000 in 1960 to just above 9,000 today. Through the 1970s, downtown storefronts along Front Street emptied. According to Councilwoman Jeanette Ard, whose flower shop and apartment were destroyed by the fire, “There was a time you could have fired a cannon down Front Street and not have hit a car or a person.”
Yet in the last few years, she said, lawsuits reined in pollution at the factories, and restaurants, stores, a maritime museum and even a local theater group opened on Front Street’s three-quarter-mile riverfront district. By this year, there was so much downtown business that residents began to complain about a lack of parking.
Many also argued that the steel mill should be closed and turned into a park or commercial space, further polarizing a Town Council already at odds over education, development projects and the promotion of the historic district. “With the Council, it’s been — as soon as that other man walks into the room, I’m against everything he says,” Walters said.
When the fire erupted somewhere behind Walters’ studio at 5:30 a.m., he was awakened by the shouts of Mary Beth Brawley, a neighbor. They barely made it out, but Walters’ Australian cattle dog, Jake, did not.
Walking down Front Street, Walters is stopped every half block by friends who offer hugs, condolences, clothing or even a new place to paint. Before the fire, his works, depicting Carolina marine life, had become fixtures in local businesses. And on the very day all his recent works were lost to fire, he was to deliver $20,000 in paintings to a customer in Charleston — his biggest order to date.
After the fire, Walters’ first thought was to move to Charleston. But the attitudes of residents like Ard, who has already signed a lease up the street for a new flower shop, and a renewed spirit of cooperation have forced him to reconsider. He says he would like to be here to see the 200-year-old bricks that were strewn about become new storefronts.
“Against every wise business decision, I’m now leaning toward staying,” he said. “I feel like I’m among six blocks of family. If every dislocated business were to head for the hills, we’d lose the heart and soul of this place.”