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Smithsonian exhibit ‘Crossroads’ comes to Newberry Opera House

A combine harvester in Washington state.
A combine harvester in Washington state. California Historical Society

Rural crossroads have been a part of the American landscape for generations.

It was the smallest towns, where farmers and neighbors gathered to exchange more than goods or services; it’s where they engaged in political debates, shared news or perhaps a bit of gossip.

It was home.

In some places, they still do. It still is.

The Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street, in cooperation with South Carolina Humanities, presents “Crossroads: Change in Rural America,” a traveling exhibit that examines the evolving landscape of rural America. It opens in the lobby of the Newberry Opera House on Dec.16 and will remain on display through Feb. 2.

Americans have relied on rural crossroads for generations, the business and social aspects an important part of the country’s cultural fabric. Despite the massive economic and demographic impacts brought on by changes, America’s small towns continue to creatively focus on new opportunities for growth and development.

South Carolina, which definitely has its share of “rural crossroads,” is one of the first three states to host this new Smithsonian exhibit, with Illinois and Florida.

“I grew up in a farming village of 600 people in rural Illinois and have seen the devastating changes as small farms collapse, industry moves out, young people move to the city, and schools close,” said Randy Akers, S.C. Humanities executive director. “South Carolina is such a rural state, and its numerous small communities have suffered the past decades. Yet there are people, values, and cultural and historical assets that offer hope.”

The exhibit and programs which accompany it will challenge us to think about the future, Akers said.

“What can we do to bring new life to some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in our state? This is a timely and extremely important exhibit addressing one of the most pressing social issues of this century,” he said.

The “Crossroads” exhibit explores how rural American communities changed in the 20th century. The vast majority of the United States remains rural, with only 3.5 percent of the landmass considered urban. Since 1900, the percentage of Americans living in rural areas dropped from 60 percent to 17 percent. The exhibition looks at that societal change and how rural Americans responded - and how perhaps many rural communities aren’t as endangered as some perceive.

The exhibit explores why revitalizing the rural places left behind matter to those who remain, those who left, and those who will come in the future and how all Americans benefit from rural America’s successes; on how economic innovation and a focus on the cultural components that make small towns unique, comfortable, and desirable have helped many communities create their own renaissance.

The exhibition is designed to prompt discussions about what happened when America’s rural population became a minority of the country’s population and the ripple effects that occurred.

Why Newberry?

It’s not an accident that Newberry was chosen for the exhibit. Newberry County is a rural county that has evolved from when the town of Newberry was established in 1789, originally a cotton-farming town, that would later have a railroad built, cutting straight through the community. The area of what is now Newberry County was mainly first settled by German, Irish and English immigrants in the mid-eighteenth century.

Many of Newberry County’s small communities that remain today such as Prosperity, Peak, Little Mountain, Chappells, Silverstreet, Whitmire, and Stoney Hill.

Did You Know

In 1900, about 40 percent of Americans lived in rural areas. By 2010, less than 18 percent of the U.S. population lived in rural areas. In just over a century, massive economic and social changes led to massive growth of America’s urban areas. Yet, less than 10 percent of the U.S. landmass is considered urban.

Here are some other things you can learn and experience at the “Crossroads” exhibit:

1. There are many definitions of “rural” according to different government agencies. Find out what “rural” means to the people who actually live there through two videos with intimate first-person interviews.

2. Spin the interactive wheel of rural songs to see how some musicians have described their relationships with rural places. Will you hear Woody Guthrie? Loretta Lynn? Or maybe even Tina Turner?

3. Learn why having a “sense of place” is meaningful and important to so many Americans.

4. Find all seven references to South Carolina in this national exhibit. (Hint: Five are pictures, one is a piece of artwork by a South Carolina artist, and one is an object.)

5. Build your own town at an interactive magnet board and choose which buildings and organizations your community would need. What do you think a rural town would need more: A library, a bank, or a pharmacy?

6. Learn about the creative ideas some rural communities are exploring to retain residents, rethink farming, and revitalize their main streets. (Have you heard of farmcations?)

Three crossroads in South Carolina

Here are three examples of “crossroads in South Carolina,” a couple of which fall into the forgotten category, compliments of Jerry T. Mitchell, of the Department of Geography at the University of South Carolina.

The water tower in Ridgeway. File The State


Originally known as New Town, Ridgeway obtained its present name when the owners of the Charlotte and South Carolina Railway decided not to build the railroad on the Camden route, but rather to use the “ridge way.”

Fort Motte
Farm land is mostly what is left of Fort Motte in Calhoun County. Now extinct, the town is part of present-day St. Matthews. File The Associated Press

Fort Motte

This extinct rural crossroads community is now a part of the town of St. Matthews. There are a few abandoned buildings along the railroad tracks, including the former jail from the town that was incorporated in 1875. The arrival of the interstate highway replaced the town’s railroads, leading to the demise of Fort Motte.

The Church of the Holy Cross in Stateburg was built by slave labor in the mid-1850s. File The State


This Sumter County town was founded by Thomas Sumter, where his financial interests included a sawmill, grist mill, general store, and a large plantation. The American Revolutionary brigadier general is buried there.

When the state capital was moved from Charleston in 1786, Stateburg missed being elected the new capital by one vote. According to tradition, Stateburg was also considered as the location for the United States Military Academy, now at West Point.

If you go

‘Crossroads: Change in Rural America’

When: Dec. 16 to Feb. 2. 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday; 1-4 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Newberry Opera House, 1201 McKibben St., Newberry.

Cost: Free

About: The exhibition is part of Museum on Main Street, a unique collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, SC Humanities, Wells Fargo, and Samsung. To learn more about “Crossroads” and other Museum on Main Street exhibitions, go to www.museumonmainstreet.org.

Opening Reception

When: 4 p.m. Dec. 16

Where: Newberry Opera House, 1201 McKibben St., Newberry.

Cost: Free

Details: Randy Cohen of Americans for the Arts will speak and the 1948 film, “Newberry in Color,” will be shown. Cohen is vice president of research and policy at Americans for the Arts, the nation’s advocacy organization for the arts. Tom Poland, the author of 14 books and more than 2,000 magazine features and columns, will lead a discussion about South Carolina’s back roads, along with a book signing on Jan. 22 at 7 p.m.