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Chapter 9 | 'Where fishermen go to heaven'

Dan Daniels sells crickets, nine kinds of worms and frozen bait at Low Falls Landing. But he’s more interested in counting painted buntings, awaiting glimpses of bald eagles, anticipating hundreds of breeding turtles.
Dan Daniels sells crickets, nine kinds of worms and frozen bait at Low Falls Landing. But he’s more interested in counting painted buntings, awaiting glimpses of bald eagles, anticipating hundreds of breeding turtles. Photo by Gerry Melendez

Joseph Britton Pack would click-clack a handcart across the wooden railroad trestle on the Santee River. It was his job to follow trains, watching for sparks that might set the trestle afire.

He first came to Sumter County during the Great Depression, a truck farmer selling produce from Greeleyville. In 1946, he opened Pack's Landing on the Rimini side of the trestle. In the ‘70s, his son and namesake, Joseph Pack Jr., quit work as a coastal swing-bridge operator to come home and join the business.

Today, Joseph Britton Pack III, known as Jody, and his brothers Stevie and Andy Pack run Pack's Landing. Andy Pack lives in his grandfather's house, behind the bait and tackle store.

Every day in the spring, two or three times a week other seasons, they guide fishing trips. When their customers leave the store for the water, they walk under mounted striped bass, 37-pound monsters, one caught by Jody Pack, one by his grandfather.

The brothers have worked as guides since their early teens. "My grandfather taught me; my father taught me; now I'm teaching my son,' says Jody Pack, 41, who knows the water and wetlands from Lake Moultrie into Lake Marion and up the Congaree and Wateree rivers.

When he launches a boat from the landing, he's entering Pack's Flats and the Upper Santee Swamp. Two miles up he travels a creek past Sparkleberry Landing into Sparkleberry Swamp. There, Pack has watched osprey catch fish, watched deer and wild pig swim. He has caught glimpses of bobcats and bald eagles.

He says Lower Flats, Upper Flats and the Santee River offer the best fishing. But it's the silence his customers remark upon, after catch-of-the-day photos are done.

A big, high-energy guy, Pack tenses when the subject of the bridge arises. "We know not one iota about the bridge because I can't find one person to tell a straight story. I don't know enough about any of it.'

The bridge would begin on higher ground, up the road from the store, then loom beside the landing's store and houses. "We've been told we're here forever, and the bridge will be suspended and out of our way,' says Pack.

A few miles down the road, in Clarendon County, Louis "Sam' Elliott says, "We're 100 percent for the bridge.'

Elliott's father, Richard Furman Elliott, relinquished 300 acres to what became Santee Cooper in the 1930s. Sell willingly or not, your land was no longer yours, says Elliott, who adds his father got half what he originally paid for his acreage.

The Elliott family farmed and ran several Rimini stores. R.F. Elliott's Grocery still stands a mile from the landing, its tiered facade like broken teeth now. Inside, new wood bolsters its termite-eaten frame; bottles of totaquine, used to treat malaria, sit dusty on wooden shelves.

In 1945, the family shut down its sawmill but put the new lake to use with the opening of Elliott's Landing and Campground, selling bait and tackle and renting handmade cypress boats, 50 of them, for $2 per day.

Rimini faded when the train no longer stopped, and in recent years, the landing business has faded, too. To make do, Elliott cut pulpwood and firewood on his 860 acres, added commercial fishing in winter. After Hurricane Hugo, when the lake was clogged by debris, daughter Alice Weathersbee worked for a deer processor.

The family still runs the campground where once there was a cow pasture, and from March to July sells crawfish from 12 ponds. Alice Weathersbee is an officer in the S.C. Aquaculture Association. The still-stocked bait and tackle store adjoins the house, a behind-the-counter door open to the family table.

Elliott, soft-voiced and slow-spoken, remembers surveys for a bridge in the 1950s; he's still hoping. "It would raise property values; it would help the economy. I won't say it would create tourism, but it would be a big advantage.'

Like many locals, he believes the railroad trestle, first built in the 19th century, proves a bridge wouldn't harm the environment. "When the wooden trestle burned and they built the new trestle, the water was clear again.' Besides, there have been two derailments, one famously littering diapers, and "none of that affected the lake.'

Alice and husband Gary Weathersbee hunt with bow and arrow. They fish. And they want this life — plus the bridge, more business, higher property values — for their 3-year-old son.

"My grandfather left this to my dad, and he loves it, and I love it. I tried to live by a Wal-Mart, and I couldn't,' Alice Weathersbee says of a stint in Sumter.

"There's always room for improvement. If you build something, Mother Nature will take care of itself,' says Gary Weathersbee.

"The only thing endangered here is money."

Not so, says Dan Daniels, on the opposite side of the lake, in Calhoun County. "I'm not for the bridge at all.'

In December 2005, Daniels bought the bait and tackle shop at Low Falls Landing and moved into a trailer next door.

"This is where the fishermen go to heaven,' says Daniels, 64, whose sly humor peppers every remark with heh-heh-hehs.

He speaks over the constant chirp of doomed crickets and the susurration of water into holding tanks. On his counter and shelves sit classic sportsman fare: Vienna sausages, sardines, saltines, pigs feet, pickled eggs. Behind him, Marilyn Monroe stares from a poster.

"We see foxes all the time. We see bald eagles sail over. We watched painted buntings and tanagers all summer. I've counted 10 osprey at one time in the air. I've seen more white ibis than I ever saw in Florida,' where the Columbia native worked as a manufacturer's rep for refrigerators.

Daniels laughs at himself; he's something of a jokester, a taxidermist proud of "swamp monsters' he designed, yet reverent over a 40-pound beaver's pelt. Recently he responded to a developer's letter with "‘Don't think of coming up here. This is a wildlife haven.' Then I called him an inbred thug.

"This can never be replaced, and once there's a foot in the door, it's over. We were in Fort Myers, Fla., in the ‘70s when you could roam. Now it's like New York City.

"Developers get roads in and here it comes: 7-Elevens and Wal-Marts."