Up the road a ways, on S.C. 21 between Blythewood and Ridgeway, is place of uncanny curiousness.
I have passed by it more times than I can count, and finally, on a recent day, I decided it was the day to stop and see what was behind a sign by the side of the road which sported most of a 1932 Chevrolet coupe on the top half and the words, “Branham’s PRECIOUS METALS – We Find Vintage Iron” on the bottom half.
Boy howdy was I glad I hit the brakes.
I poked around a bit, then met 69-year-old Rodger Branham. He directed me to take a seat on “the boss’ bench” in a garage overflowing with every kind of piece, part, component, crank, scrap, bracket, handle, attachment, accessory and oddity. He turned on an industrial shop fan the size of the planet Saturn and it churned up the bottom-heavy summer heat.
“I’ve been in business since 1972,” Branham said. “I have always loved old cars. This is my hobby. Old parts and cars and stuff. The garage business. The parts business. The fix-it-up business. The whole thing.”
“The whole thing” spreads out across several acres of sandy ground shaded by towering pine trees.
“The whole thing” is home to some 300 cars in varying stages of antiquity, maturity and marvel. A 1924 Ford Model T. A 1937 Packard coupe. A 1950 Hudson.
“The whole thing” comprises astonishing collections of gas caps, hubcaps, car-door handles, drive shafts, tail lights, grills, fenders, car doors and steering columns. Never mind every type, kind, class and category of gadget, gizmo, curiosity and talking point, including a homemade, three-wheeled clown bike that would take a tall ladder to climb aboard.
“Got it in Pennsylvania,” Branham said. “I’ll sell it to anybody that wants it.”
Branham goes to flea markets, swap meets and yard sales to find the things he finds.
“I’ll sell anything anybody wants to buy as long as it’s legal. I sell enough to make a living and pay Uncle Sam. Some people call it junk; I call it precious metals.”
And looking from one piece of precious metal to the next, I couldn’t help but ask him how and when this eye-popping assemblage of stuff got started.
“Well,” he said, studying a rusted airplane staircase with a white commode sitting on the top step, “it didn’t get started overnight.”
Most likely it got started during his boyhood, raised in the sandy hills of middle South Carolina. His father was a mechanic. His mother was a mama. He had a slew of brothers and sisters.
“When we got bicycles, we had to make ’em work. We couldn’t afford no new bikes or nothing like that. I liked to trade different things. My brother sent me up the road one time with a pocket knife to trade for a cap pistol that he was gonna make into a real pistol. But the guy had a bicycle I wanted so I just traded the knife for a bike. I went riding home on it and when I got there my brother wanted to know where his cap pistol was. I said I traded it for a bike ’cause I thought it was a better deal.”
And how’d his brother feel about that?
Branham chuckled. “Well, he got over it.”
Well, that’s good. And that’s one of many reasons to spend some time talking to Branham. He’s got a subtle sense of humor that can catch you unawares.
Take the matter of the money laundering machine.
It’s a contraption that he has welded together from pieces and parts of things, including an alternator. At its top is an open-ended metal container, about the size of a Dixie Cup.
“Stick a roll of twenty dollar bills in there and it will be clean gone when you come back for it,” Branham deadpanned.
(Get it? I must confess, it took me a minute. Clue: “Clean gone.”)
Now I didn’t ask him if he was a comedian, but I did ask him if he was an artist. I mean, the money laundering machine isn’t the only kind of fanciful sculpture he’s welded together. You’ll find other such pieces as you poke around.
“Now I don’t know all about that,” he said. “I just piddle around. I don’t know, I just have a good time doing it.”
And he just celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary with his wife, Linda, and in the backyard of their nearby home is another junk yard “a lot bigger than this one.”
“She’s used to it,” he chuckled again.
The afternoon began to wane, but Branham wanted to show me one more thing, his pride and joy – a four-door, 1931 Chevrolet with a license plate that harks back to the days when iodine was produced in South Carolina. “C-25-766 - S.C. – The Iodine State – 31.”
“The fella gave me a price for it and I gave him a price for it and we got in between that and I bought it. It was in a barn for over 50 years. I got it running. It led the Ridgeway Christmas parade. I like to fix something up so you can drive it, but not so much fixing that you’re scared to drive it ’cause it might get a scratch.”
We poked around the car a little bit before saying our goodbyes.
“I suppose I just like talking to people, showing people things like this,” Branham said.
Branham’s hours are “Monday through Saturday. Nine to five or catch me when you can.”
I asked him if he had a website to advertise his business.
“Nope, just word of mouth. People ask me why don’t I get a website. I tell ’em I don’t want the aggravation of it.”
So what about an email address?
“It’s at the house. I don’t know what it is.”
But I do know this: if you’re hankering for an adventure among a plethora of precious metals; if you feel like sitting for a spell on the boss’s bench, cooling off under the auspices of a shop fan the size of Saturn and chatting it up with a fella who’ll make you smile, by all means, head up the road to Branham’s.
You can bet he’ll be glad to show you ’round.
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia in the 1960s. She may be reached by emailing email@example.com.