‘Meet me at the Rocket’? It’s ... not a rocket: The truth behind SC State Fair icon

“Little Johnnie, meet your momma at the Rocket.”

The phrase is as much a part of the South Carolina State Fair, which begins its 150th edition today, as Fiske Fries and the duckling slide. And it’s more iconic.

“The rocket” has been the rallying point for families for half a century. It hearkens to simpler times of checked picnic blankets, Coca-Cola in glass bottles, the Big Thursday USC-Clemson football game and Grandma’s blue ribbon pecan pie.

And while the Rocket may invoke images of fireworks on the Fourth of July or America’s triumphs in space, it has a much different history.

It’s a nuclear missile.

Specifically, it is a Cold War-era, medium-ranged Jupiter ballistic missile that, if armed, was capable of raining down destruction on a Soviet city from 1,500 miles out.

That’s according to “Meet Me At The Rocket,” a new book on the history of the S.C State Fair by Rodger Stroup, former chairman of the S.C. Department of History and Archives. The book was commissioned by the society that runs the State Fair.

The book, which traces the history of the fair from its founding on Elmwood Avenue in 1869, is published by the University of South Carolina Press and has a foreword by acclaimed former USC historian Walter Edgar.

Stroup told The State that he was a bit uncomfortable with the title at first because the Rocket has only been a part of the fair since 1969. But he realized that the fair has been marked by icons through the years, from the State Ball in the 1800s to horse racing in the early 20th century to Big Thursday.

“Each generation of the fair had an icon,” he said. “For this generation it’s the rocket, so I warmed up to it.”

Jupiter missiles were designed under the supervision of Wernher Von Braun, a Nazi and SS officer who after World War II became an American rocket scientist. It was designed to carry a 1.5 megaton nuclear warhead, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

That’s 75 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, at the end of World War II.

If a Jupiter missile were to explode over the S.C. State Fairgrounds, well, we won’t go there.

In 1958, the Jupiter was the first intermediate-range missile launched by the United States. Jupiters were deployed to NATO allies Italy and Turkey as a deterrent against a feared strike by the then-Soviet Union, according to the book.

Rocket Lift 2015 (2) (1).JPG
The Rocket at the S.C. State Fairgrounds is lifted in 2015

The Rocket was retired in 1963, and on Oct. 17 of that year was presented by the U.S. Air Force to the city of Columbia, “to stand as a monument to deterrence, adding prestige to the glorious military traditions of South Carolina,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Emmett B. Cassidy said at the time, according to Stroup’s history

Cassidy added the Rocket “stood a lonely vigil” against Soviet aggression.

The Rocket sat on a trailer on the corner of Rosewood Drive and Assembly Street for six years before before it was erected near the Rosewood Drive gate.

In 2015, the Rocket was placed on a 12-foot platform to tower above the trees that had grown up around it.

You can’t meet your momma at the Rocket if you can’t see it, fair manager Gary Goodman noted at the time.

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Jeff Wilkinson has worked for The State for both too long and not long enough. He’s covered politics, city government, history, business, the military, marijuana and the Iraq War. Jeff knows the weird, wonderful and untold secrets of South Carolina. Buy him a shot and he’ll tell you all about them.