Yemassee Looks for New Ways to Revitalize
By Donna Isbell Walker
Downtown Yemassee looks like a town that time forgot. The Amtrak station, a low-slung, taupe-colored depot, bisects the town center, Beaufort County on one side of the tracks, Hampton County on the other.
Across the street, just above the Holy Temple Church of the Lord Jesus Christ Inc. of the Apostolic Faith, a faded mural of a locomotive commemorates the years when Yemassee was the final stop for Marine recruits headed to Parris Island for basic training.
On the other side of the depot, unassuming single-story buildings house some of the town's popular businesses, including Lucky Duck Distillery, a moonshine distillery, and Fletcher's Finds, a restaurant and antique shop temporarily closed because of Covid-19.
Just down the road sits the Yemassee Municipal Complex, the hub for city government, the fire department, and headquarters for the Yemassee Shrimp Festival.
But there's not a flashing neon sign in sight, and one recent Sunday afternoon, no foot traffic and very little car traffic passing through.
As with most of the country, 2020 has not been kind to Yemassee, population approximately 1,000. Covid-19 and the economic downturn have exacted a toll on a community that has long struggled with its place in the Lowcountry.
"This is a very rural, poor area," said Matthew Garnes, Yemassee town clerk." Yemassee is considered low- to moderate-income, and I think that's why a lot of people will sometimes overlook it."
Yemassee's most bustling area is its Interstate 95 exit, which boasts the town's largest employer, Love's Travel Stop, along with a Le Creuset cookware outlet and a smattering of fast food restaurants.
Many Yemassee residents work in tourism in other Lowcountry communities, and they've been hit hard by the Covid-19 shutdown, said Peach Morrison, executive director of the South Carolina Lowcountry and Resort Islands Tourism Commission.
"The rural areas of our region, those are the front-line workers who are working in some of the tourism businesses, whether it be Beaufort or Hilton Head or Savannah. So that has affected them," Morrison said.
The biggest event in town, the Yemassee Shrimp Festival, is set for September 17-20, although that could change because of Covid-19, Garnes said. The festival typically draws 3,000 to 5,000 people.
"It used to be a very large event that would draw people from the whole Southeast, but the past few years, it's been smaller than it was," Garnes said.
In years past, the festival was managed by volunteers, but now it's operated by town staff.
"The festival itself doesn't make the town a lot of money per se – there's a lot of overhead for everything – but what it does is, it brings people into town, and it has a trickle-down effect on the other businesses. We'll have people who'll stop at the stores, they'll get gas, they'll stop at the eateries, which might be a little bit different this year," Garnes said.
This year's festival will have new events that will allow for social distancing and highlight different areas of town, including a 5K race, history seminar and moonshine tasting.
Yemassee's motto is "Focal point of the four counties" – Beaufort, Hampton, Jasper, and Colleton – but there's a citizen-led drive to annex Yemassee entirely into Beaufort County.
The driving force is the"exorbitant taxes and lack of services offered by (Hampton) county," Garnes said." For being the second-poorest county in the state, their taxes are astronomically higher than everybody else around us. Beaufort County has a lot more to offer. Residents would be paying a lot less in taxes. They'd see an increase in property values, availability of public safety. So that's really what's pushing that."
In addition, Garnes said, residents feel that Beaufort County would be "much more proactive" in enticing new business to the area.
Having the entire area in the same county would also mean more streamlined county services, from EMS to the county jail.
The Beaufort County annexation drive began with citizen petitions, but it will be a long process that won't be resolved for at least a year, Garnes said.
While much of Yemassee struggles with poverty, there's another side of the coin as well, Morrison said.
Plantation homes and hunting preserves surround the area, including Auldbrass Plantation, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and owned by movie producer Joel Silver.
"When the Civil War happened, the Southerners left, and the Northerners came in and bought all the land up, and they used it as hunting preserves and rice cultivation," Morrison said. "The land is beautiful. It's a dichotomy of the normal citizens versus some of the people who own the property; it's an interesting dichotomy."
Yemassee businesswoman Paula Flowers sees unlimited potential in Yemassee, and she's spent the past several years trying to help others see it, too.
"There are a lot of hidden treasures in Yemassee," said Flowers, owner of Fletcher's Finds and member of the now-defunct Yemassee Revitalization Corporation, which helped renovate the Amtrak station.
Flowers, along with her business partner Sharon Mansell, is expanding Fletcher's Finds into a new business called Timeless Vintage Finds, which will spotlight antiques from the town and surrounding plantations.
"We've always been committed to the history of Yemassee, and we want to continue to see that town revitalized," Mansell said.
Flowers and Mansell say they're looking into the idea of creating a visitors center in downtown Yemassee.
The Lowcountry and Resort Islands Tourism Commission is technically located in Yemassee, but it's just off the interstate a few miles down I-95 from the Yemassee exit.
The tourism office has its own role in Yemassee's history. It's at Frampton Plantation, a two-story white house shaded by a majestic, moss-draped oak tree in the front yard.
The home's original owner, John Edward Frampton, signed South Carolina's Ordinance of Secession in 1860, and the home was burned by Union troops in 1865. It was rebuilt in 1868 and renovated by the Tourism Commission in the 1990s.
The Yemassee area hasn't been a stranger to conflict and destruction. The town was named for the Yamasee tribe, sometimes spelled Yemassee, and was the site of the 1715 Yamasee War, an uprising that pitted the Native Americans against the British.
The conflict began in the Yamasee town of Pocotaligo, which is part of the modern-day town of Yemassee.
Just outside of downtown, the Old Sheldon Church Ruins, now serene and sun-dappled next to canopies of ancient oaks, were once the site of Prince William Parish Church.
The church was first burned by British troops during the American Revolution, then rebuilt and later burned during the Civil War.
While it's privately owned by St. Helena's Church in Beaufort, its grounds are open to the public, and tourists often stroll among the two-century-old gravestones and take photos of the rose-colored brick remnants of the church.
If the Amtrak station, whose renovation was chronicled nearly a decade ago on the Lifetime reality series "The Week the Women Went," is the visual centerpiece of the town, it may also serve as the driver for Yemassee's economic rebirth.
The Silver Meteor and Palmetto lines stop in Yemassee, which is the only Amtrak station between Charleston and Savannah, Garnes said.
"Businesses are looking to scale back, and businesses are looking for places they can run efficiently and less expensively, and Yemassee is an outstanding place to do business," Garnes said." We have some of the lowest building permit rates in the Lowcountry. We have various things that municipalities around us lack, especially direct interstate access. We've got rail access, freight rail and passenger rail, which is something they don't have in Beaufort County, period."
In Mansell's view, it's the determination of the people who love Yemassee that will make the biggest difference.
"People committed to revitalizing Yemassee is what matters," she said." We're committed to that town and to bringing jobs to Yemassee and holding jobs in Yemassee. And we do have a vision. "¦ It may not be an overnight revitalization, but the more we can bring people to the town, the better the town is going to do."