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Greenville Business Magazine

Lowcountry's Moncks Corner Balances History, Extensive Growth

By Donna Isbell Walker

Moncks Corner, which calls itself “The Lowcountry’s Hometown,” is a place of contrasts.

One end of the community is home to Cypress Gardens, with its lush greenery, murky blackwater swamp, and dozens of alligators slithering through the dark waters.

At the other end sits Mepkin Abbey, once a grand plantation shaded by mossy oaks, then the South Carolina residence of Time magazine founder Henry Luce. It’s now home base for a group of Trappist monks from the worldwide Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance.

Between the two is a quaint downtown area anchored by a century-old train depot and a modern park featuring a fountain and bronze sculptures of children at play. Small boutiques and restaurants line the Main Street thoroughfare, alongside Barron’s Department Store, a clothing shop that opened in 1923.

The railroad depot, built in the early years of the 20th century and renovated in 2000, began life as the place where farmers and lumberjacks could ship their products to market. As railroad shipping declined in the mid-20th century, the depot was used less and less. It closed in 1975.

Twenty-one years ago, the depot was reopened as the town’s Visitor and Cultural Center.

Moncks Corner has experienced tremendous growth in recent years, said Douglas Polen, community development director for the town. Census figures for 2020 are expected to reflect about a 60 percent increase in population since 2010, from 8,000 to around 13,000.

“The growth is amazing,” Polen said with a laugh. “I’ve worked in a lot of towns, and it’s fun being the planner and economic development director for a town where you can really see the change happen. It’s not just a matter of wishing you had things. It’s a matter of, people call you up and say, ‘I want to build this here,’ and a year later, it’s there.”

With the growth, however, comes the need to expand responsibly, Polen said, to bring in businesses that will benefit the area without sacrificing the hometown vibe.

“We try really hard to ensure that what comes to town is something we can all be proud of and something we’re going to want in town 10 years, 20 years, 50 years from now,” he said.

A town with a colorful history

The Berkeley County seat, Moncks Corner has a long history, beginning in the early 1700s when it was founded by landowner Thomas Monck, who opened a general store at a well-traveled crossroads.

Soon, residents and travelers began referring to the area as Moncks Corner.

While the town itself is gaining a more contemporary flavor, history is the drawing card for two of Moncks Corner’s most popular attractions, both of which operated as plantations in the 18th century.

Cypress Gardens, like so many places in the Lowcountry, fairly drips with atmosphere, ambiance that has been used to good effect in films such as “Cold Mountain” and “The Notebook.” An early springtime stroll along the 3.5 miles of trails and paths reveals an explosion of color, with tulip trees and azaleas and ferns, as well as a symphony of bird songs.

On the other side of the path sits the swamp, with tall cypress trees looming toward the sky, and stalagmite-like cypress knees rising from the earth in gnarled, sometimes animal-like shapes.

Flat-bottom boat tours of the swamp offer insights into the history, as well as flora and fauna of the area. Alligators sun themselves on small spits of land in the swamp, and their main source of food, yellow-bellied slider turtles, can also be glimpsed as the boats glide through. The bird population includes osprey and bald eagles.

The 80-acre swamp boasts about 200 gators as residents, but because there are no fences or other barriers, the reptiles come and go as they please.

You might also glimpse a gator lounging on the banks of the Cooper River at Mepkin Abbey. During the Covid-19 shutdown, the church and other buildings at Mepkin Abbey have been closed to visitors, but tours of the grounds and gardens are led twice a week by docents who share stories about the history of the region and the property itself.

While the name of the town might hint at the presence of the abbey, the monks of Mepkin Abbey have no connection to the town’s name, according to docent Paul Brustowicz. “Moncks Corner and the monks have nothing in common but a zip code,” he said.

Time magazine founder Henry Luce and his wife, writer and politician Clare Boothe Luce, bought the property, which sits on a peninsula, in the 1930s, turning it into a fall and winter recreational area.

The terraced gardens, with spreading oak trees, azaleas, and dainty lilies of the valley, are named for the Luces, who are buried there. The couple donated the land to the monastery in 1949.

Approximately 20 monks currently make their home at Mepkin Abbey, and they support themselves by growing shiitake and oyster mushrooms to sell to restaurants and supermarkets.

Growth surge in the Lowcountry

The Lowcountry in general is enjoying a growth surge, and Moncks Corner is one of the towns benefiting from the overflow, Polen said. Many people are moving to the area, primarily from the north, and some are settling in Moncks Corner because it’s less expensive than Charleston, Polen said.

“What we try to be is that down-home alternative. You have Goose Creek, Summerville, Hanahan, us. And to a certain extent, our residential growth has been due to the cost of living. We are a little less expensive. But we also promote ourselves as being a more homey, friendly place,” he said.

The larger population has allowed the town to attract popular businesses. For example, Moncks Corner is getting a Popeyes chicken restaurant, which probably wouldn’t have happened a few years ago before the population boom, Polen said.

Despite the infusion of new residents from across the country, there’s still a close connection among the people of Moncks Corner, said Rachel Knight, Berkeley County tourism director.

“It’s a tight-knit community,” Knight said. “Every holiday is celebrated with a festival or parade.”

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the town of Moncks Corner did not mandate the wearing of masks.

The pandemic brought unique challenges to seemingly every community, and Moncks Corner was no different.

Some things had to be adjusted, but “I don’t believe we’ve lost any businesses due to Covid,” said Molly Willard, director of Corner Renaissance, Moncks Corner’s redevelopment association.

And now, with vaccinations in full swing, “everyone seems to be afloat,” Willard said.

Smaller mom-and-pop businesses, especially locally owned restaurants, did suffer from the pandemic, Polen said.

“There were months when they couldn’t be open,” during the late spring and early summer of 2020, “but once they were allowed to reopen, I think some of them have definitely seen less people,” he said.

Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans kept many small businesses in Moncks Corner from going under during those difficult times, Polen said.

As the world reopens, Moncks Corner is expanding its roster of events. The town launched a weekly outdoor entertainment event that kicked off in late April. Finally Friday, which will run through the late fall, will feature live music and children’s activities.

Front-row seat to American Revolution

Like many areas of South Carolina, Moncks Corner had its own part to play in the American Revolution. The Battle of Moncks Corner was fought in April 1780, when British forces, led by Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, surprised the Americans in the early morning hours of April 14 near the Moncks Corner crossroads, killing more than a dozen Americans, taking 64 captives, and commandeering dozens of horses. Many of the American forces survived by fleeing into the nearby swamps.

The battle led to the fall of Charleston, which cut off the city from inland South Carolina. 

Following Charleston’s fall, Francis Marion, the American soldier known as the Swamp Fox, orchestrated a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the Brits. He hid in the swamps and bedeviled the British Army, eventually putting down a Loyalist uprising along the Pee Dee River in 1782.

Moncks Corner folks take pride in their connections to Francis Marion, Knight said.

“The founding of our country was right here,” Knight said. “It’s a big bragging point.”