Beyond the Charm (and Sweet Tea): Surprising Finds in the Olde English District of South Carolina
The old adage “It’s the journey, not the destination” is never more true than when you visit America’s charming small towns. From Maine to Florida, California to the Carolinas, the quiet backroads lead to some great adventures. Every state in the Union has them, though travelers often overlook them in favor of larger, well-known destinations. Sure it’s great to see The Big Apple or The Big Easy, places so ripe with urban legend and anecdotes no one really knows the origin of their nicknames. There, you’ll find the usual Things You Must See & Do like waiting hours in line for tickets to the best attractions, or finding the most Instagramable spots alongside thousands of your new BFFs. The people watching can be fun with all the chaos and crowds, but how much of the real destination do you see?
Cliché as it may sound, it’s only when you get off the beaten path highways that you’ll find the authentic feel of a place. That’s the essence of slow travel — experiencing more by slowing down. If you’re looking for more of this in your travels, we have some new routes for you in the Old English District of South Carolina. Made up of 7 counties in the north central area of the Palmetto State, this historic stretch between Charlotte, North Carolina and Columbia, South Carolina is so named for the region’s early settlement by the English in the mid 1770s. There are enough unique things to do in the Olde English District for you and your family — charming small towns where fresh new businesses mingle with nostalgic mainstays like peas and carrots — perfect for girlfriend getaways, romantic stays, or fun family vacays. There’s Revolutionary War history, the hottest pepper sauce in the world (Guinness says so!), dining at excellent restaurants, eating lots of peaches and strawberries, and drinking some really good beer!
Sure you’ll find some kitschy claims to fame, like the tallest tree in the county or the oldest this or that. But the real fun is sitting next to a local at the diner who tells you about the hidden places only they know about. Or running into the Mayor in the town square who asks you where you’re from when he sees you taking pictures. These are the connections you’ll come away with when you visit the small towns along the Olde English District — where historic sites reveal the past, family farms still flourish, and there are some honest to goodness hidden gems that’ll completely surprise you.
Things to Do in the Olde English District
Driving I-77 from Charlotte, North Carolina south to Columbia, South Carolina will take you about an hour and a half. But get off the highway and you can explore for days. This is where you’ll find these quaint small towns with woodlands, fresh waterways, state and national parks, vibrant art scenes, camping, hiking, fishing, antiquing, shopping, and the largest collection of Native American Catawba Tribe pottery in the world. We’ve driven through South Carolina countless times on our way back north to visit our families, and have come to love the coastal climate of the Lowcountry. And of course Charleston has been on our list for some time. But this was our first visit to upcountry South Carolina before we moved west to the Old 96, and it won’t be our last! Here are just 7 of the small towns we visited recently in the Olde English District, but there’s many more.
One of your first stops in the Olde English Historic District should be Fort Mill, formerly a thriving textile mill town that predominated the South from the late nineteenth century through most of the twentieth century. Fort Mills was home to Springmaid Cotton Mills and a visit to the Fort Mill History Museum will set the stage and introduce you to the colorful movers and shakers who’ve been influential in the town for over 500 years. I loved learning about the history of the Springs Textiles Industry and Springmaid Fabrics, especially their advertising in the conservative 1940s and 50s. In 1951 Colonel Elliot White Springs hired famed burlesque stripteaser Gypsy Rose Lee to promote the company’s fabrics and linens. She was his official “Vice President in Charge of Unveiling” at the new train depot opening in the nearby town of Lancaster where he owned 29 miles of railway on the Lancaster and Chester lines. Then, much to the townspeople’s chagrin, her likeness helped make Springmaid Fabrics a household name when she starred in some pretty racy advertisements over the years! All this makes for some interesting viewing at the museum, which is open Wednesday through Saturday. Knowledgable docents like Rudy will share their wealth of local history with a good dose of humor. History tours are their specialty and the months of October and December are especially fun when they host their Lanterns and Legends walking tours and Historic Homes tour, respectively.
Just steps from the museum, you’ll find another entrepreneur lighting the town on fire. Ed Currie started growing hot chili peppers ten years ago and his green thumb experiments with the beneficial properties of capsaicin (the stuff in peppers that makes your tongue burn) resulted in his first Guinness World Record in 2014! That success was quickly followed up in 2017 where he won again for the hottest single chili pepper on record with an average rate of 1,641,183 (SHU) Scoville Heat Units. Today his award-winning PuckerButt Pepper Company sources and grows 200,000 certified organic pepper plants in Fort Mill, with most of their sales online and through partnerships with Whole Foods, Campbell Foods, and Amazon. If you love hot sauces like I do, you have to taste the one that started it all — the Carolina Reaper. It’s tasty, but it’ll stay with you, I can tell you that!
Where to Eat & Drink in Fort Mill
The elegant Southern Sugar Bistro Bar is equal parts coffeehouse and wine bar cafe, with a tempting dinner menu to boot. We stopped in for coffee and a pastry, and I wish we had more time to come back for dinner (well, dessert mainly because their Woodford Reserve Bourbon Bread Pudding sounded amazing!) Housed in a multi-level historic building, it’s seriously one of the prettiest spots in town — modern but distinctly southern-styled.
Just across the street, there are several great places to eat and drink. The Improper Pig has the tastiest Asian- and Latin-inspired piggy, all hand-smoked and seasoned. The food mixes well in the modern vintage decor with original painted advertisements on the exposed antique brick wall. For the perfect accompaniment to your BBQ, Amor Artis Brewing Company right next door is making some fantastic artisan-crafted brews. As their name suggests, the love craft was evident in the several brews we tried. Co-founders and brothers Travis Tolson and Steve Tolson are native sons to Fort Mill and a quintessential home brew success story, honing their crafting skills and building their reputation around the country before settling back into their hometown with their own brewery in 2016. You can enjoy some cold ones here and order food from next door at The Improper Pig.
Both the Improper Pig and Amor Artis are located in what used to be the old movie house in Fort Mill, and the walls bear much of the history from back then, including the Projector room upstairs. Our friend Rudy from the History Museum showed us what used to be the entrance to the segregated African-American level in the theater. The wall still bears the graffiti written by his Great Aunt back in the day.
>>> YoCo Brew Trail
If you love craft brews and ciders, the award-winning YoCo Brew Trail (York County) is definitely one of the fun things to do in the Olde English District. First, download the Visit York County SC app which contains your brew trail “Passport”. With 6 breweries and a cidery on the Trail, you’ll score a “I Drank My Way Through York County” if you visit 5 out of 7 stops. We visited 2 of the 7 stops (Amor Artis and Legal Remedy) so we’ll definitely have to come back for the t-shirt!
Like Fort Mill, Rock Hill is a booming bedroom community of Charlotte, and a charming place to visit. Rock Hill is the largest city in York County, and the fifth-largest city in the state. Outdoor lovers will enjoy the miles of trails through the woods, wetlands, and along the bank of the Catawba River at River Park, with plenty of native plant species and wildlife in over 70 acres of forested landscape, picnic areas and a canoe/kayak launch. Rock Hill is also an amazing place to eat. And so we did.
Where to Eat & Drink in Rock Hill
When you’re in town for breakfast, be sure and check out Amélie’s French Bakery, housed in a former bank building on east Main Street. Known for their French pâtisserie, I opted for one of their Tartines — the Fig, Bacon & Brie — and I’m still dreaming about it! You must go.
Where’s the good beer place in Rock Hill? At Legal Remedy Brewing, and bonus — the food is good too! In 2009, as their story goes, “a lawyer, a landscape architect, two bankers and a computer guy figured beer was a worthwhile use of time”, and the rest is delicious history. Theirs was the first brewery to open in York County, and today it’s one of the most popular spots in town. We loved their beer, especially the Pro Bono (a balanced and full-bodied coffee blast) which paired really well with our Southern Poutine — french fries topped with melted pimento cheese, bacon, and pepper jelly! Off the charts decadent and delicious! We applaud their efforts to be green and sustainable (30% of their power is solar) and can’t wait to check out their 2nd location in 2020 at Riverwalk.
If your dinner plans call for a relaxing vibe and gorgeous views, The Pump House in Rock Hill is your place. Overlooking the scenic Catawba River, this former industrial pump house turned tablecloth restaurant serves Southern-inspired American cuisine. Their craft cocktails are notable as are the 12 craft beers from South and North Carolina, but their food is creative and fresh. The rooftop deck has the best views — one floor up from the restaurant — with live music to make the night last a little longer.
Get your cameras ready — this is one of those iconic Biggest/Smallest/Best places along the Old English Historic District. In this case, the showpiece is the Winnsboro Town Clock in the center of downtown, the longest continually operating clock in the United States since 1837! Don’t you just love these slices of Americana?
Just outside of town is the South Carolina Railroad Museum — a must-visit for train enthusiasts and families with kids. The mission of the museum, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is to preserve and interpret railroading in South Carolina. You’ll see various types of freight and passenger rail cars, a steam locomotive #44 which once belonged to the Hampton and Branchville Railroad, cabooses, freight cars, and diesel engines from CSX, Norfolk Southern, the Lancaster and Chester, and other railroads. But the real fun begins when you step onboard! Their trains run every Saturday, departing at 10:00 am and 1:30 pm, and they have several uniquely themed rides that are fun for the whole family — a Valentine Dinner train, BBQ Dinner train, the Easter Bunny Egg-spress, and even a Santa train
Where to Eat & Drink in Winnsboro
There are several good restaurants in Winnsboro serving everything from southern-style comfort food to donuts and tea! The Donut Guy and his wife own, well, The Donut Guy on Congress Street and also the restaurant next door called, what else, The Restaurant Next Door! Owners Shaun and Crystal Paulk serve up signature flavors of sweet donuts like Red Velvet, Cinnamon & Sugar, and Unicorn, and local specialties at their new southern eatery. The RND’s fried okra was the best I’ve ever had! A must-eat when you’re in Winnsboro.
Next door to the RND is the Cornwallis House Tea Company, a fun spot for a cup of hot tea or a refreshing glass of tea on ice. What’s cool about this place is the passion they have for carefully sourcing and selecting only the finest hand-crafted teas from the East, and carefully blending their own loose tea. And you must try one of their homemade desserts. I mean, come on…how incredible do these look? They tasted even better!
The tiny town of Ridgeway just might be one of the most unexpected finds in your small town exploration of the Olde English District. The World’s Smallest Police Station sits just along Main Street signaling the many small charms yet to come. Across the street, stop in Ruff & Company Hardware, a Ridgeway institution for 7 generations since 1840. Owner Dan Ruff is fun to chat with as he talks about his mercantile and hardware store that still does business the old-school way — accepting phone orders on account and loading them up in the makeshift “drive-thru” off to the side when a customer pulls up and beeps. It’s a bygone way of doing business and a nostalgic deep dive — definitely worth a visit and a purchase.
Down the street is the Over The Top Boutique, with colorful and current women’s fashions. Owner Phyllis Nichols Gutierrez also coordinates much of the town’s vibrant art scene with close to 100 artists showcasing their work in her space and around town every first Friday of the month. First Fridays of Ridgeway is a popular thing to do in the Olde English Historic District for art lovers as is the annual Arts on the Ridge held the 1st weekend in May, celebrating the visual, performing and literary arts through art shows, performances, demonstrations, book signings and vendors.
On the other side of the tracks is the uber stylish Bella & Blue, a boutique designed for every generation so bring your Mom or your daughters and your wallet, because I guarantee you’ll practice some retail therapy. From the latest styles in jeans, girly tunics, and funky bags, belts, and bling, you’ll seriously want to buy the whole store!
Where to Eat & Drink in Ridgeway
A block down the street is Laura’s Tea Room, the place in town for a lunch-only, two or three course spot of tea. Formerly the town of Ridgeway’s Mercantile, the upstairs Tea Room offers three-tiered tea trays with amazing assortments of savories and sweets, while the Deli downstairs offers delicious sandwiches, soups and salads. There’s a fun Gift Shop to browse as well. Whether you’re fancied up for tea or just want a casual bite, sneak a peek upstairs at the assortment of hats, try one on and have your picture taken with the Queen!
Camden and Boykin
If you’re a history buff, add Camden, South Carolina to your list. There’s interesting Revolutionary War history through Fairfield and Kershaw Counties and the Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site is where to begin. With so many buildings, the Camden Battlefield, and the new Longleaf Pine Preserve, there’s so much to see and do here for several days. Historic Camden includes a 107+ acre outdoor museum on Broad Street, as well as 476 acres of the Camden Battlefield and Longleaf Pine Preserve located 8 miles north on Flat Rock Road. General admission to the site includes access to 104 acres, the Bradley and Drakeford Houses (log cabins with exhibits), reconstructed blacksmith shed, nature trail, fishing pond, picnic tables, restrooms, and the Cunningham House gift shop.
The Kershaw-Cornwallis Mansion is the reconstructed Georgian house of the town’s prolific founder and mayor, Joseph Kershaw. The original mansion was burned down during the Civil War but was reconstructed in the late 1970s to be a museum. Access to the Kershaw-Cornwallis House, McCaa's Tavern, and Craven House is limited to the guided tour only, offered every day except Monday.
The Camden Battlefield site and Longleaf Pine Forest and Preserve, an endangered South Carolina ecosystem, have created an exciting new tourism development partnership project with the American Battlefield Trust. Guided tours of the battlefield and preserve offer a unique glimpse into the 1780 battle. The Preserve is open to the public during daylight hours.
The Camden Archives and Museum is a fascinating place to explore the history of South Carolina’s oldest inland city (1732). From the history of Camden along the Great Wagon Path (the original I-95) and as a favorite winter tourist destination (ah, to sit on the porch of the original Kirkwood Hotel), to the Native American artifacts & genealogical records, there’s much to take in at this local county history museum. But learning about the community’s most famous resident — the Boykin Spaniel, the official dog of South Carolina and beloved AKC hunting breed — was probably my favorite part. Because, puppies!
The small town of Boykin is one of the most charming hamlets we saw on our road trip through the Olde English District. No stop lights, no traffic. But we were told their Christmas parade is not to be missed! And remember the Boykin Spaniel? Yep, that’s the same Boykin. Spend some time here toward the end of the day. The buildings are historic, you can pop in a few small stores, peek your head in the pretty Swift Creek Baptist Church if it’s open, and best of all stay for dinner at the Mill Pond Steakhouse — so worth staying for!
Where to Eat & Drink in Boykin
The Mill Pond Steakhouse in the nearby hamlet of Boykin is a must-visit. This historic venue has scenic pond views and some of the most outstanding cuisine in the Olde English Historic District. Chef Clyde Grant surely knows his way around aging and preparing a good steak — “You don’t want to handle the meat, but you do want to wake it up!” — and that’s just the beginning. Service is excellent as is the impressive wine list, the family-style sides, and the cobbler served tableside à la mode.
At one time, at least 29 distinct tribes of Native Americans lived in South Carolina. Today, the Catawba Tribe is the only federally recognized tribe with the State of South Carolina recognizing an additional 9 tribes. That so much history and culture was lost from our country’s native culture is staggering. But you can see an impressive piece of this American history at the Lancaster County Native American Studies Center. A division of University of South Carolina (USC) Lancaster, this comprehensive center was established in 2012 for the study of South Carolina’s Native American peoples, histories, and cultures. Here, visitors can “view the single largest collection of Catawba Indian pottery in existence, study texts on Native Americans in the Southeast, participate in educational classes and programs, and observe archaeology, language, folklore and oral history labs”. As impressive as it sounds, it’s even more so in person with interesting things to see, touch, and enjoy for kids and adults. A must-see!
Ironically, the Center is just down the road from the Andrew Jackson State Park, named for a President who adopted the Indian Removal Act of 1830, a heinous piece of legislation that forcibly relocated tens of thousands of Native Americans to the states west of the Mississippi, freeing up their native lands “to advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power” with gold exploration at its economic core. This was all in my head as I toured the Native American Center, and while I loved seeing the collection and appreciate that Jackson was South Carolina’s only President, I left wishing his statue was in this nice concrete building and the Native American Center was in his 360-acre park down the road.
Just one street over from the beautiful Catawba pottery is the work of another amazing local artist, metal sculptor Bob Doster. His Backstreet Studio, Gallery & Garden is a treasure of whimsical, striking, and over-sized sculptures, many of them commissioned by and partnering with local community organizations, schools, and companies. His studio space seems to have a continual work in progress, with bits of metal scraps littered about that alone would sell well in a local reclaimed shop. But it’s his commissioned pieces that are truly wondrous in size and feel and they can be found in museums, galleries, public art, and corporate and private collections around the world. You can stroll through the garden admiring his works and some from other local artists, and be sure to see the tea cups and plates installation near the front door.
Where to Eat & Drink in Lancaster
For craft beers, head to locally owned and operated Benford Brewing Company in Lancaster, a small farm brewery producing brews in 30 barrel batches at a time. They say the secret to their beer is the pure spring water that bubbles through their property, and by all accounts they’re onto something. If you can’t make it to their farm, stop by The Craft Stand, Lancaster’s first craft beer tap room, with 24 beers & ciders on tap, including Benford Brews!
Y’all come back!
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Where to Stay in the Old English District
The Hampton Inn and Suites, Rock Hill
This new Hampton Inn and Suites offers a reliably comfortable stay in the heart of bustling Rock Hill, conveniently located off I-77 next to the Rock Hill Galleria Mall. Plus, it’s just minutes from Winthrop University, Lake Wylie, Charlotte Motor Speedway and the Manchester Meadows soccer complex. Rooms are tech-ready and the beds are super comfy. A comfortable stay in a perfect location. Check rates and availability.
Bloomsbury Inn, Camden
This award winning property was built in 1849 by Colonel James Chesnut, Sr. and Mary Cox Chesnut. In fact, Bloomsbury was often times host to famed Civil War diarist, Mary Boykin Chesnut. This bed and breakfast is quietly tucked away on a residential street of the Historic District, in the oldest inland town in South Carolina. Guests love their full gourmet breakfast and homemade sweets. Set on two acres of manicured grounds, Bloomsbury Inn is inspected and approved to the highest standards by Select Registry. Check more details and availability.
Kilburnie the Inn at Craig Farm, Lancaster
Now in its 12th year of operations, this Inn is a luxurious, beautifully maintained B&B Inn with the aura of a small private boutique hotel. This 182 year old antebellum “Grand Dame” was moved in 1999 to 400-acre historic Craig Farm and completely restored to her former Greek revival grandeur. Recommended by Southern Living Magazine, Kilburnie offers beautifully furnished guestrooms with Bose Radios, fire-side seating and spacious bright private spa-like baths (two of which with fireplaces). Kilburnie offers sumptuous gourmet breakfasts, and guests can explore nature trails, beautiful gardens, and three large piazzas with rocking chairs for quiet solitude or socializing. Kilburnie is inspected and approved by the South Carolina Bed and Breakfast Association.