CONWAY — The rumbling of cars lined along U.S. 501 Business has a pretty dominant presence most weekdays as cars and trucks lean forward down the overpass bridge of the Waccamaw River that feeds into downtown Conway.
The city of nearly 17,000 residents is often associated with being the county seat for Horry County, hosting thousands of students during the school years of Coastal Carolina University and Horry-Georgetown Technical College and being the mouth to feeding highways of 501, 701, 378, and S.C. 90, to name a few.
But walk a block off the city’s roads most traveled and you’ll see a different side of Conway. The humming of a lawnmower is very apparent and the sound of children playing at a nearby playground can be heard clearly. Its downtown buildings are a blend of treated brick and those in near-original state. Local shops, like a television repair shop, barber shops and car repair shops, thrive off the perfect combination of local customers and a touch of tourism dollars.
Conway is a different city than those who have similar brick make ups throughout the state. Other cities the size of Conway across America have vacant buildings, boarded windows and struggle to get traffic through its Main Street. But not Conway. The city, with more than 22.5 square miles of land and water, has a rich history dating back to its days when it was originally named Kingston in 1732.
Strolling near the center of Conway at the city’s oldest place of worship – Kingston Presbyterian Church – beneath several moss-draped crape myrtle trees, lies a unique cemetery. Glass-encased tombs of Italian marble children statues who died in the late 1850s are on display, along with a tomb of a man who served in the Confederacy and many other tombs as well.
“Those are probably the most significant as far as sculpture,” said Ben Burroughs, director of the Horry County Archive Center at Coastal Carolina University. He said with the right amount of sunlight and after a certain amount of rainfall, indentations of where old wooden headstones would have been are evident and show the burial ground is rather full. “The earliest settlers in this area would have been buried in that churchyard.”
Tucked about 16 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, Conway has arguably survived with little help from its proximity to the ocean.
“When the town was first founded in 1732, Conway wasn’t dependent on it back then,” Burroughs said. “It got along then and is doing it now.”
Walking its downtown toward Third and Elm streets, there’s a small building with a glossy type of brick that certainly stands out by its brick type and its location. Some claim the current location of River Dogs Grooming Spa was the location of the first black barbershop in Horry County. The spa’s owner, Tammy Butler, said the bricks have a special meaning to the Grand Strand area.
“Those bricks came from Hurricane Hazel in the 1950s,” Butler said. “They were from the grounds of the original Pavilion.”
She said every once in a while people will recognize the bricks from the restrooms of the former Pavilion, which was an oceanfront attraction for decades in Myrtle Beach. Within those bricks now, Butler grooms dogs and provides dental services and nail art for the family pets. Though she’s only been at that location for three years, Butler said she has been grooming dogs for more than 25 years and started in the Ohio region.
She has noticed a difference in the people of Conway compared to those from the north.
“The clientele I have here in Conway is different,” Butler said. “They themselves are more hospitable than those up north. The people are just simply more friendly and very laid back.”
Butler said the convenience of Conway’s businesses blended with its quaint, historic neighborhoods.
“What I love about Conway and where I live is there is easy access to everything,” she said. “I enjoy the nature of the people in Conway, the history of Conway and, of course, the river.”
It’s hard to find anyone who will mention the amenities of Conway and not mention the historic Waccamaw River.
Conway’s Riverwalk offers a serenity from the sometimes busy coastal towns and it’s one of the reasons people are showing more interest in Conway, said Hillary Howard, executive director of Conway Downtown Alive, a group that promotes business in that area.
“We’ll get the people who have said we’ve come here on vacation year after year after year and they look to settle down in Conway because it’s more laid back than the coast and it’s nothing to take a day trip to the beach,” Howard said.
The largest part of Conway’s population – where about a quarter of its residents are between the ages of 25 and 44 – “often are coming here for the nature and river activity,” Howard said. She said those older than 50 often ask, “Where’s the river and tell me about it.”
That’s where Capt. Jim Holbert of River Memories comes in. His company offers riverboat tours that explains the importance of the river to what Conway is now.
“Conway has picked up the label as South Carolina’s historic river town,” Holbert said. “Our history is woven into this river.”
From the days it was founded to the steamboat era of the late 1800s and early 1900s to commercial use of barges and towboats as recent as 30 years ago, the river’s many uses formed Conway to what it is today.
“It’s always played a role to the people here in Conway,” Holbert said. “I couldn’t imagine Conway without the Waccamaw River. It really turned what could be a nice town into a great, great place.”
Which is part of the reason Burroughs, the cemetery historian, said Conway is far more unique than an average town in South Carolina.
“A lot of those towns are dead and Conway is still alive,” he said.
Contact JASON M. RODRIGUEZ at 626-0301 or follow him at Twitter.com/TSN_jrodriguez.