September 25, 2013

More than 100 years of history lost in fire

By Zane Wilson

By Zane Wilson

For The Sun News

GEORGETOWN | Buildings that withstood hurricanes, floods and fires for 130 years and more fell to flames on downtown Georgetown’s historic waterfront.

The eight buildings that were destroyed were the oldest remaining on downtown Front Street, according to records of the Georgetown County Historical Society. Georgetown is the state’s third oldest city, founded in 1729.

Records are not available on exactly when the structures were built, but all of them were on an 1888 city map, and some were on an 1884 map. It is believed some were built in the 1840s, as were some adjacent to the burned structures.

Most of the other buildings of that age along Front Street fell victim to earlier fires, or to rot and neglect and were demolished.

``I am heartsick,’’ Rene King, president of the Georgetown County Historical Society and a native of the city, said after Wednesday’s blaze.

``That was a very special block of Georgetown,’’ because of its age and the businesses that have existed there in the past and until now, King said.

``It had become a real attraction for our visitors,’’ he said.

But the stores were filled with heart pine, and under the right conditions a fire could spread quickly and wipe them out, and that is what happened.

The section that burned is part of a vibrant tourism economy and included three restaurants. One was newly opened in a previous popular restaurant location.

``Front Street is the identity and the character for the city,’’ said Brian Tucker, president and CEO of Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce.

``This is a blow to the whole community,’’ but he believes the city will come together and ``figure out how to move forward.’’

No question the businesses will be rebuilt, though he expects at least a year of impact, Tucker said.

He said 100 to 125 jobs were lost, most of them in the three destroyed restaurants. The chamber will help connect people with resources they need to rebuild and reopen, Tucker said.

Until the 1960s, Front Street was the commercial hub of the city, offering residents all their everyday needs from clothing to shoes to groceries and hardware.

Like many small towns, its central business district withered in the 1970s but experienced a tourism-boosted revival in the 1980s.

Colonial Florist and Harborwalk Books were the oldest existing businesses in the destroyed buildings. Both also had living quarters above the stores.

But some of the previous occupants of the burned buildings forged places in the city’s history.

Probably the most prominent in town history was the former C.L. Ford and Sons at 711 and 713 Front, in business from 1884 until 1966. The store sold groceries and hardware and would arrange for just about anything else customers wanted.

The Fords developed a clientele of the wealthy plantation owners who bought land in Georgetown County starting about 1900 to have for vacation homes.

``It was not unusual to see the Huntingtons, Vanderbilts, Emersons, Baruchs or DuPonts come through the store,’’ says a book published by the historical society about Front Street businesses.

Archer Huntington, one of the founders of Brookgreen Gardens, depended on the store and gave the Fords $10,000 to help keep them afloat during the Great Depression, the book also said.

Colonial Florist’s building at 725 Front is believed to have been built in 1844, and has had a series of retail operations as well as an apartment upstairs.

The historical society book notes that the door leading to the apartment had an old mezuzah on it, a small case holding scripture that is often placed at doorposts of Jewish homes.

``How fortunate that this notable detail survived the changes through the years,’’ the historical society’s book, published in 2011, said.

Contact Zane Wilson at xtsnscribe@aol.com.

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