Losing a ‘beacon’: For longtime Grainger plant employees, stacks more than a landmark

Grainger Stacks set to blow on Sunday

The 300-foot tall stacks at the Grainger Generation Station in Conway will be toppled at 8 a.m. Sunday. Santee Cooper officials said on Friday that a series of explosions at the base of the stacks will cause the stacks to fall like trees. The Dolp
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The 300-foot tall stacks at the Grainger Generation Station in Conway will be toppled at 8 a.m. Sunday. Santee Cooper officials said on Friday that a series of explosions at the base of the stacks will cause the stacks to fall like trees. The Dolp

Bobby Gantt watched the generators arrive.

He saw the magnificent turbines come in too, as well as every steam and water line.

And the two smokestacks — those 300-foot brick and concrete symbols of power generation that towered above U.S. 501 for nearly 50 years — he also witnessed their rise.

“I saw them go up,” the 85-year-old said. “They’re tearing down things that I saw put up.”

It’s kind of heartbreaking. It’s just unbelievable that it’s no longer there. … You work basically your whole life at one place. And I hate to see it go away, but everything changes.

Joe Holmes, 68, worked at Grainger Generating Station for more than 40 years

Around 8 a.m. Sunday, a series of controlled explosions will topple the stacks, removing the last piece of Santee Cooper’s Grainger Generating Station from the Conway landscape.

A crowd of onlookers is expected to gather at Lake Busbee to watch the behemoths fall. Politicians will likely be interviewed by TV reporters asking about the significance of the demolition. The Warehouse, a downtown bar, has even scheduled a farewell party where locals can sip mimosas, listen to piano music and share memories.

But for the former employees who spent decades toiling at Grainger to keep everyone else’s lights on, the viewing will sting; it’s the last piece of their history gone.

“It’s kind of heartbreaking,” said Joe Holmes, 68, a former shift supervisor who worked at Grainger for more than 40 years. “It’s just unbelievable that it’s no longer there. … You work basically your whole life at one place. And I hate to see it go away, but everything changes.”

What changed at Grainger wasn’t the plant itself but the regulations. New federal environmental standards made updating the coal-fired relic too expensive. Santee Cooper announced in 2012 that it would raze the plant.

“The whole thing has been agonizing to me,” said 65-year-old Charles Hucks, who retired in 2000 after 26 years at Grainger. He now lives on a farm between Loris and Conway. “I realize that things outlast their usefulness. … But that was something that could have run indefinitely.”

Last spring, the demolition began. In recent months, crews have reduced most of the site to rubble.

“I pass by there two or three times a week,” said Calep Brown, a 69-year-old former lab analyst who retired after 28 years at Grainger and lives in Cool Springs. “Every time I pass [the site] … I think about the good memories we had there that’s going to be lost. You’re going to look over there and see and reminisce about what things were.”

Norwood Lewis, a 68-year-old who spent nearly three decades as a plant mechanic, remembers the moment Grainger’s demise became real to him.

“The biggest thing that hit me was the first time that I come down 501,” the Red Hill man said. “I looked over and the plant was completely dark. ... I said, ‘Great dow, that just don’t look right.’”

Since the deconstruction started, some of Lewis’ former coworkers have stopped by the site to watch the work. He couldn’t.

“I didn’t want to see it like that,” he said.

I saw them go up. They’re tearing down things that I saw put up. I grew up with the plant, you might say, watching them put up every steam line and every water line and things like that, when they moved in the beautiful turbines and generators. It was a real good experience for me.

Bobby Gantt, 85, part of the first crew at the Grainger Generating Station

Longtime workers remember the plant like this: it was the place where they rode out Hurricane Hugo while their families slept in the Grainger conference room; where they worked around-the-clock through the snowstorm of 1989 and stacked sandbags to guard against the flood of 1999; and where they nervously waited until midnight at the turn of the century to make sure their computers didn’t crash in a Y2K disaster.

“You had to get the job done,” Brown said. “The total job had to be done to get the operation going.”

Yet the retirees also have simple, pleasant memories: Checking the smokestacks as they crested the Waccamaw River bridge on their way to work; cooking lunches in the control room; and, on those rare moments when things calmed down, sneaking up to the top floor to watch the sun set over Lake Busbee.

“It was such a beautiful place for Santee Cooper,” Gantt said. “See, all the other power plants were back off the road in the country and things, and Grainger was so pretty when they built it, the color scheme that they used. And it was right there on this busy highway where millions of tourists [could] come by to see it. I thought it was just a good advertisement place for them.”

A World War II veteran, Gantt served aboard the USS Missouri at the end of war. The Lancaster County native started working in power plants and saw Grainger being built while he was traveling through the area on vacation in the summer of 1965.

He asked the superintendent if he could join the startup crew.

“He hired me on the spot,” said Gantt, who retired in 1992 and still lives in Conway.

Other longtime Grainger employees have similar stories.

Hucks, a former shift supervisor, was hired when got out of the Navy. For Brown, an Army vet, the plant was where he built his life after Vietnam.

Grainger only employed 50-60 workers, so the staff became a close-knit bunch. They knew each other’s spouses and children. Today, retirees often call to check up on each other or catch up with former coworkers who still work for other divisions of Santee Cooper.

“Even the guys still working say, ‘There’s no place like Grainger,’” Brown said. “There’s something unique about it.”

It’s been a beacon for the community. Everybody’ll tell you that.

Randy Wood, 67, worked at Grainger Generating Station for 38 years

Randy Wood understands.

He worked at Grainger for 38 years, spending more than 20 as the site’s maintenance superintendent.

“I really never thought about the plant going away, to be frank with you,” the 67-year-old said.

But he saw the signs. When he started at the plant, the station churned out electricity year-round. As other plants were built, Grainger became a seasonal operation, primarily running during the summer and winter months.

Wood knew where the industry was heading, and he figured small, aging coal-fired plants like Grainger had seen their best days.

“I figured that out pretty quick,” he said. “I just got used to it.”

Although he retired two years ago, Wood has spent the last few months serving as the liaison between the state-run utility and the demolition crew.

When the work began last spring, he had a hard time watching as the remnants of the place that provided his livelihood for decades were sold for scrap.

He said he’s adjusted, though he acknowledges there’s a difference between accepting a situation and liking it.

A creature of habit, he’s tried to train himself not to look at the stacks as he drives over the bridge. For years, that was his first check of emissions at Grainger as he headed in from his Tilly Swamp home.

After Sunday, he wonders if he’ll still look for the stacks. He suspects he will.

“It’s been a beacon for the community,” he said. “Everybody’ll tell you that.”

Charles D. Perry: 843-626-0218, @TSN_CharlesPerr

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