Southern Revival – Lake City: New Life for a Small Town

By Connie Barnard

Southern Revival – Lake City: New Life for a Small Town

Just a few years ago, Lake City looked like one of many sleepy former farm towns along the coastal plain. That’s because it was. Settled by Scots-Irish in 1736, the little hamlet was originally named Graham’s Crossroads for a farmer who owned the land around the country roads that intersected to connect Kingstree to Cheraw and Georgetown to Camden. Over the next century, a rail line came to town and the newly incorporated Lake City flourished as a national truck farming center for strawberries, green beans and later tobacco. Then, after World War II, automated labor, corporate agriculture and the decline of tobacco forever changed the face of life in the rural South, leaving hundreds of small towns doomed in its wake. Vestiges of their classic charm linger, but jobs remain scarce and young families often choose to live in larger, livelier population centers. Fortunately, however, the little town of Lake City was not doomed forever. After nodding off for a few years, it is awakening to new levels of energy and vitality, thanks to caring residents and the remarkable patronage of a hometown girl.

Darla Moore’s story is the stuff of modern legend. Readers may recognize her as one of two female members of the Augusta National Golf Club, along with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Many, however, might not know that Moore grew up on a six generation family-owned farm outside Lake City, which she still calls home today. Darla graduated from Lake City High School and the University of South Carolina before receiving an MBA from George Washington University in 1981. Moore then took a position with Chemical Bank in New York City where she quickly succeeded in making millions for the bank, specializing in taking over bankrupt companies and making them profitable. In 1991 she married Richard Rainwater and later went to work for his firm, Rainwater, Inc. By 1998 Fortune magazine had named her one of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business.

As amazing as this success story is, Darla Moore’s benevolence is equally legendary; particularly as it relates to South Carolina, her home community and the local causes she supports both financially and personally. She has donated millions to the University of South Carolina, whose School of Business bears her name. In 2002 Darla and her husband Richard also made a significant donation to Clemson University’s Eugene T. Moore School of Education, named for her father, a 1949 alumnus who was a teacher, coach and principal in Lake City. The gift to Clemson initiated several programs including the Moore Scholars Program which assists teachers in helping underprivileged and under-served students achieve their full potential, providing summer arts and digital media programs for middle school students and cultural immersion experiences for Clemson education majors through home stays in blighted urban and rural sections of the state. She also funded similar programs at USC and Claflin University.

Darla Moore has worked hard as well to sustain and honor the memory of Lake City native, Dr. Ron McNair, the pioneering astronaut killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986. The second African-American to enter space, McNair earned a Ph.D. in physics at MIT and participated in groundbreaking research in the field of lasers. The Ronald E. McNair Life History Center, located next to his gravesite in Lake City, serves to inspire young people to explore space. Moore’s efforts also led to the creation of the McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation at USC.

Friends who have known Darla all her life say they are amazed but not surprised by her success. Described in one national magazine as “The Toughest Babe in the Business,” Moore’s competitive zeal could be attributed to her father, the athlete and coach who trained his daughter to be relentless in her drive for excellence in everything she undertook. From her mother, a teacher, came Darla’s natural aptitude for academics and music. One friend said, “If Darla had chosen to go in another direction, she could easily have been just as successful as a concert pianist.” All who know her say perhaps the most remarkable thing about her is that she has remained unchanged, holding on to her rich South Carolina drawl, surprising sense of humor, even a love of fast cars. For years she and her husband enjoyed cruising in his modified 1957 Chevy, the fastest street car in the world, which Darla has referred to as “the thrill of my life.”

Though she owns several homes, Moore has spent most of the last ten years living in Lake City in the spacious residence she built directly behind her grandparents’ simple historic farmhouse. One lifelong friend, Jenny Cockfield Johnson, says, “A lot of folks who grow up in small Southern towns move away to big cities and never return except for occasional visits to relatives. After many years in New York, Darla returned to the land she loves and made it her home.” Drawing on her innate reverence for the land, particularly the preservation and propagation of Southern heritage plants including Southern magnolias, camellias, live oaks and jonquils, in 2002 Moore set aside 50 acres of the family farm to establish the Moore Farms Botanical Garden. Designed to promote research and education in horticulture, agriculture, and forestry, the garden is not open to the public on a daily basis but provides tours by appointment and sponsors garden days throughout the year, including an annual spring daffodil festival.

Moore also wanted to help bring new life to the downtrodden little town. A small core group of energetic, motivated residents formed the Lake City Partnership Council with the goal of finding a viable way to put Lake City back on the map. Karen Fowler, who co-founded and served as the group’s first executive director, says, “We all knew that we needed more than just some pretty new buildings. We needed businesses for the buildings and a way to get people to come here. Without an engaged community to sustain it, it wouldn’t work.” Over time, the idea developed to use art as the game changer by turning existing businesses into art galleries. In January 2012, the vision of ArtFields was born. Now in its third year, the nationally acclaimed ten day art competition features live music, dancing, Southern food, art from 12 states and cash prizes for winners, including a $50,000 top prize.

Looking back at the festival’s success and the town’s resurgence, Fowler says from the start their greatest challenge was convincing the local community that it could work. An old tobacco warehouse became the hub from which they worked one on one to get to know their “local assets:” the mattress dealer, the barbershop, the drug store. Over time 36 businesses committed to be ArtField venues. Karen says, “Early in 2013, it happened. The community came together. Then art came to Lake City.”

The festival’s logo, created by a local graphic arts student, depicts a stylized dandelion – the perfect symbol for dreaming big, making a wish, spreading the seeds. In January of 2014, CNN published an article entitled “50 States, 50 Spots.” It named ArtFields as the number one spot for South Carolina. With understandable pride Karen Fowler says, “We did it! We put Lake City on the map.”

Since 2013 eight new businesses have opened in downtown Lake City. Five have owners under 30 years old. One of these, the historic Bean Market, serves as a community meeting and event venue, as well as a farmer’s market every Thursday from early spring through December.

There is also a newly opened boutique hotel and restaurant and a charming Village Green. Historic buildings are being restored with a renewed energy and enthusiasm.

Lake City’s revitalization continues to be a work in progress as it deals with challenges faced by all small rural communities. However, thanks to the generosity of a local girl who chose to come back home and the dedication of its residents, the little town’s future is once again bright with opportunity.

ArtFields 2015 will be held April 24-May 2. Details are available at and The town of Lake City is located 65 miles west of Myrtle Beach on SC Highway 378.

About this writer

  • Connie BarnardConnie Barnard traveled the world as a military wife and taught high school and college composition for over 30 years. She has been a regular contributor to Sasee since its first issue in 2002.

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