Photo by Sarah Thrower

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Traveling to the Newer South of the Border

The Cancun Saloon is gone.

Back in South Carolina for my 2001 spring break from graduate school out west, my nerves were jumpy with excitement because I had an interview scheduled with Alan Schafer, the mastermind behind South Carolina’s famous neon roadside attraction South of the Border, which Schafer slyly abbreviated as SOB. My youthful obsession with SOB had recently shifted to an adult research project. Finally, I had a valid reason to meet the man responsible for the campy roadside empire that had long fascinated me. In my younger days I would wander the SOB complex hoping to run into Schafer, even mentally rehearsing what I would say, “Sir, I have great respect for what you have created here . . .”

Calling to confirm my interview scheduled for the following day, I was informed that Schafer was sick and could not make it. I felt as if the huge Sombrero Tower had come crashing down on my heart. But the next day I still took, as I had many times before, a one-hour road trip from my parents’ house in Conway, South Carolina, to SOB. The outlawed video poker parlors that were now used car lots or massage parlors announced my entrance to the recreational wonderland. As I glanced to my right expecting to see the immense red, yellow, and orange Cancun Saloon—a place I had drank beer, played pool, and met fascinating people, including a bartender who called everyone honey baby—I was aghast. How could this be? The saloon was now painted a subdued blue and white and had a sign with the word “Antiques.”

No bar at South of the Border? How is this possible? Booze built the Border. In the late nineteenth century, Alan Schafer’s German-American grandfather, Abraham, was among the first Jews to settle in Dillon County. Abraham Schafer operated a general store. When his grandfather died in 1933, the year of the Repeal of Prohibition, Alan Schafer left the University of South Carolina one semester shy of a degree to help his father, Samuel, with the family business. He had one condition. The family must sell the general store and go into the lucrative beer business full-time. They became one of the largest beer distributors in the southeast with accounts as far as Miami. When neighboring Robeson County, North Carolina, went dry in 1948, the Schafer’s beer distribution network needed a stable physical location along the South Carolina border to lure the beer drinkers. In 1949, Alan Schafer opened a small cinder block building he named the South of the Border Beer Depot for the purpose of selling beer across the state line. Schafer manipulated geographic, political, and social boundaries from that moment on and built his roadside empire, an archetype of the Newer South.

For me, the sombrero is a powerful symbol of the South and a reminder that the commercialized and hybrid South has always been my South. Born in 1976 in the small town of Conway, South Carolina, which is just twenty minutes away from the expansive tourist mecca of Myrtle Beach, I worked in various tourism industries along the Grand Strand from the age of fifteen until I went off to graduate school at twenty-three; I know this Newer South of camp and commodity exchange well.

Historian James C. Cobb writes, “The history of southern identity is not a story of continuity versus change, but continuity within it.” The Newer South retains remnants of the Old South and the New South. The Old South of the plantation economy and the Civil War shifted to a manufacturing economy in the New South, which isn’t very “new” anymore since manufacturing has moved elsewhere. The next generation of southerners navigates the growing dominance of the service economy, including the hospitality industries, and the hyper-mobility of media and popular culture.

When my father and I sat in the fake cowhide booths at SOB’s Sombrero Room eating lunch one afternoon, he told me stories of his South during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet I am only a tourist of this South. The images of lynchings and police dogs and water hoses turned on nonviolent protesters are from a South I have only read about or seen on TV or in movies. This is not to say that just because I grew up in the South after segregation was officially outlawed that racism has disappeared. Instead, racism has become refashioned and often gone underground.

The Newer South is the intellectual home of the post-Baby Boom generations born after 1970 and can be found in appropriations of older Souths in newer ways. For example, the Alabama group the Drive-By Trucker’s album Southern Rock Opera, which was released on September 12, 2001, explores the “duality of the Southern thing” for white southerners attempting to reconcile the pride and shame that derives from white southern roots with a DeBoisian vision of double consciousness. In addition, two young African American men created NuSouth Apparel in Charleston, South Carolina, during the late 1990s. NuSouth Apparel’s icon was a Confederate flag reimagined in the red, black, and green colors of African American liberation. While the Drive-By Truckers take on Alabama icon George Wallace in their music, NuSouth Apparel goes so far as to tackle William Faulkner with a shirt that reads, “The Past is the Past.” These statements of cultural hybridity and appropriation did not appear out of nowhere. A southern Jewish man born in 1915 was a trailblazer in controversial appropriations and commodities as he created South Carolina’s iconic roadside attraction.

Being Jewish in a conservative and mostly Southern Baptist farming town in rural South Carolina gave Schafer the ability to bend social taboos concerning the sale of alcohol and blur the black-white racial dynamics of the South. In 1948, Schafer did two brazen things. He paid all the employees of his beer distribution business in two-dollar bills to show the power of the legal booze industry in the area. He also registered black voters who were for the first time able to vote in Democratic primaries, the only elections that mattered in South Carolina at the time.  Schafer often claimed that his beer distribution business flourished because of loyalty in the black accounts. Yet, the question of whether Schafer was helping or co-opting the black vote haunts his progressive legacy. Schafer was a businessman, not a civil rights activist. The good he did for the local African American population, which makes up about forty percent of Dillon County, was partially out of a philosophy of equality and partially about maximizing his own profits and power.

Schafer was gifted at manipulating physical and social boundaries. He expanded the beer depot into a restaurant to cloak the transgressive nature of selling alcohol in a conservative southern town. But, if locals boycotted South of the Border, Schafer had the tourists. He added motel rooms in 1954, and South of the Border continued to expand. Schafer’s overarching philosophy on race and business was, “I check only the color of their money, not their skins.” He claimed SOB was open to all races from the start, all races with money, that is.

Photo by Sarah Thrower

In the mid-1950s, SOB developed a pseudo-Mexican bordertown theme, and Pedro, a cartoonish mascot in sombrero and serape, emerged. Pedro has been read as an offensive symbol, one that further complicates Schafer’s progressive reputation. Yet, Schafer would deflect criticism about Pedro by pointing out he too was part of an oppressed minority. When the Jewish Anti-Defamation League sent Schafer a letter complaining about the “almost Kosher” Virginia ham he advertised at SOB, he fired back claiming that he was “almost Kosher” himself. He handled complaints about Pedro with retorts such as, “I stay politically incorrect all the time. Even people who come in bitching and complaining spend money.” Schafer was also involved in local politics. He led the Dillon County Democratic Party from 1965 until a complex and racially tinged vote-buying scandal concerning the 1980 local sheriff election landed him a brief stint in federal prison, ending his “official” political career.

As Schafer’s wealth and business interests grew in the 1960s, he constantly expanded his tourism enterprises. He was moving from an outsider in rural southern life inside the “good old boy” realm of political power. When he opened the ironically named Confederateland, USA “historic theme park” during the Civil War Centennial in 1961, it signaled this shift in power. The very juxtaposition of a land of Confederate-ness, which was part of a bloody push to secede from the United States of America, with the USA designation speaks to the absurdity of such an attraction and the strange allegiance of some southerners to both the Confederate cause and the Union that defeated it. But Alan Schafer was skilled at playing it both ways. He played up to the local elites and northern tourists craving a stereotypical South while also making a sly commentary on the absurdity of Confederate-Yankee distinctions one hundred years after the Civil War. At the dedication of Confederateland Tower—a modernist design with a huge rotating star, which shot neon lights out in every direction—Schafer, wearing a gray Confederate soldier’s outfit, wryly remarked, “This is Confederateland and most of us here are Confederates. But if you should see any Yankees wandering around, don’t treat them too rough. Somebody’s got to pay for all this!” Confederateland, USA closed by the 1970s, but a SOB billboard advertising “Confederate Cooking! (Yankee Style)” remains as a trace of a long-abandoned joke.

Moving beyond the Confederate-Yankee distinction, Schafer was also invested in the idea of SOB as a local business, but one connected to the emerging global market of cheap souvenirs. Schafer employed many local residents in a poor area of South Carolina and produced so much tax revenue that the construction of Interstate 95 was shifted to keep SOB alive. The finagling of the interstate to hit at SOB is, like the huge Sombrero Tower, a symbol of Schafer’s power. When a local textile plant—a symbol of the New South—closed, Schafer bought it so he could produce cheap SOB t-shirts locally. Schafer also bought a South Carolina icon, Blenheim Ginger Ale. Georgia has Coke. North Carolina has Pepsi. And, South Carolina has Blenheim. Unlike Coke and Pepsi, which are global brands, Blenheim is made and marketed locally—at SOB.

Schafer was not opposed to looking for a deal beyond the boundaries of Dillon County. Long before NAFTA, he established import connections for cheap souvenirs in Mexico. This led to Pedro, who most obviously embodies the ways in which people can imagine and exoticize Mexico and Mexicans as well as the simplification of diverse Latino identities into a singular “Mexican” construct. If you look below the surface, Pedro is a complex and contradictory symbol. The humor Schafer employed at South of the Border to neutralize the trangressive nature of his business is also apparent in his creation of Pedro somewhat as a trickster figure, a common trope in Jewish and African American folklore. Schafer combated complaints about the stereotypical nature of Pedro by framing the character as a joke. In 1994 he lamented to a journalist, “We have to communicate with the present generation. These Baby Boomers do not have a sense of humor.”

However, Jesse Berger and Nate Mallard the twenty-something filmmakers of S.O.B. and the Legend of Alan Schafer, which debuted and won the audience’s choice award at the 2009 Charleston International Film Festival, did not find the Pedro controversy worth mentioning in their film. Growing up with the ironic and controversial humor of The Simpsons, South Park, and the (Dave) Chappelle’s Show, perhaps Pedro does not shock and horrify their generation. Mallard saw Pedro as an ironic wink and a knowing commentary on southern stereotypes. He told me, “I think South of the Border is a lot wiser to the Pedro controversy than you’d imagine. They definitely know the brand that they are selling of this borderline inappropriateness of Pedro.” Yet, with political battles, like the stringent Arizona immigration laws now being emulated in states like South Carolina and Alabama, the stereotyping of Latinos is something we, as a society, ignore at our peril.

Later Schafer expanded his import connections, along with global trends, to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China. In 1995 Schafer opened Pedro’s Africa Shop, a souvenir shop dedicated “to the millions of Americans whose ancestors came from Africa,” according to a sign placed at the entrance. Pedro’s Africa Shop hawked “authentic” African handcrafted items alongside sentimental figurines and black baby dolls, with a mixture of sombrero ashtrays, snow globes, and American flags. The Africa Shop was much smaller than Mexico Shop East and West, the two largest souvenir shops at SOB that contain just about every type of souvenir imaginable. Pedro’s Africa Shop, painted in the red, black, and green colors of African American liberation, flourished for fourteen years.

When I returned to SOB in the summer of 2009, Pedro’s Africa Shop was gone—absorbed into a neighboring fireworks store. But, in the space of an old arcade, Pedro’s Imports from Around the World was the latest example of SOB’s global market. The huge multicolored sign for the new souvenir shop included a globe at the center and advertised imports from Africa, Asia, Mexico, Europe, and even the USA. Inside, the contents from the old Africa shop were jumbled in with various trinkets “from around the world.”

The fact that a tourist can purchase an “authentic” piece of global culture along the roadside in South Carolina represents the strange and discombobulating aspect of visiting SOB. It’s like waking up in a hotel room after a long road trip with no idea where you are. The tourist spot indiscriminately blends aspects of local and global capital while still being grounded in the green color of money. SOB has survived when other independently owned roadside businesses have vanished because it moves with culture.

The neon sombrero is a southern icon, or at least a South Carolina one. Alan Schafer, who died from leukemia and prostate cancer shortly after my cancelled interview in 2001, and now his son Richard and grandson Ryan, resisted buyout offers and franchises. SOB is a family business—but one that exists within a globalized network of capital and the “continuity within change” of southern culture. These connections explain why the sombrero represents my South, even without my beloved Cancun Saloon.

A YouTube clip shows two guys with a large backhoe. Over the rumble of the engine, one man states, “September 10, 2009. This is a date that will live in infamy. Well, at South of the Border at least. Alright Rick. Do your thing. We’re gonna tear down the Cancun Saloon, Fort Pedro, the Train Station. Whatever you want to call it. The Antique Shop.” The machine’s claws then rip apart the white and blue structure that I will always remember as the bright Cancun Saloon.

In 2012, Ryan Schafer, Alan’s grandson and an avid dirt bike fan, opened SOBMX (witty) in the spot of the old Cancun Saloon. According to the SOB website, SOBMX is “a world-class motocross training facility for everyone from beginner to pro.” In the spirit of his grandfather, Ryan Schafer is bringing what he loves to SOB while also sustaining aspects of its past. The sombrero remains.

The potential to combat the homogenizing aspects of global capitalism, which is often blamed for destroying the local, can indeed arise from the independent and local entrepreneurial spirit of capitalism found at places like Alan Schafer’s South of the Border. A sombrero may not seem like a symbol of the South, but I would much rather wear a neon sombrero than wave a Confederate flag.