The Battle for Sugar Tit

One night soon after I first returned to Spartanburg in 1988 I was sitting in a bar out near the Westgate Mall and there was a guy next to me who wore his hair in a mullet and had boots made out of reptile skin. He still had that Marshall Tucker Band “Long Hard Ride” look going ten years after the album, and it was even topped off with a cowboy hat. His accent was deep and distinctive Piedmont South Carolina, a high-pitched drawl, a slow wash of regional inflection unaffected by TV or changing “upstate” demographics.
It was Friday night. I listened as he made his first move on a pretty young woman who happened to sit down next to him. After she’d settled in, the good ole boy turned her way and said, “So, you on city water or you got your own well?”

I don’t remember what she answered, but I’ve never forgotten the question. I’ve used it for years to help define the deep fault lines between city and county here where I live. Some people laugh and get it right away. For others I have to explain: my man at the bar wasn’t fishing only for companionship. He was asserting how the rural culture of independence in Spartanburg County can be defined by things most of us now take for granted. Even in the rituals of courtship he was unwilling to give up even the most basic of services-water in this case-to control by “the man” back in the city. In 1988 there was still a place called country, and he was still a country boy. He hoped to push those values into the next generation.

I’ve been thinking about this incident for weeks and wondering whether he was from Sugar Tit. He surely would understand the current complex modern struggle between that little former farming community and the sprawling I-85 corridor “city” of Greer a few miles to its north and west.

Maybe 20 years ago that woman he talked to in the bar answered, “I got my own well,” and they danced all night at a little place he knew down near Walnut Grove, and months later they got married in Gatlinburg and moved into an old tenant house or a trailer out near the Enoree River.

Maybe when his daddy died they finally got title to a flat 10 acres of land that used to be a cotton field plowed with a mule by his granddaddy but gone now to gullies and pine trees. Maybe his two brothers got 10 acres each as well right down Highway 101.

Our man hunted deer in the fall right near the house, and his wife was involved with their local church and she worked at the local hospital system as a nurse’s aide. Maybe their kids ended up at Woodruff High and played in the band just like he did 25 years earlier.

They liked the rural life out in Sugar Tit, and they didn’t want to see it go, but maybe that 10 acres in the next twenty years quickly became a subdivision waiting to happen in the imagination of some sharp-tongued, deep-pocket developer driving an SUV who thought he could talk our county boy out of his granddaddy’s land. All that developer needed was some wanna-be “city” like Greer to push gas, water and cable down this ole boy’s road that dead-ends at the river, and he could make a killing.

That developer knew that if he could just get every good ole boy from Woodruff to Sugar Tit to sell him 10 acres he could turn that whole corner of Spartanburg County into a place that looks like Pelham over in Greenville, miles and miles of tract homes, and lawns, and a Wal-Mart or a Publix or two in the mix as well.

City water is just the start of it. After “basic services” you get pavement instead of gravel drives, lawn care, curbs, sidewalks, ordinances, taxes, stop lights, crepe myrtles instead of chinaberry trees, Jack Russell Terriers instead of beagles, and subdivision after subdivision with names like Deer Track, Forest Oaks, Well Spring, Meadow Brook where once was Sugar Tit and deer stands.

Well, I’d be willing to bet that good ole boy still doesn’t want that city water pushing out in his direction. He still likes his well water, even though he could use the money the developer’s offering, since BMW was never hiring his kind anyway.

I’m pulling for the Sugar Tits of the world against Greer. If Sugar Tit goes, where will it all stop? Is our man from Sugar Tit wrong for wanting to hang on to the old Southern rural way? Should every rural Southern place be plowed over by market forces? In a hundred years will every square inch of our rural South be subdivided and settled into grids of good roads, sewer lines, and subdivisions? I’ve been on city water all my life, but deep down inside I’ve always wanted my own well.

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