Though there were snakes in the grass

The sign pointing to Shuler Cemetery in Berkeley County, South Carolina, was beguiling. Shuler Lane, a well-maintained gravel track, crossed through woods and over a little bog before ending on higher ground at the graveyard. A man looked up from his grass trimming equipment expecting me to introduce myself. The cemetery is directly across the street from the MacDougall Correctional Institution.

I had just visited another cemetery a quarter-mile down the road to photograph the graves of people who shared my surname, and I thought more might be found in Shuler. The man’s tight-lipped smile told me there was no possibility. There are no appropriate words. We exchanged last names, and he told me which big families were buried in Shuler Cemetery—the Pringles, the Riverses, and the Gaddists. He pointed out the grave of his sister, a Smith.

He was genuinely intrigued when I asked his permission to photograph the markers so I could upload the images to Find A Grave. As a member of his church community’s cemetery board, he had temporarily assumed lawn care responsibilities following the sexton’s recent death. At 76, Smith wasn’t forgetting the five coronary bypasses he’d undergone a decade earlier. He was taking care of his health. A freshly excavated grave on the opposite side of the cemetery awaited the funeral of a man who had died young.

I asked about place names, wondering whether I had ventured into the Sandhills region of South Carolina, but Ridgeville, Sandridge, and Pringletown are in the Coastal Plain. Smith remembered summer days when the sand surface of what is now a paved highway became so hot it forced a person to walk in the grass. He’d once asked someone how 35-Mile Road got its name and learned that it was a 35-mile drive to Charleston. On a first visit to the beach, he’d recognized the same sand that covered the roads back home.

When families nearby in Berkeley County grew large enough, he told me, people used their surnames as shorthand when giving directions: over toward Gaddisttown, up near Pringletown.

At mention of the area’s cotton fields, I admitted I’d been impressed by the cotton harvest because it was new to me. I think it delighted the man to ask, “But have you ever seen people picking cotton?” He had worked in the cotton fields in Berkeley County in the early 1950s, when he was barely a teenager.

Beyond the cotton fields, people in the county who have my last name once worked with Smith at the Mead Corporation’s paper mill. Now, the newest thing in Ridgeville is Volvo’s auto plant, Project Thor, being built on land once owned by MeadWestvaco. At the crossroads, by the two cemeteries and the correctional facility with its permanent “Now Hiring” billboard, a corner store has been repurposed as a roadhouse. Motorcycles were accumulating in its parking lot by 1:00 p.m.

I went to Sandridge/Pringletown with a little trepidation that might have been justified, and I met the kindest gentleman in all of Berkeley County. How does that happen?

Shuler Cemetery

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