We have a tradition of looking for a good barbecue place after our paddling trips. This was no different. Our target for this outing was Lone Star Barbecue and Mercantile. However, this was a two-fer – lots of good food and a chance to explore one of South Carolina’s ghost towns.
Lone Star, the Ghost Town
It started with a bit of miscommunication. The rest of the guys had never been to the town of Lone Star, and thought that the barbecue place was in the town proper. So, once we loaded up the boats, they set off, with me following, toward the town. What they found was the ghost town that I knew. All that is left of Lone Star is the old freight depot, moved from its original location, the large brick Masonic building, and two dilapidated stores. Across the tracks was a small convenience store that may or may not have been open. No barbecue anywhere in sight.
So how did an honest-to-goodness ghost town with a western name like “Lone Star” wind up in mid-country South Carolina? As with many towns, its history begins with the railroad. In the 1890s the Pee Dee Land Company began speculating in land along the tracks of local railroads. On the Atlantic Coastline of the Manchester and Augusta Railroad, the land company planned a town called “Auburn.” However, it is said that one of the railroad engineers spotted a particularly bright star one evening, and began referring to that location as “Lone Star.”
By 1894 Pee Dee Land Company was advertising “Town Lots” for sale in Lone Star and other communities along the line.
On the Manchester and Augusta Railroad at Public Auction.
Yes, and Rare Bargains for all. You cannot afford to miss it.
Do you want to make some money and get even with the low price cotton? If so, you should not miss this GREAT SALE OF LOTS at the Depot Stations named below, on the new SHORT CUT RAILROAD, that runs through some of the finest farming land of the South, where farmers make a bale of cotton to the acre, and can almost make it for the seed.
This road runs through a Country too well known for its clever people and richness of soil to need any comment.
By March of the following year the papers were advertising train schedules for these towns, including Lone Star.
Unfortunately the railroad did not maintain a regular passenger schedule through the town. A few country stores thrived, along with a school and several churches, but the town never took off as envisioned. An unpublished Sanborn Fire Insurance Map shows that by 1929 several of the key buildings were no longer extant, and the town’s depot had been moved from its original spot along the tracks to its present location perpendicular to the tracks.
After World War II the town went into greater decline. However, the town’s ultimate demise was long and drawn out. In 1963, long time general store proprietor and postmaster O. K. Zeagler decided to retire. His wife, Mary, took over. It was said that there were many attempts to close the dwindling post office, but Mary Zeagler was a personal friend of Strom Thurmond, and through those connections managed to keep the post office open.
By the 1970s there were still a few businesses in the town, but residents were taking the Interstates and other highways into larger towns for cheaper groceries.
It wasn’t until fairly recently, in 1995, that Mary Zeagler finally relinquished her hold, and allowed the post office to close. Her husband had recently died, and she didn’t feel that she could continue. The brick Masonic building was still used as a community gathering place and polling station for elections. However, for all intents and purposes the town was dead.
…and that’s how we found it when we paused for photos. However, we had just paddled 10+ miles and were still hungry.
Lone Star Barbecue and Mercantile
The actual barbecue joint was nine miles down the road on the outskirts of the town of Santee. Just off of Highway 6, on the road toward Santee State Park is an odd collection of buildings with cars parked all around. We knew we were finally in the right spot.
Remember those buildings on the Sanborn map that seemed to be missing when our crew dropped by? It seems that we had found them. Owner Pat Williams had an interest in preserving something of the town. He purchased several of the old buildings and connected them with one long corridor. The buildings now serve as the dining rooms for the restaurant, with original and decorative items that match the building’s original purpose. For example, O. K. Zeagler’s store now serves as one of the dining rooms.
The entrance is set up as a general store, with t-shirts and other memorabilia for sale. As for the food, you pay up front, then go through the buffet line.
It being 6:00 on a Saturday night, the place was hopping. Several of the food bins were empty, and things looked pretty well picked over. Fortunately, with the buffet you can go back multiple times, just in case you missed something first time around.
The first dining hall was jam packed. At one end a bluegrass band was playing. We made our way to the second dining room, where we could still hear the music, but carry on a conversation.
The food itself was filling and adequate, but I certainly won’t say it’s the best barbecue we’ve had. Sweatman’s on the last trip to this area was better, but we’ve had even better than that. Their attempt at shrimp and grits was just…weird. Even so, the food was OK, and the fellowship even better. I did go back to get some items, like fried okra and a rib or two, that weren’t available the first time around.
The proprietor, Mr. Pat Williams, got up with a microphone and started telling stories about the old town of Lone Star. After he spoke, the bluegrass band started back up.
While the band played, and after we had finished our meal, we wandered through the restaurant, taking pictures of the items on display.
While I can’t say I’m a fan of their barbecue, I can say that what Pat Williams has done here is excellent. He has made an attempt to preserve a dying town, and has not sacrificed the characteristics of the old buildings in creating his restaurant. For that reason, Lone Star Barbecue and Mercantile is will worth a trip down Highway 6 toward Santee.
View Lone Star in a larger map