Bees, beans, art and astronauts: Lake City, SC

Prior to the British Guild of Travel Writers’ 2019 AGM in Charleston (#BGTWCharleston), Stuart Forster visited Lake City, an attractive small South Carolina town that’s embracing art as part of its ongoing programme of urban regeneration:

“This is truly becoming an art community,” said Seth Kines, the Executive Director of Seth Kines, as we chatted in the lobby of The Inn at the Crossroads. A portrait of Steve Jobs, created by Kirkland Smith from parts of Apple computers, stared down at us from the wall. The artwork was the winner of the People’s Choice prize at the 2013 ArtFields Festival.

PAV/369, by James Alexander, on display at the TRAX Visual Art Center.

ArtFields Festival in Lake City

That was the first of the annual art festivals. ArtFields sees around 400 artworks displayed in buildings across the town. Approximately 1,500 entries were submitted for the 2019 festival, held from 26 April until 4 May.

Mural depicting the Lake City Fire Department by shrubs and flowers.
A place with a buzz. Mural depicting the Lake City Fire Department by shrubs and flowers.

A total of $140,000 (c. £107,500) in prize money was offered to participating artists, including a $50,000 (c. £38,400) first prize.

The Darla Moore Foundation, named after a philanthropist who was born in Lake City, has invested in the town’s regeneration, including in the ArtFields Festival.

Lake City, which is home to just under 7,000 people, became the first town in South Carolina to be incorporated into the Bee City USA programme — committed to “creating sustainable habitats for pollinators”.

Plants and flowers can now be seen dotted around the town, which was formerly the hub to a farming community.

The restoration and repurposing of buildings

The renovated Bean Market, built during 1936 by the Public Works Administration and on the National Register of Historic Places, can lay claims to once being the site of the world’s largest truck-based agricultural auction.

It is now utilised for a weekly farmers’ market and to host events.

The Bean Market was constructed in 1936.

The Ragsdale Old Building, known to locals as The R.O.B, was a tobacco warehouse and a factory for charcoal briquettes prior to its recent conversion into an exhibition space. Our members visited as artworks were being installed ahead of ArtFields.

Buildings across town exhibit artworks during the festival. Piggybacks BBQ and Catfish restaurant, which opened on Sauls Street in February, was another of the venues hosting ahrt during the 2019 edition. It stands next door to the TRAX Visial Arts Center, another of ArtFields’ venues.

A tasting platter served at Piggybacks BBQ and Catfish restaurant, where Guild members visited for lunch while in Lake City.

Ronald E. McNair’s home town

Street art in Lake City in South Carolina, USA.

Ronald E. McNair, one of seven NASA astronauts who died on 28 January 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take-off from Kennedy Space Center, was born in Lake City.

Road signs on the edge of town announce the McNair connection.

A sculpture of the astronaut carrying his helmet forms part of the monument in the Ronald E. McNair Memorial Park.

The park is located by town’s former library. As a nine-year-old McNair was refused permission to borrow science books on racial grounds. In 1959 racial segregation was still practised and the police were called after the African-American boy protested.

Aged 26 he earned a doctorate in laser physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The building is now the Ronald E. McNair Life History Center and another of the venues for the ArtFields Festival.

The revitalisation of a community

“With my job being tourism and hotels, I could do that anywhere in the world. But here in Lake City we’re actually working to revitalise the community and that that’s what special to us,” said Seth.

Sculpture by Alex Palkovich depicting Huey Cooper, who used to carry a luck rabbit’s foot and live in Lake City.

“You can see when we open a business that it’s actually putting money in a family’s pocket. For almost a generation, kids would grow up here and go off to college and not come back to Lake City because there was nothing to come back to.

“We’re seeing those college kids graduate and move back here to live, work and play,” he added with palpable enthusiasm.

Permanent art galleries, colourful murals and the Moore Farms Botanical Garden count among the attractions of Lake City for travellers visiting between the annual ArtFields Festival.

Useful information

Find out about the town on the Visit Lake City and Discover South Carolina websites.

British Airways operates direct flights between London Heathrow and Charleston International Airport. The route became operational in April 2019.

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