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Hamer, South Carolina

South of the Border

I-95's Tijuana-style celebration of kitsch at the Carolina border. 

Normally it’s pretty easy to cross state lines with little to no fanfare, but on I-95 there’s no escaping the border crossing between North and South Carolina; the occasion is marked by a veritable fiesta of bright colors, campy adobe pastiche buildings, goofy statues, frantic signage, and a 207-foot-tall sombrero visible from miles away.

Welcome to South of the Border. In the world of cheesy roadside attractions, this glorified rest stop might not be the oldest – South Dakota’s famous Wall Drug predates it by some 18 years – but with 350 acres of restaurants, gift shops, and neon-colored sculptures taking the form of all manner of animal, it’s surely a strong contender for the tackiest.

Like many such establishments, South of the Border started small. In 1949 SOB founder Alan Schafer established the South of the Border Beer Depot along what would eventually become the the I-95 corridor, just south of the North Carolina border. At only 18 by 36 feet, the bright pink roadside stand wasn’t much, but its strategic location at the edge of what was then one of North Carolina’s many dry counties made for a booming business. Within five years Mr. Schafer had expanded to include a 10-seat restaurant and 20-bedroom motel.

The modest beer vendor eventually grew into a world unto itself, broadening to include a small amusement park and mini-golf course, an RV campground and around 300 motel rooms, a convention center, post office, wedding chapel, and a tiny volunteer fire department in addition to its many shops and restaurants. In 2010 the park opened its newest feature, the Reptile Lagoon, which claims to be the largest indoor reptile exhibit in the United States. Scattered throughout the grounds are frequent likenesses of SOB mascot Pedro, a Mexican caricature whose unapologetic lack of political correctness reminds us that things were, well, different when South of the Border was first conceived (despite the old-timey racism inherent in its cartoonish Mexican theme, South of the Border was one of the first rest stops south of Washington, D.C., to eschew segregation and welcome African American visitors). And of course, who could forget the sombrero-shaped observation deck where visitors can stroll around the brim for a birdseye view of miles of surrounding pine forest, farmland, and dreary highway.

South of the Border is particularly notorious for bombarding travelers along I-95 with dozens of flashy, pun-riddled billboards. During its heyday South of the Border boasted over 250 such billboards, most of which were designed by Mr. Schafer himself, stretching from Philadelphia all the way to Daytona Beach, Florida, wooing travelers in both directions. The relentless advertising campaign has been scaled back somewhat in recent years, reducing the billboard count to a paltry 175 that span the landscape from Virginia to Georgia.

Apart from its ample signage, the tourist mecca is perhaps best known for its plethora of cheap, kitschy novelty items. According to an article published by the St. Petersburg Times in 2001, the retail aspect of South of the Border came into being in the early 1950s when Shafer purchased the entire inventory of plush elephants and bears from a traveling salesman and turned a respectable profit within a week. Today the numerous gift shops of South of the Border peddle an array of cheap toys, T-shirts, shot glasses, coffee mugs, and many, many additional knick-knacks. While some stores specialize in a single type of product (Hats around the World, for example), most are generalized and carry roughly the same inventory, which remains virtually unchanged from one year to the next. Fireworks are also a popular purchase, with many a pyro enthusiast from nearby states lured by South Carolina’s lax fireworks laws.