South of the Border
Hamer, South Carolina
Mention the phrase “South of the Border’ and thoughts turn to Mexican border towns catering to American tourists with local cuisine and cheap handmade crafts for sale. Hamer, South Carolina’s South of the Border is not one of these places. This sprawling faux-Mexican roadside attraction is over a square mile in size, but it is more akin to the Frito Bandito meets Wall Drug than a tip of the hat to towns such as Tijuana, Matamoras or Nuevo Laredo. South of the Border features 5 restaurants, 7 gift shops, a motor inn, a miniature golf course (with the tongue-in-cheek moniker of “The Golf of Mexico”), a sombrero-shaped observation tower, a kiddy amusement park and the largest collection of concrete critters (and stereotypical Mexican cartoon statues) this side of the South Dakota badlands. SOB (as a nearby water tower nicknames the city-within-a-city) wasn’t always the road trip stopover destination it is today – it has blossomed from its humble beginnings as a tiny beer stand (South of the Border Beer Depot). Alan Schafer opened the stand in 1949 to serve beer to citizens who crossed the North/South Carolina border from dry Robeson County to wet their whistles. At the time, the name simply indicated its location just south of the North Carolina border in Hamer. The stand became so popular that Schafer was able to add 20 motel rooms to the site in 1954 (giving patrons who had too much of good thing a place to crash rather than on the roads back north). With the Interstate System creation of I-95 in the 1950s, the stop became a regular place for drivers motoring between New York and Florida; the later addition of a grill heralded the name change to South of the Border Drive-In. It wasn’t until Schaefer began selling souvenirs brought back from a trip to Mexico that the Mexican theme originated. On one of these trips, he arranged for two boys to come back with him to work as bellboys in the hotel. As you would expect from the racially tolerant, culturally-understanding southerners of the 1950s, the two boys were given the names “Pedro” and “Pancho”, until at one point they were both simply called “Pedro”. People became so accustomed to the name Pedro that to this day, every employee of South of the Border is named Pedro. If it gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling, know that native Ben Bernanke (yes, the Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke) was a summer Pedro to earn money for college.
The Mexican caricature of Pedro has become so synonymous with SOB that billboards up and down I-95 through multiple states feature Pedro with ridiculous puns (think, “You never sausage a place”). If South of the Border is your destination, the hundreds of remaining billboards are there to constantly remind you how close you are. The kid’s cries of “Are we there yet?” are totally unnecessary – when you see Sombrero Tower looming for several miles in the distance, you’ll know you’re there. The tower (a late addition) features a glass elevator that for a paltry dollar will whisk you above the South Carolina countryside to a spectacular 360-degree view from the brim of the hat. Unfortunately the view from the Space Needle of the East is primarily comprised of fields and trees (this is, after all, Hamer, South Carolina and not New York City). The tower is described as anywhere from 165 to 200 feet tall; however the SOB brochure lists it at a dubious 300 feet tall. The base of the tower is housed in an arcade, the perfect place to get rid of those annoying coins laying about the floor of the family sedan. The Mexico Shop East and Sombrero Restaurant now occupy the site where the original beer stand stood; outside a 97-foot flat Pedro straddles the parking lot holding up a blackboard-looking South of the Border sign. The Mexico Shop East is one of many selling the same types of cheap Mexican souvenirs you’d expect to find in a real border town, except it is about the size of a small K-Mart.
To the left of the gift shop check-out counter is a neon portal to what can probably be called “Classic Gabacho Mexican Cuisine”, the themed Sombrero Restaurant. I carefully weighed my food options – I could have chosen Pedro’s Diner, the various burger, hot dog and ice cream stands, or the Peddler Steakhouse, but I decided to go with the Mexican theme and patronize the Sombrero. Vinyl cowhide booths under adobe arches are lit by Tiffany-style swag lamps that look like they’d be more at home at a TGI Fridays, and the most polite (Anglo) wait staff are attentive to all your fake Mexican needs. I went with the enchilada plate (mixing beef and chicken) that featured sides of rice and refried beans and tortilla chips that were undoubtedly out of a bag. How was the food, you ask? Well, it didn’t suck, and oddly I mean that as a compliment. The food was a far cry better than the infamous Mexican food impostor, Taco Bell, but it was somewhat lacking in spice. The enchiladas were firm and the meat tasted fresh (it wasn’t the goopy Tex-Mex disaster I feared); the shredded iceberg lettuce and diced tomato strewn about the top weren’t mushy or wilted. The beans were somewhat dry, but not like they were hours old, and the rice was as white as it’s origin. I asked for a bottle of Tabasco just to add some kick to it, and imagined that the food is geared towards busloads of elderly tourists on their way to West Palm Beach or Atlantic City. The waitress confided that since Shafer died of leukemia in July of 2001, his sons have “cut corners” resulting in a decline in quality but the grounds seemed kept up well and the concrete denizens appeared to all be sporting fresh paint (for some strange reason, the gorilla had a painted-on shirt, but no pants).
As Rednexican as this kitsch Disneyland is, you have no excuse for not stopping to take in the rambling park that looks like something out of a Tim Burton daydream, as SOB is open 365 days a year. It is a convenient time-killer on that snowbird trek down the eastern seaboard, located almost exactly halfway between New York and Florida. You could even make it an overnight stop, and if the romance and charm get to you, consider taking advantage of SOB’s wedding package that will get you hitched and provide you with the honeymoon suite and a free breakfast before continuing on your journey to see the world’s largest bowling pin. In these days of nationalism, it’s nice to know that you can travel freely south of a border that never closes and that the only papers you’ll need are roadmaps.