Story and photos by Kristen Cart
The brightly wrapped cotton bales highlighted an otherwise drab landscape as I traveled the 91 miles south from Columbia to visit the Estill elevator, originally built in 1947. Rain and haze flattened the view. Since it was Sunday when I visited the elevator, few people appeared to be about. It was going to be a photography outing, for better or for worse.
I graduated high school in South Carolina. My impression of the place, after growing up in the western desert, was one of endless dark pine woods, with a brief gaudy display of azaleas and dogwood blooms in springtime. I didn’t appreciate the raw beauty at the time. Now, on a soggy day, it had a mysterious appeal.
When I learned that the Tillotson Construction Company built an elevator in the state, it came as a surprise. We do not know who built the original house in 1947. Tillotson, according to company records, built the 225,000-bushel annex and a second, larger elevator, in 1952 and 1953, respectively. The trademark rounded headhouse rises above the 350,000 bushel elevator, built to finish the concrete elevator complex.
Michael M. DeWitt, Jr. outlined the history of the Estill elevator in his article for the Hampton County Guardian published on December 14, 2010. The article was written to herald the purchase of Carolina Soya by ADM. During its heyday, the elevator stored soybeans for soybean processing, which was part of the operation. Now it is strictly a storage facility for ADM, focusing on soybeans but also accepting corn.
The company laid off staff upon acquiring the facility in 2010, shrinking from 45 to 14 workers, heralding a loss to the community in a time of slow economic growth. ADM promised to hire from the laid off worker pool as needed.
I noticed that the good times had passed during my drive down. The decline of the area was evidenced by empty store fronts and decrepit gas stations, ancient closed restaurants, and tired houses–all along the highway south from Columbia, it was apparent that development chose another corridor and not this one. I wondered if there was one open gas station anywhere along the route.
The histories neglect one of the Estill elevator’s darker episodes. In the ’40s and ’50s, construction safety was not mandated as it is now. In one of the accidents that was all too common for elevator construction, Wayne Eugene Baker lost his life in a fall while working on the storage addition, or annex, built in 1952. For all of the heartache, Wayne helped build a thing of beauty that sustained its neighborhood for many years and still brings economic benefit to its region.