For $1, tourists can take an elevator up to the great sombrero in the sky.
Photo by Keith Phillips
If you want to take in the entire spectacle that is South of the Border, hand the girl at the arcade counter $1 and ride the glass elevator to the top of the 300-foot-tall observation tower shaped like a giant sombrero.
Hovering like a neon UFO over the intersection of I-95 and Highway 301, the observation deck is just one of the many gimmicks designed to lure drivers off the road and into a 900-acre blizzard of colorful gift shops, restaurants and amusements that is the state’s—maybe the country’s— largest and best-known roadside attraction.
From the rim of the sombrero, visitors can take in a panoramic view of the neon-colored monument to 1950s tourist kitsch. I’ve stopped by in the middle of winter, and at the moment, things look pretty quiet, but Chris Ray, the young elevator operator, assures me this will change soon enough. During the summer tourist season, he’ll practically live in that elevator, shuttling guests to the top and back countless times a day.
“We are packed in the summer,” confirms Ryan H. Schafer, president of the family-owned business and grandson of founder Alan Schafer. “Our business goes up six- or sevenfold.”
As they have for the past 64 years, the Schafer family and their employees are gearing up for another summer with a mix of anticipation and optimism, well aware that the fortunes of their roadside attraction depend on the state of the economy, the price of gasoline and the desire of weary motorists to take a break from the tailgating madness of a long car trip.
SIGNS OF THE TIMES
Most visitors who stop for gas or food or souvenirs at South of the Border are lured here by scores of colorful, corny, groan-inducing billboards featuring Pedro, the ever-smiling mascot.
One typical sign reads, “You Never Sausage a Place! You’re Always a Weiner at Pedro’s!” Attached to the upper right corner of the sign, and covering maybe a third of its width, is a giant fiberglass sausage. The billboards are almost as famous as the destination itself, and they still have the power to attract curious motorists.
“Every time I drive to North Carolina to visit friends, I make it a point to stop,” says Florida-based Marine Staff Sgt. Dalene Godinez, one of my fellow visitors. “The first time I was here was about a year and a half ago. I kept seeing all these signs and I thought, ‘I’ve got to stop to see what’s here.’”
At one time, more than 250 South of the Border signs decorated the landscape from Philadelphia to Daytona Beach. Today, the billboards are limited to the Carolinas and located primarily along interstate highways, where they are seen by approximately 64,000 cars a day.
Richard Schafer, chairman of South of the Border and the son of founder Alan Schafer, says the company has experimented with other forms of advertising. Keeping pace with the times, they also have a website and blog, a Twitter feed and a Facebook page, but nothing lures customers quite like those billboards.
“We are a tourist business. Whatever attracts tourists works,” he says. “We’ve done every kind of marketing that you can think of, but we always came back to our basic billboard program.”
So what do travelers actually do once they get here? Well, they can eat. There are five restaurants, including a 24-hour diner and a steakhouse located in a building that is, naturally, shaped like a sombrero.
They can shop for souvenirs in seven different gift stores, each with a unique theme. In the T-Shirt Shop, cashier Kristy Hunt runs through a partial list of South of the Border souvenirs for sale: several different kinds of back scratchers, buttons, sombreros, ball caps, coffee mugs, shot glasses, huge plastic fly swatters, refrigerator magnets, key chains, oversized pencils, snow globes, Mexican maracas and, of course, oodles of T-shirts.
“We sell lots of shirts,” she says. “Especially during the summer. We are just swamped during that time. I mean you can barely walk around in here.”
Most of these souvenirs aren’t very expensive. A back scratcher goes for three bucks. Snow globes range from $4.50 to $12. A coffee mug or a souvenir plate sells for less than $8. The shirts go for about $30. Over at Pedro’s Mexico Shop, however, there is a 9-foot-tall wooden dolphin statue that will set you back $3,500. Not a big seller, as you can imagine, but as manager Jerel Singleton says: “You never know. Somebody, someday, might walk in here and buy it.”
Two of the biggest moneymakers—we’re talking millions of dollars—are the fireworks stores, Rocket City and Fort Pedro. Michelle Dillard, the shift manager at Rocket City, says most customers spend anywhere from $30 to $100 per visit; some as much as $4,000. Those big spenders often need a cart to haul away giant boxes of artillery shells, bottle rockets, Roman candles, firecrackers and sparklers.
In season, carnival-style rides and a miniature golf course help entertain the kids, but on my visit, I couldn’t pass up The Reptile Lagoon, South of the Border’s newest attraction. For $8 ($6 for kids 12 and under) you can tour what is touted as the largest indoor reptile display in the United States, home to alligators, crocodiles, turtles and more than 100 exotic snakes.
No doubt about it, there are plenty of ways to spend your money at South of the Border, but the single most popular amusement turns out to be absolutely free. Almost everyone who stops here ends up posing for pictures with either Big Pedro, a 97-foot-high neon sign at the center of the complex, or one of the brightly painted fiberglass statues—giant chickens, giraffes, elephants, dinosaurs, alligators, pink flamingoes and 11 different Pedros—that surround the parking lots.
Richard Schafer jokingly says that if he could have a dollar for every photograph that has been taken over the years, he could kiss the rest of the business goodbye and live a very comfortable life indeed.
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Dillon County who has not heard of the late Alan Schafer, the semi-reclusive entrepreneur who founded South of the Border.
The Schafer family has lived in the area since 1870, when Abraham Schafer settled his family in nearby Little Rock and opened a general store. In the early 1930s, shortly after the nation repealed Prohibition, Alan Schafer’s father, Sam, began making trips to Baltimore to buy truckloads of beer, selling the cargo for 75 cents a bottle.
Not surprisingly, selling cold beer in a hot state proved to be a great business. Alan and his father soon created Schafer Distributing Company, which became one of the most successful beer distributorships in the United States. Then, in 1949, North Carolina’s Robeson County decided to ban the sale of alcohol.
“Well, my father came up with an idea,” says Richard Schafer. The idea—there was never a shortage of ideas with Alan Schafer—was to buy two or three acres of land at the state line and sell beer to those thirsty Tar Heels.
“He opened up what was called The Beer Depot, and it was just a place to come and buy beer,” Richard Schafer says, adding that travelers making the long haul from New York to Miami also began stopping in at the bright pink, 18-by-36-foot beer stand.
When South Carolina lawmakers decided that beer could only be sold in a restaurant, Alan Schafer didn’t miss a beat. He quickly installed a small kitchen and renamed the place South of the Border Drive-In—a reference to its proximity to the North Carolina state line. As more and more motorists began stopping to eat, Schafer noticed travelers picking fistfuls of cotton from a nearby field. His entrepreneurial mental wheels began to turn once again.
“He leased the cotton field from the farmer who owned it, fenced it and started bagging little cotton bales, and people would buy them as a souvenir,” says Richard Schafer. That was the beginning of the curio business.
Over the decades, business boomed as Alan Schafer adopted the playful Mexican motif and started putting up those crazy billboards. He added new ventures like the South of the Border Motor Inn and experimented with various theme shops and attractions, always adapting to the tastes of customers and the rise and fall of the economy. In the process, he built a delightfully tacky place that earned the top rating from Roadside America, a travel guide and website dedicated to offbeat tourist attractions. In 2011, even highbrow Travel + Leisure magazine took notice, featuring South of the Border in its roundup of “kitschiest roadside attractions in America.”
According to his sister, Evelyn Hechtkopf, Alan Schafer was a somewhat reclusive man who preferred to spend his time at South of the Border thinking of new ways to attract motorists. He often worked at night and slept with a pen and notepad on his night table so he could capture the ideas whenever they came to him.
From the beginning of the business, Schafer welcomed employees and visitors regardless of their skin color, a risky stance in an era of segregation and discrimination, Hechtkopf says. He also helped lead a campaign to register black voters for the Democratic Party, and that prompted the Ku Klux Klan to pay a not-so-friendly visit. Schafer produced a gun and, in so many words, ordered the men to get the hell off his property.
Schafer was heavily involved in local politics and for several years served as chairman of the Dillon Democratic Party. One of the low points of his life came in 1981 when he was convicted—along with more than two dozen other people from both political parties—in a vote-buying scandal that landed him in federal prison. Schafer served a reduced sentence, came home and threw himself right back into the business he loved. Until he died at age 87 in 2001, Schafer continued to be the guiding force behind South of the Border.
THE SKY'S THE LIMIT
Strolling around the perimeter of the big yellow sombrero, I stop to drop a quarter into one of those binocular viewers and, as the gentle whirring of the machine starts chipping away at my time, I peer through the eyepiece and look out over the park that Alan Schafer built.
Make no mistake: the place shows its age. It’s no postcard-perfect Disneyland, but the 300-plus employees keep the stores clean and well-stocked, the neon lights functioning and those fiberglass statues spruced up with plenty of bright paint.
What, I wonder, does the future hold for South of the Border? Since Richard and Ryan Schafer took over from the old man, they’ve made a few renovations and added some attractions you might not expect—like a motocross training track. Neither man will discuss specifics, but Richard Schafer assures me that South of the Border “is big and growing and has a potential to do a lot more growing. We’ve got a lot of things we’re thinking about doing at the proper time.”
“We change,” Ryan Schafer says simply. “We don’t try to do what everyone else is doing. What’s the point in being another McDonald’s? There would be no reason [for tourists] to stop.”