Down South: Folk Artist Harold Branham Preserves The Past
Every community needs a Harold Branham. In a time when things old and quaint fall to modern ways, it’s good to have someone with heart, talent, and memories preserve the past. That would be my friend, Harold Branham, a true folk artist. I first heard of Harold from Michele Jackson, the editor of the Blythewood Leader, back in 2008.
“There’s a gentleman who really likes your stories on the South. His name is Harold Branham and he wants to meet you.” The Blythewood Leader is no more, and I miss it, but it introduced me to a man who preserves his past. Harold and I talked on the phone one day, and then later I met him at a talk I gave and he gave me one of his prints.
Just recently he gave me several more—a set of prints. They’re here on my desk … country stores, the vintage types some of us older folk recall. A lot of us drank our first Coke at a country store, and we have good memories of these gathering places. Well, Harold recalls the ones that made his boyhood days better, and we’re all the richer for it.
With Harold as our guide, let’s visit some great old stores that once served the people in and around Blythewood, South Carolina. Here’s one, Wilson’s 5-10-25¢ Store, and what Harold wrote about it, a place known as the Wishing Well.
“Back when a dime was a dollar, a person could do a lot with just a little in places like Wilson’s 5-10-25¢ store. This wishin’ well had numerous eye openers for the younger shoppers. There were things like paper, pencils, shoestrings, jump ropes, paper dolls, and even fireworks and plastic sling shots.
“The greatest asset the Wishin’ Well had to offer was Mr. Wilson’s ability to dissect a dollar so a young-un could expire their entire Christmas list with much pride. I wonder if the big Walmart of today would be as compassionate to a small kid.”
Here’s another classic, De Sto. Of it Harold wrote, “It was places like De Sto in Blythewood, S.C., where one might not find everything they seek, but they could always find a friend. One reason I would term these type places as friend finders.”
(Look closely and you’ll see a fellow on a tractor.) Harold continues … “Claude Bundrick was one of the regulars at De Sto. It is Claude in the painting doing his weekly shopping on his ‘most universal’ means of transportation. Claude was a friend to a lot of folks … I admired him.”
That black-and-white illustration of Fairburn Grocery? That store’s gone through a few changes. Here’s what Harold had to say. “The first time I was introduced to the building, it was known as Lever’s Store. It was located about two miles north of Lake Elizabeth in the community of Fairlawn and seven miles south of Blythewood. I grew up there. On occasions I would slip off from home on foot or a one-speed bicycle and pick up bottles on the way to barter for bubble gum and always took a piece home to my sister so she wouldn’t tell. Much later on a buddy of mine talked me into a chew of Bloodhound Chewing Tobacco. It wasn’t near as good as that Double Bubble gum and it didn’t take but one application to cure my curiosity.”
I’ll jump in and add that a lot of us boys down South remember our first and only chew of tobacco. Harold continues. “When new management took over they renamed it Fairlawn Grocery. It became Fairlawn’s Town Hall. The new management also had a beer license, and some of the locals called it the Red Dog Saloon, but it still had the country store atmosphere with milk, bread, bologna, and household stuff. I spent a lot of time shopping and hanging there while visiting with the local folks.”
Next we have that painting of the Exxon service station. Harold titled it “Road Side Mall.” Here’s Harold. “Back before shopping centers, strip malls, 7-11s, quick stops, and other ‘clone type’ stores, people’s shopping habits were much different.” (Is there anything uglier than a strip mall?)
Harold adds that the old stores were the lifeline to all rural Americans, writing, “Should you happen to pass one of these old rare gems on the road, stop, turn around, go back and buy something whether you need it or not.”
Thank you, Harold, for preserving these fine old stores, and thank you for your memories. Harold’s interest in art, by the way, grew from his first set or crayons he got in grade school. After graduating from school he worked as a sketch artist for one of the South’s major sign companies. He learned to paint signs but always wanted to pain what he saw, felt, and loved. He wrote, “Sometimes, inspiration is as simple as a clothesline beside an old house.” And then he writes something that speaks to me: “My hometown may now be home to red lights, fast food stops, and motels, but my favorite subjects remain old farmhouses, country stores, and pastures.”
Same here, Harold. The old places just seem more real.
Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South.