Living on the West End: The YMCA

By Bill Shepard

The YMCA was a big part of my world when I was a boy and living on the west end of Darlington.

If anyone had asked me what the letters Y M C A stood for, I would not have known what to answer. If would be years before I could answer Young Men’s Christian Association!

For many years, when anyone asked, “Bill, what’s your address?” my answer would be YMCA, Darlington, S.C. No ZIP code in those days.

My driver’s license had that address, engraved on a metal tag that I could wear like a metal dog tag, around my neck.

My first Social Security card had that address printed on it, and any other identification I carried had that same address given.

As far back as I can remember, no one ever questioned why my address was the YMCA. And if they had questioned as to the why, my answer would have been, “This is where I get my mail!”

Straight ahead a few years, I was now a young man and serving in the Army. One day I received a call to report to the office of my company commander! I hurriedly changed from my everyday work uniform to my dressed-up uniform while a lot of thoughts were playing chase through my mind.

Among them was a question: “What kind of trouble am I in now?” As a young recruit I did not know what to expect! On entering the office, I approached the desk of my first sergeant, who arose and stepped inside another small room and announced to the captain, company commander that I was there.

In order for anyone to understand my feelings at that moment they would need to understand the background of my growing up on a mill village long ago.

One was taught early to respect authority! That “respect” translated into fear! That same feeling or trait has followed me all the years of my life!

I heard the commander’s voice when he spoke: “Send him in!” It was the first, but not the last, time to even be this close to one of the officers! I entered the small office, my knees shaking, gave a salute and announced, “Private Shepard reporting, sir.” I thought that was the proper way to do it!

Captain Way (that was his name), how could one forget such a moment? He must have known how scared I was, and he put me at ease by immediately coming to the reason why I was there.

He began, “Private Shepard, were you raised in a YMCA!” My answer of course was “No sir!” Next question: “Were you a ward of the YMCA?” The same answer was “No sir!”

Of course, I did not understand what was meant by the word “ward.” Then he asked, “Why is your address on all of these papers, YMCA?” Thinking that he might be doubting me, I said, “Sir, would you like to see my driver’s license?”

That did it! He immediately dismissed me and I never heard from him again!

I finally figured it all out myself! The mill village in those days had no street names and the houses were not numbered. A man trying to deliver mail to anyone on the village would not have known a way to find a person they were looking for!

I recall as a child, still in school at St. John’s, when teachers came to the village to visit the parents of the children in their classrooms, they would ask a child from the village to show them where certain students lived. I was sometimes chosen to do that, and it made me feel important!

Living on the mill village was indeed a unique way of life in those early times, and my experiences with the YMCA made it a more unique way!

In my later years, when I became a pastoral minister, I served at different churches on mill villages in South Carolina. My early experiences while growing up on the mill village in Darlington helped in preparing me for the years ahead.

The YMCA in Darlington was inside the same building that was joined in a way to the large Company Store that was owned by the Milliken Company, which owned the cotton mill. The Company Store, YMCA and Barber Shop were all under the same roof.

As shown in the picture here, the part that was once the Company Store is all that is still in use! The YMCA and Barber Shop were closed a long, long time ago. Neither my sister nor I could number the times that we walked to the YMCA and inquired, “Do we have any mail today?”

The kind old man, A.T. Shearin, was in charge of the YMCA and the mail, would answer. If he wasn’t there, Clifford Nance, the barber, would give the answer. After I grew older and all the Shepard boys were away in the military, that task fell to my sister Jenny. She recalls how each day she would make the trip from the village (over the creek) to the YMCA and ask, “Do we have any mail today?”

No, sir, captain, I was not raised in a YMCA, but one filled a large spot in my young life!

I have not mentioned other activities in the YMCA building, but upstairs there were classrooms for school.

Primary grades 1, 2 and 3 were held. On the west side of the building was a large playground with swings, a sliding board, see-saw and merry-go-round.

I often stopped by and played when I went for mail! The village nurse also had her office inside a large house at the edge of the playground.

On the opposite side of the street is the spot where the memorial to the old cotton mill, and those who worked there, is being built.

It could not have been placed at a more appropriate place!

Author: Rachel Howell

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