By Tim Marsh, produced in cooperation with the HubCity Writers Project.
When I first arrived in Spartanburg as the new Writer-in-Residence at the Hub City Writers Project, there was naturally a lot I needed to learn. There was the social and economic history of a very old county, the mannerisms of a deeply intricate culture, and the environs of a widely-diverse ecosystem.
My most recent enlightenment occurred in October during a hike through the Peter’s Creek Heritage Trust Preserve on the eastern side of Spartanburg County. Until then I had never noted a difference between the terms “upstate” and “upcountry.” The words had always seemed interchangeable to me—two identical ways of classifying the uppermost share of South Carolina. By the end my two-hour trek, however, my perception had changed.
Upstate, I’d come to feel, meant something civic to me. It essentially meant Spartanburg and all the commercial activity Spartanburg generated: progressive restoration, public art projects, a striking range of craft beer selection. Yet as any bonified local already knows, this high corner of South Carolina is more than just the Sparkle City experience. Beyond the homemade toffee and rows of red bicycles standing neatly in their kiosk holds, there is another kind of habitat—an old and wild environment where the “upstate” ends and the “upcountry” begins, and where the roots of Spartanburg County lie deep and buried.
For the uninitiated, Peter’s Creek Preserve is located three miles above the Pacolet River along Cannon’s Campground Road. First Lady Michelle Obama can trace her roots to this area; her great-great-great-grandmother was a slave named Melvinia Shields, who lived on a plantation along Peter’s Creek, according to The New York Times.
The land here isn’t sexy. There are no panoramic lookouts floating above autumn-colored mountains; no broad misty vistas or rugged escarpments. The 3.5 mile trail that cuts through the preserve begins with a post-modern vibe, passing under hulking, humming power lines that stretch for miles down a manmade meadow corridor.
Continue another 400 feet, however, and the scenery starts to dial it up a notch. From a scrubby copse of small hardwoods and invasive plants that have escaped from local gardens, the preserve transforms into a mature forest teeming with poplars, hickories, hackberries and oaks. Walk slow and stay attentive, and at some point you’ll glimpse the crown jewel of this natural treasury—the dwarf-flowered heartleaf—a perennial herb that fell upon bleak times when most of its habitat was converted to agriculture. Once abundant in the upper Piedmont, the heartleaf has been reduced to roughly 150 populations across a handful of watershed regions. It’s for the good of this federally endangered species that visitors are asked to tread with vigilance when hiking the preserve. The rare plant grows in small unassuming patches near North-facing slopes and streams, and can be easily trampled without notice.
It’s worth noting that Peter’s Creek is a protected site primarily because of its mature hardwoods, not its gristmill remnants. Yet it’s the Martin’s Mill Dam, located at the end of the trail, that first inspired efforts to establish an official preservation. By the end of the 19th century over 60 mills were in operation across Spartanburg County, three in the Peter’s Creek vicinity. Today their architectural remains give voice and context to the early human history of a modernizing region. These mills were the heartbeat of their communities, providing work and service for county residents and often serving as gathering points for big-scale events.
Nowadays Martin’s Mill is mostly gone or buried under forest growth. Only the 15-foot dam remains conspicuous. But the importance of conserving its ruins, as well as the ruins of other mills, continues to be a focal point for state historians and researchers, particularly Gillian Newbury. For over a decade Dr. Gillian Newberry, a retired professor of botany at the University of South Carolina Upstate, has been instrumental in educating locals about the significance of Peter’s Creek and adjacent Mineral Springs Branch, participating in kudzu control coalitions and frequently employing the help of students and Boy Scouts to build and maintain trails. Like a lot of her eco-minded ilk, Newberry, who lives on the edge of the preserve, hopes that Peter’s Creek will one day amalgamate with other protected areas like the Cottonwood Trail, forming a kind of historical corridor through the county.
For now, however, the Peter’s Creek Preserve remains its own attraction. Take your time and explore with spirit, and you may very well leave with something more important than a cool photograph: a stronger, deeper connection with the roots of Spartanburg County.
Peters Creek Preserve: – http://spartanburgconservation.org/properties/peters-creek-heritage-trust-preserve/
Tim Marsh, Produced in cooperation with the HubCity Writers Project.
Originally from California, Timothy L. Marsh, the fall 2015 writer-in-residence at the Hub City Writers Project, writes fiction and non-fiction, and his works have been published in numerous literary journals. He is a doctoral candidate in creative writing at Aberystwyth University, Wales.