September 22 1989 Hurricane Hugo made landfall in South Carolina. The eye of the storm hit McClellanville, about 40 miles south of Murrell's Inlet. But McClellanville and Georgetown have a buffer of about six miles of tidal swamps between them and the Atlantic Ocean. Murrell's Inlet has a couple of feet of sand dunes. The devastation became apparent when the sun rose the next morning. Much of this area was wiped out.
Russell Vereen, a lifetime resident whose family's roots here date back to the 1700's was kind enough to spend the day sharing old photographs and tales of Murrell's Inlet. His future was to be shaped by Hugo, as were all of the inhabitants of this area.
Russell grew up in a family that owned a small restaurant on the site shown above back in the 1960's, and had a small house behind the restaurant. This was right at the time that fishing captains were taking big risks to buy deep sea fishing boats on the hopes that they could attract a deep sea fishing clientele to the area.
One of his early memories is at seeing a bright red mini-bike for sale that, at age 9, he just had to have. He hurried home to tell his father how much he wanted it. "A red mini bike is a good thing to want." His father replied. His father then set up milk crates for him to start washing dishes on, and informed him that if he worked after school washing dishes he could earn enough money for that bike in about six months. He earned the money, and thus started a life-long career in the restaurant business.
Other early memories are of having his own little john boat, but needing gas to get to the beach or out fishing. He would hurry home from school, go diving off the docks for clams, and then sell the clams to the local fishery for gas money. To this day he takes pride in earning his way.
But, back to Hugo.
An eight foot wall of water whipped to a frenzy by 140 mile per hour winds smashed into this town.
Here is one account of the storm:
Can you imagine?
Here is a before and after of a local pier ...
..which itself caused much more damage. You see, those huge pilings that hold up the structure, when wrenched out by the storm, become battering rams that lodge against houses and smash into them time after time with each wave. Before long they reduce a house to rubble.
Here is concrete boardwalk
And here is a neighborhood...
Leaving a stairway to nowhere.
This next shot is a great photo. This woman's house was wiped out, but one of the things she found was an old newspaper article she had saved from a hurricane named Hazel that had wiped her out twenty five years prior !!
A day later, folks are out sunbathing in the midst of the rubble.
One of the locals was Mickey Spillane, a well known author. Here he and his wife view all of his first edition books - ruined by the storm surge.
What to do with all that rubble but burn it?
Then National Guard bulldozers came in to try to build back up a protective dune wall.
So, here is how this all played into Russell's destiny. At Nances Restaurant all that was left was this marquis sign and one of the buildings that was still upright. The locals needed a place to gather to eat and socialize as they worked to clean up, and it served its purpose well. But Nances needed to rebuild and the old building didn't figure into the plans.
So, locals took the old building and drug it across the street.
They put it up on stilts, built stairs and a deck...
. . . and that is how Russell's came to be. Vereen opened this restaurant over twenty years ago, and has subsisted on word of mouth. Some of the top internet travel rating guides have listed him as a four and a half or five star restaurant, which has really been a boost to traffic.
But that is not really Russell's secret. He greets and says goodbye to every customer who walks through the door. He keeps a simple and straight forward menu, focusing on quality rather than trying to serve 100 different dishes. His is one that has weathered the recent economic downturn, and I am told that his business is good year around, because this is where the locals go.
Russell begrudges that many businesses in the inlet have shifted to drunkenness as a marketing tool. "You see the shirts that say Murrell's Inlet is a drinking town with a fishing problem? We have so much more to offer than that ! There is so much more to life than sitting around with a drink in your hand" says Russell.
Another of my favorite stories of Russell's is a story from his senior year of high school. By this time he was handling all of the books, accounting and payroll for the family restaurant. But, he was struggling a bit in English class at school. So, he hired the English teacher as a barmaid - problem solved!!
And another part of his secret is Herman Carr. Herman had been working as a chef in other local restaurants in the area since 1979. Russell snatched him up shortly after opening, and he has been Russell's chef ever since.
One thing that is a local exclusive here is a fish called a "Hog-nose Snapper." You see, the fish cannot be caught with a hook - it has to be speared. There is a season of about six months a year for it, and Herman and Russell make sure they buy up about all the hog-fish that the folks that scuba can get. Herman has perfected grilling it - and it is very good. It has no fishy smell or taste, raw or cooked. Russell gave me a hunk of it for dinner - it was a very good fish.
Back to those pioneering boat captains in the fifties and sixties those boat captains that got the deep sea fishing industry going here, I am told they were quite the bunch of mavericks. Stories abound, and there were many very colorful characters. The town's boardwalk has a large plaque listing their names and expressing gratitude for their work that shaped this place into what it is today.
And today the local children still are brought up fishing, crabbing, getting clams and oysters - there is a lot of good to that kind of upbringing.
Going north on US 17, just before you take 17 Business into Murrell's Inlet, you will see this sign:
Drive back this little dirt road. Here is the scene it opens on:
This is a beautiful piece of earth.
Which brings us to today's parting shot. Walking back some of the trails in this area, I spotted this fellow - about as big as my hand. I think that is a golden orb weaver - maybe a banana spider. Sure is a pretty fellow.
Have a great Sunday !!
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