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Columbia Business Monthly

Fountain Inn: Hometown Charm, Growing Community

Nov 03, 2022 12:28PM ● By Amy Bonesteel

Chatting with a neighbor, walking to a show or restaurant, stopping by the local hardware store to pick something up: Conveniences longtime residents and newcomers do not take for granted in Fountain Inn, South Carolina.

“We have a very strong neighborhood feel,” says state representative Mark Willis, who was born and raised in Fountain Inn. 

One of the largest attractions is the well-maintained downtown residential area, where older homes have been restored and given new life by young families seeking less traffic and more of a small-town feel. 

One of the fastest-growing cities in Greenville County with a population of close to 11,000 and conveniently located near I-385 and larger Simpsonville, “It’s not a ‘big box’ town,” says Willis, who also works as a nursing home administrator in nearby Honea Path. 

The new Fountain Inn High School, which opened last year, is another sign of the town’s resurgence. The first new high school in Greenville County in nearly 50 years, Fountain Inn’s original high school closed in 1957, when Simpsonville’s Hillcrest High opened.  

A recent Friday evening showcased the new school’s spirit with an inaugural football game parade through Main Street. “It (the high school) identifies the town as well as the school,” says Willis. 

Holiday spirit  

The town was incorporated on Christmas Eve, 1886, and the holiday season lets the residents and businesses of Fountain Inn show off their charm and hospitality. Events include a “Merry Market” with live music, food trucks, and vendors on Main Street; a “Rudolph Run” through downtown; and an annual tree lighting. Other events include the Fountain Inn Chamber of Commerce’s Christmas Parade on the first Wednesday in December, where Santa is sure to make an appearance.

A long-standing tradition to the Christmas “Inn” Our Town Festival is the horse-drawn carriage rides through lantern-lit downtown area, made possible by Sea Island Carriage Company and S and S Carriage Rides, who bring the carts and horses to town. The 35-year-old custom “has the spirit of Christmas past,” notes Willis. Main Street merchants extend their hours during the festival as well, offering extra shopping and dining opportunities.  

Willis, who lives downtown, holds a caroling party every year with his wife, Tracy, and has watched it grow as the town has. “It got so big that I now have a cousin come with a truck, fill it full of hay and let the children ride in that,” he smiles. “We usually have between 100-125 people.” 

Growing up in a place like Fountain Inn, extending a welcome comes naturally. “We never know who all is coming,” he adds. 

Main Street means business  

Setting another place at the table also comes naturally for Octavius “Tay” Nelson, who along with his wife Sarah owns Bobby’s BBQ on North Main Street in Fountain Inn. 

The best thing about Fountain Inn, he says “is the potential of what it can be.” That hometown feel and “excitement of what’s to come” is what inspires the Bobby’s team, where the simple, heartfelt slogan is inscribed on the wall: “We are all one family. Slide over and make room. Meet a new friend. Give a hug and share a smile. Build a community. Welcome home.” 

But the restaurant is about a lot more than community – this is a place where barbecue is taken seriously. Nelson, who grew up in Fountain Inn, learned how to make classic Southern comfort food like salmon croquettes and fish and grits from his father (the Bobby, along with Tay’s brother Bobby Jr., in the business’ name). And when he decided to learn how to smoke pork butt and ribs “Texas style” in 2018, he taught himself –  by watching YouTube videos from Texas pit experts. Soon he had conquered beef brisket as well, and launched his own business. 

Reading his story in The Greenville News in 2018 led YouTube producers to Fountain Inn, where they filmed the Nelsons running the business for their “United States of YouTube” small business feature. The move garnered them publicity in national media and customers from as far away as the UK and France, drawn by the love of barbecue. 

Besides brisket, ribs and pulled pork Bobby’s also serves house-made sausage, turkey, jackfruit, and tacos. Sides include cheesy potato casserole, baked beans, sweet potato crunch, and corn pudding, all homemade from family recipes. Nelson also sells his original spice creations including an All Purpose Seasoning, a Citrus Blend, and a BBQ Rub in the store. 

Further south on Main Street, in the historic shopping district, Burdette’s Hardware is the sort of place where everyone knows your name. Owner Conner McCraw is a fourth-generation Fountain Inn business owner who’s there “because it’s home,” and the store’s popularity is a testament to its reputation and importance to the community.

Previously owned by McCraw’s uncle and father, Conner grew up in the stores (the two also owned a Burdette’s Hardware in Simpsonville) and worked there throughout his teen and college years. After graduating from Clemson in 2015, he worked as an inside salesman at Atlantic Supply and married his high school sweetheart, Dusti. 

The couple settled in downtown Fountain Inn near the store, and when the elder McCraw brothers decided to retire in 2018, Conner and Dusti purchased the Fountain Inn store. (After adding the Simpsonville store’s inventory to the Fountain Inn location, they closed the other store.) 

Burdette’s grand re-opening in spring of 2019 was an overwhelming success with the town. More importantly, by having added employees from the other location, the McCraws found they could provide better service. With large competitors like Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Walmart a short drive away, the hometown store stands out with services like blade and chain sharpening, glass and plexiglass cutting, local delivery, product assembly, and special orders.

Fountain Inn’s Swanky Steer, a ladies’ boutique on across Main Street from Burdette’s, “came out of the chemo chair,” according to co-owner Kristin Gault. Best friends with co-owner Erika Rector since high school, when Gault was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 her friend rallied to her side, bringing gifts: shoes, earrings and other fun things to wear. 

While undergoing treatment, Gault partnered with Rector to start a traveling trailer business for women’s wear in 2018, offering a pop-up shop and even porch delivery. Wives of rodeo cowboys, they based the model on shopping experiences they’d had out West, where shopping opportunities are limited. 

But when an existing Main Street store offered them the space, they decided to put down roots. The Swanky Steer opened on March 19 of this year. 

“We can outfit ladies from age 15 to 60,” says Gault. Indeed, the 12 employees include high school students as well as older women, reflecting the community. The shop carries football-game-ready dresses, hats, dresses and more with a colorful, western-meets-Southern style. 

Gault, who has published a book chronicling her treatment, “Straight to the Point,” appreciates the support of customers and fellow small business owners on Main Street as well. “The community of business owners (in Fountain Inn) truly is like family.”

Preserving history

The Fountain Inn Museum at the historic train depot is tucked behind Main Street. The nonprofit, established in 2007, works to preserve and exhibit Upcountry South Carolina’s history.

Exhibits like a recent quilt display involve the community: An expert was contracted to evaluate the materials and age of antique quilts brought in by family members, according to the museum’s managing director Hannah Willingham. Twenty-five of the quilts were also selected to hang in the museum. The facility also sponsors “Fountain Inn Stories” on the Farmer’s Market Pavilion, an open forum recounting some of the town’s founding personalities.  

As the area grows, the history museum with support from Greenville County plans to restore the 200-year-old Jones’ grist mill on Jones Mill Road. The project will provide a window into early life in the county with a restored working mill and gathering place for education and recreation.

Willingham, who was able to help secure $1.6 million from the state for the mill project points to the example of North Main Street’s Younts Center for Performing Arts, a former school building renovated by the Cultural Arts Foundation Fountain Inn in 2016. Today a lively venue for theater productions, social functions, and concerts, the arts hub invites visitors to explore the downtown area.

“When many towns are struggling to bring people to their downtowns, the arts saved Fountain Inn,” says Willis.