WINNSBORO – Bill Haslett remembers the downtown Winnsboro of days gone by when you couldn’t stir the people with a stick on just about any day of the week, especially on Saturdays.
“It was a vibrant place back in the 1960s,” Haslett said last week. “On Saturday downtown, you couldn’t hardly walk downtown. That’s what it was like. It had a men’s shop, little grocery stores where you could go in there and charge your groceries. You had every aspect of your life handled on Main Street.”
Haslett, who turned 70 last Thursday, left Winnsboro in 1971 and settled in Summerville. He stayed there, running a successful real estate and appraisal business until 1997 when he moved back to the place he still refers to as home.
“This is my home. This is where I grew up,” he said. “On Saturday, it’s a ghost town, an absolute ghost town.”
Haslett’s father, William, was the mayor of Winnsboro for 20 years. The younger Haslett knows he gets his sense of community from the man whose portrait hangs in one of the rooms at Congress Street Auction & BBQ.
“He was a community man,” Haslett said of his father. “I can’t hold a candle to him. He was a doer. If ever there was a doer, he was a doer. I can’t hold a candle to him. He was my hero.”
Haslett served on Fairfield County Council from 2009 to 2013 and ran for mayor in 2013, missing the win by a few hundred votes.
“I like to do civic activities. I am involved with the Lions Club, I am involved with Mt. Zion trying to save this old school up here,” he said. “I just like to do things to try and bring this community back. We have so much history in this town, we have got to get our first impression of Winnsboro better. You’ve got rundown houses, you’ve got boarded up windows and the town does nothing about it. That upsets me.”
One of Haslett’s biggest concerns is the first impression that Winnsboro leaves on people.
“Your first impression of Winnsboro is not very good,” he said. “We have such a long history here in this town and we’re not promoting it, we’re not protecting what our history is and so I made an initial effort. It makes me feel better to give rather than receive.”
Haslett has a deep sense of wanting to bring Winnsboro back, if not to what it was back in the 1960s, at least to something better than what it is now.
“I have a sense of wanting to bring Winnsboro back,” he said.
Haslett said he sees Ridgeway, which is about a fourth the size of Winnsboro, and knows that the success that town has found can also be found in Winnsboro.
“You give me six or eight volunteers versus a staff of a hundred people, and if you’ve got the right motivation and the right ideals and integrity, you can make it happen,” he said. “We’ve got five or six businesses here that are thriving. But there is nothing on this end of town.”
Haslett also pointed to Newberry, which is larger and has the Newberry Opera House, as an example of how a small town can bounce back.
“They’ve done it in Newberry. Newberry is very vibrant. Of the three towns around here, you look at Camden, it’s booming. You look at Newberry, it’s booming. You look at Winnsboro, it’s just here,” he said. “There is no effort being put in for community development.”
Improving the quality of life in Winnsboro is one of the first steps that needs to be achieved.
“We’ve got so much history here, beautiful historic homes, that if we get the quality of life up here, we can grow this town,” he said. “This town has got everything going for it that Newberry does. But we’ve got to clean up our act. We’ve got to make it so that people want to come here.”
One of those steps, he hopes, is the opening of Congress Street Auction & BBQ, which offers barbecue on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
The building that houses Winnsboro Antiques, Congress Street Auction House and BBQ was once a feed store operated by his family. They had bitties, cows, calves, farm supplies, insecticides and everything else you could expect to find in a feed and seed store.
One room off to the left is dedicated to his parents, William and Frances. That room was used as a grocery store and was where they graded eggs.
Haslett realizes that when people drive through Winnsboro, there is only one chance to grab them and make them want to spend time – and money – in Fairfield County.
While he realizes he might be fighting a losing battle, he also is determined not to give up on his hometown.
“We are a diamond in the rough,” he said. “If you had some things that were interesting for people to see, we’ve got a gold mine here.”
When will Haslett know that his venture has been successful?
“When I see some other businesses open up. That’s when I will be successful,” he said. “When I see what I did helped other people. I don’t know what the answer is. I just know you have to do something. You can’t just sit still. I might fall flat on my face but it won’t be because I’m not trying. I’m very passionate about it. I love Winnsboro, I have a passion to improve life here.”
Patricia M. Edwards is the regional editor for Civitas Media’s properties in South Carolina, which includes The Herald Independent. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.