In 1888 the town of Dillon began sprouting up around a railroad depot built amid pine trees on swampy land of little value, not far from the North Carolina border. A number of Jewish immigrants and their families settled in Dillon and neighboring towns such as Little Rock and Latta. Many played important roles in the local community and one achieved success at the national level as an economist. Although Ben Bernanke, current chairmen of the Federal Reserve, was born in Augusta, Georgia, he was raised in Dillon. His grandparents Jonas and Pauline Bernanke immigrated to the United States from Austria in the 1920s, moved to Dillon in the early 1940s, and opened a pharmacy, the Jay Bee Drug Company. In 2006, Dillon County and the South Carolina legislature honored Ben by declaring September 1st Ben Bernanke Day and presenting him with the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian award, in recognition of his accomplishments. Ben has come a long way from waiting tables at South of the Border as a college student during his summer vacations.
South of the Border was founded buy Little Rock native Alan Schafer in the mid-to-late 1940s, when a North Carolina county bordering South Carolina changed its alcohol licensing laws, limiting sales. Alan seized the opportunity by setting up a beer stand not far from the state line. The acreage he bought was near the north-south highway connected New York and Miami, later supplanted by Interstate 95. In this ideal location, Alan’s beer business expanded exponentially over the years to become South of the Border, employing hundreds of South Carolinians to run the Mexican-themed amusement park rides, hotels, restaurants, and gift shops. Like many Jews who grew up in small southern towns, Alan was a descendant of a merchant of modest means.
In the late 19th century, Jewish immigrants began to arrive in the Pee Dee region, opening stores in Dillon and nearby towns. Abraham Schafer, Alan’s grandfather, may have been the earliest Jew to settle the area. Born in Oberheim, Germany, Schafer came to Darlington in the 1870s by way of New York and Charleston and worked for the Iseman family, who has sponsored his immigration. He married Isaac Iseman’s daughter Rebecca, and they settled in Little Rock where they opened a general store. The family of six lived above the shop. Successful in the dry goods business, Abraham and Rebecca expanded their operation, opening stores in Dillon and Latta. When two of their daughters married, they turned the newest stores over to the newlyweds. Belle Schafer and her husband Leon Kornblut took over the Latta Dry Goods Company soon after their marriage in 1906.
A decade earlier, 17-year-old Leon Kornblut had emigrated from Austria and followed his brother to Latta. He partnered with his brother-in-law Isadore Blum during the 1920s. At one time, Blum and Kornblut owned as many as eight stores scattered throughout the area, staffed by Jews they hired out of Baltimore. Bankruptcy forced them to close their doors in 1928, however, and the two went their separate ways. Blum opened a store just across the state line in Rowland, North Carolina. Kornblut became a well-established businessman who was actively involved in Dillon Country’s civic affairs, serving as a director of the Dillon Merchants Association and the Dillon Industrial Corporation. He opened Kornblut’s Department Store with “fashions for the entire family” in two locations, Dillon and Latta. His sons, Moses and Sigmond, followed him into the family business and ran both stores when he retired.
Austrian immigrant Morris Fass and his wife, Rose Nachman of Charleston, moved to Dillon around 1910 and began a small business that over the years grew into the large Fass Department Store. The couple also acquired a significant amount of real estate, including farmland which they rented to tenants. Morris played key roles in the Dillon Chamber of Commerce and Board of Trade. He was an alderman, a Mason, and a charter member of the Dillon Rotary Club. Morris’ bother Max also settled in Dillon and opened a store. A Mason and a Shriner, Max made his living in the insurance and real estate business.