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South of the Border

By: Robin Schafer with Evelyn Schafer Hechtkopf

I have been told that South of the Border—the brainchild of my uncle Alan Schafer—began in 1951, the year that I was born. But the seeds had been planted two or three years before that, when neighboring Robeson County, in North Carolina, passed a law prohibiting the distribution of beer in stores and restaurants. Alan was the owner of Schafer Distributing Company and a Miller High Life wholesaler and was well off financially. He could no longer distribute beer north of the state line, but buyers could drive a few miles south and purchase what they pleased at the cinderblock shack Schafer built in 1949, painted pink and dubbed “South of the Border Beer Depot.” It was an accident that northern tourists stopped there in droves. That was not what he was looking for but he took full advantage of it. To the six-stool beer bar he added a grill room selling hot dogs and burgers, then in 1950, a motel, and the next year, a gas station.

The Schafer family was raised in Little Rock, South Carolina, but was scattered by this time. My uncle Ray was in Manhattan and my uncle Charles was in Augusta, Georgia. Aunt Evelyn had settled in Norfolk, Virginia. My dad, Joe Schafer, had come home after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was living in Dillon. As early as I can remember he owned the South of the Border gas station, which, at one time, was reputed to be the busiest gas station on the East Coast. I remember the first building. It was made of tin and had no insulation. My dad put it on a flatbed truck and brought it to our house where he opened it up and it became a stable for a pony named Diamond. 

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As a teenager I helped my dad at the gas station, and one time, when he had a helicopter ride, I ran that on the weekends. I remember South of the Border when there was nothing on the west side of Highway 301 except fields of cotton and peanuts. Uncle Alan added a zoo and a Putt-Putt golf course, and then just kept going. The fireworks outlet, I have been told, is or was the busiest in the United States. I have also been told that Alan did not believe in borrowing money. He did not build something till he had saved the money to build it.

My uncle was very involved in politics. He was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that nominated Hubert Humphrey—he had half a vote. At its peak South of the Border was the largest employer in Dillon County with over 600 employees, including many locals. Before there was welfare Alan fed many poor kids in the schools. Before passage of the Civil Rights Act, he hired all races—whites, African Americans, and Lumbee Indians. In the era of Jim Crow, I can remember black people coming to the door of my dad’s business and asking if it was okay for them to come inside. My dad’s answer was “only if your money is green.” My dad never discriminated and I am willing to bet that Alan did not either. The county benefitted greatly from SoB being there.

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Most of the customers that I remember were from the North—travelers from New York, New England, and Canada, especially Ottawa and Quebec, heading to Florida or Myrtle Beach. Traffic from Highway 501 and I-20 was big too, and the truck stop business has really picked up. Once North Carolina’s prohibition against alcohol sales ended, Alan never really went after local business. My dad told me he felt that this was a mistake, that the Border could have added some things the residents of Dillon would have greatly appreciated, such as a bowling alley. As it is, the local business is not that strong, though I recall taking my high school dates there to play Putt-Putt and eat at the restaurant.  

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Alan’s innovative approaches to advertising—the Mexican theme, the infamous highway billboards—were entirely his ideas. He was a journalism major in college and obviously very smart and creative. He never hired an advertising company though he did rent some of the billboards. The Mexican theme was a play on the name South of the Border, which really meant we have beer here because we are south of the North Carolina border, but some Mexicans who stop in expect the staff to speak Spanish and not one of them can.

South of the Border has a huge following. All you have to do is go to You Tube and look at the number of videos that have been made concerning the place. Some of the visitors were celebrities like Bert Lahr, the actor who played the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz movie. Heavyweight champion boxer Joe Frazier, born in Beaufort, South Carolina, stopped at my dad’s gas station on a fairly regular basis. Lots of people come back when they are grown to see what they saw when they were kids. SoB is an amusement park, shopping mall, roadside oasis, and tourist stop rolled into one. I cannot think of any place on the interstate as entertaining as the Border. It’s a perfect break from the monotony of the road on the way to more famous destinations like Disney World.  

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Though most people don’t ask, a few of the customers know that South of the Border is a Jewish-owned business. Alan did not practice Judaism if you mean going to temple; he did practice if you mean doing the right thing, which is what he did with regard to his hiring practices at the Border. Evelyn tells me that there really was a Klan protest at SoB during Jim Crow because her brother employed people of all races. Alan met the Klansmen armed with a rifle and told them to go away. To me that is a mitzvah on steroids.


All images courtesy of Robin Schafer.

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