South of the Border

South of the Border is a roadside attraction on Interstate 95 south of the border between North and South Carolina, which serves as a rest stop for vacationers and tourists traveling to and from Florida. The rest area features not only restaurants, gas stations and a motel, but also a small amusement park, shopping (including, formerly, adult entertainment at the ‘Dirty Old Man Shop’), and, famously, fireworks. Its mascot is Pedro, an extravagantly stereotypical Mexican bandido.

It is known for being advertised by hundreds of billboards along surrounding highways, starting over 150 miles away. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, originally from nearby Dillon, South Carolina, worked for a summer as a poncho-wearing waiter at South of the Border to help pay his way through Harvard. South of the Border also hosted the bar/night club ‘Pedro’s’ from 1985-1998. This was a popular spot for revellers including many Lumbee Indians who visited the club from neighboring (and dry) Robeson County.

South of the Border was developed by Alan Schafer, who founded a beer stand at the location in 1949. The location was chosen as a convenient spot for selling beer as it was located just over state and county lines to a dry ‘alcohol prohibited’ county adjacent to the north. Business was steadily expanded with Mexican trinkets and numerous kitsch items. South of the Border grew to over a square mile, required its own infrastructure, and had its own fire and police departments. Assisting in this growth was the fact that the new (at the time) Interstate 95 and the existing US 301 criss-cross at the site of the South of the Border complex. Schafer became reclusive, building a large compound of interconnected houses outside the Dillon city limits. At South of the Border, he kept secret apartments hidden in the backs of restaurants and shops.

The motif of South of the Border can be described as intentionally campy. Adobe style ornament is applied over inexpensive concrete block structures and combined with neon signage in Mid-century Modern (Googie architecture) or Roadside high-camp style. Most of the architectural styles of South of the Border are of the ‘Decorated Shed’ type (Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown), however some aspects are ‘ducks’ i.e.: designed as stand-alone advertisements for actual attractions—particularly the trademark giant, sombrero-clad neon figure which functions as the park’s motel front signage and the illuminated sombrero-shaped tower which is visible for miles from the Carolina countryside.

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