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January 10, 2016

Our daughter, Betsy, and her family visited with us for a few days at Christmas. Our son-in-law Jason is one of our special friends. We talk with each other about the books we read, our favorite athletic teams, and, of course his two children who are also two of our grandchildren. Swapping stories is another of our pastimes. During his recent Christmas visit we spoke, again, of his encounter with the Pacolet River Horse.

Jason grew up on his family farm in Illinois a few miles south of Chicago. On his first visit to Spartanburg, Clare and I invited Betsy and Jason to lunch at a local restaurant. We enjoyed a meal of fried green tomatoes and shrimp and grits together. It didn’t take long for that prairie farm boy to get up to his elbows in good Southern victuals.

“Have you been to South Carolina before?” I asked.

Jason told me the story of his one previous foray into the Palmetto State. I was fascinated by his tale.

“I first came to the Carolinas in 2002.  March Madness brought two other guys and me from Greenville, Illinois, to Boiling Springs, North Carolina. The women’s basketball team from Greenville College traveled to Gardner-Webb University for the National Christian College Athletic Association championship tournament. I was a player on the Greenville Panthers men’s team. I was invited to be color commentator for the radio broadcast on WGRN, The Grin, back in Northern Illinois.

“Our girls’ team played the last game on the first night of the tournament. We arrived at the Gardner-Webb campus late and didn’t have time to eat dinner. After the game was over, we were all hungry. Everything in Boiling Springs was closed. We decided that since we had never been to South Carolina, we would drive across the state line to find food.

“At Interstate 85, we saw the signs to Greenville. Since we were from Greenville, Illinois, we thought it would be cool to eat in Greenville, South Carolina.”

“It’s a good thing you didn’t know about Greenville, North Carolina,” I interrupted.

“After we ate, it was very late. We were all tired. The two other guys fell asleep. I drove. Somewhere beyond a giant Peach, I got off the Interstate heading back to Gardner-Webb.  I must have taken the wrong turn. I got hopelessly lost. I drove forever down a dark country road.

“The black highway was covered with gray mist. I approached a river, traveling downhill. I crossed a bridge shrouded in thick fog, suddenly, to my right, I caught a glimpse of a white stallion rearing up out of the water. I swerved to avoid hitting the horse. My friends woke up yelling at me. I spun out, skidding to a stop in front of a big factory of some kind.

“‘Did you see that horse?’ I shouted. They thought I was crazy. They insisted that I was hallucinating.”

Jason swore on a stack of fried green tomatoes that there were no drugs or alcohol involved.

When I heard his story, I laughed out loud.

Jason said, “I have dreamed about that horse galloping through the fog. Every time I have a high fever, I have nightmares about that horse rearing up out of that river.”

After our meal, I drove Jason to Pacolet Mills to show him the Pacolet River horse.

Jason mused out loud. “It’s not as big as it seemed that night. In the fog and mist it looked as big as an Illinois draft horse. Up close in the daylight it looks like it belongs on a merry-go-round.”

Jason and Betsy took a few pictures of the Pacolet River and the horse perched on its pedestal near the bridge. “This solves a puzzle in my life. Any idea why there is a horse here?” he asked.

I was intrigued by his question and decided to investigate. I started with the internet. I learned that Pacolet is a Cherokee word meaning swift horse. The fleet steed became the logo of Pacolet Manufacturing. The image of the stallion graced the engine of the local train.  The horse was the truth mark, the seal of authenticity, stamped on every bale of cloth shipped from the mill. One time a shipment of fabric was returned from China back to the mill. It had been refused because it did not bear the stamp of the horse. So the horse as a symbol has several connections to Pacolet Mills.

After Jason’s departure, I wondered. How did the horse get into the river? Several Pacolet residents said I must talk to Worry Kirby.

Maurice Pace arranged a meeting at the T.W. Edwards Community Center with R. S. Burns and Worry Kirby. My first question seemed obvious.  “Where did you get the name Worry?”

“My uncle gave it to me when I was three. He said I worried him to death.”

I asked about the horse in the river. Worry and Burns told the story.

In 1953 a new bridge was built over the Pacolet River on Highway 150. The old bridge was demolished except for the large stone piling left standing in the current. The horse, the logo of the mill, was imprinted on every paycheck. The mascot of Pacolet High School was an Indian riding a white horse. Both textile league baseball teams in Pacolet were called the Trojans. Worry and Burns decided they wanted to put a white stallion on the old pillar in the river.

Burns said, “We looked high and low. We found it over in Greenville somewhere close to White Horse Road, believe it or not.”

Worry explained, “It was fiberglass. Made in California. The fellow who had it for sale wanted $3000.”

“Before we left, Worry had him down to $2800,” Burns said. “We raised most of the cash in three months. Worry can raise money. If he takes a bucket to go blackberry picking, somebody will throw five dollars in the pail before he gets started. His brother chipped in forty dollars before we got back to Pacolet.”

Worry said, “We got the horse! I hauled it around in the back of my truck while we got the rest of the money together.”

Burns continued the tale, “We borrowed the longest ladder the Pacolet Fire Department had. We lowered that ladder over the bridge tying it with ropes to the railing.  Worry went over the edge, slid down to the top rung, worked his way around to the other side of the ladder, got a good hold, and walked that ladder like a pair of stilts over to the rock column.”

Worry explained how he accomplished the acrobatic feat. “I pulled myself up on the pillar. R. S. (Burns) threw me a broom. Folks had been using it for target practice. The top was littered with rocks and broken bottles. I swept it clean and measured real good. I didn’t want to go back over there if I didn’t have to.”

On July 4, 1996, four men were lifted, one at a time, over to the stanchion in a bucket truck. They ate lunch on top of the pillar just because they could. Using a generator for power, they drilled holes to accommodate the bolts that would fasten the horse in place. Meanwhile, a fellow who repairs fiberglass boats made the horse watertight. A welder prepared the steel base and the cage that protects the horse. By July 12, 1996, the Pacolet River steed was in place, rearing proudly above the river named for a horse.

The fiberglass steed is definitely a stallion. Several women in the Pacolet Mills community wanted Worry and Burns to turn the horse around facing upstream so his maleness would be less evident.

“I ain’t gonna’ do that!” Worry declared. “If y’all want to put a diaper on him, have at it!”

Burns added, “One preacher tried to get up a petition asking the town council to take our horse down. He thought it was indecent. Nobody would sign the petition. Most people like the horse.”

When I told Worry and Burns the story about Jason, they laughed. “He’s not the first, and he won’t be the last to be surprised by that horse!”

I told them about Jason’s nightmares.

Worry grinned, “That stud deserves to have mares of some kind.”

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