“It was something,” says Alton Ray Blanks, looking up through the skylight of the historic Bakery at BullStreet in Columbia, S.C. “History is fading fast. I never dreamed that I would be able to come back and see the Laundry.”
Alton Ray Blanks and his sister, Mary Blanks Lucas, visited the Bakery at BullStreet – located at 1721 Saunders Street, Columbia, S.C. – on October 10, 2016 upon seeing news of the renovation of the historic building in a local newspaper.
The Bakery at BullStreet, adjacent to Spirit Communications Park, was renovated over the summer of 2016 as part of the new BullStreet District, on the grounds of the old South Carolina State Hospital. The former bakery space, which sits across from the historic Laundry building, now houses SOCO co-working space (their second location in Columbia) and The Iron Yard code school.
But this wasn’t their first time visiting the space: The brother and sister’s father, Walter N. Blanks Sr., was the superintendent of the hospital’s laundry facility in the 1920s. Alton and Mary grew up in a rural area of the S.C. State Hospital grounds and often visited the original Bakery and Laundry as children. Their mother was a nurse at the hospital during some of their years on the grounds.
On their (re-)visit, the two talked about their memories visiting their father at the Laundry, their rare escapades into the Bakery, and living on the grounds of the old hospital amongst the other working families.
Alton and Mary said that in the 1920s, the now tech-filled Bakery at BullStreet was commanded by workers named Mr. Ross and Mr. Duffy, who managed the production of bread, sweets, pies, cinnamon rolls and other baked goods for distribution to staff and patients at the hospital.
“The oven was back there,” points Alton, to the area that now houses the kitchen portion of the open plan space. “I’m sure they used a lot of yeast because it would smell strongly.”
He also pointed out where the racks of breads would sit to cool after baking, in the front left room where The Iron Yard computer lab now sits.
“We would smell the bread,” added Mary. “When you came in; the first thing you saw was the dough, right, Al? And as kids we would always get a sample.”
The brother and sister duo would come to the Bakery with their father, who ran the Laundry across the street. “I don’t believe there were many kids that came into this place besides me and Alton, and one or two of the other kids,” said Mary.
The workers of the Bakery came to work their shifts in the early morning, and were on their way at about 4 p.m., said the pair.
“There is a lot of history here and I’m glad to come back and check on this part. It brings back a lot of memories.”
“They used first-class towels for the hospital. And sheets. It was perfect. It was clean. The patients here did have clean linen every day,” says Mary.
No patients were allowed in the Laundry; the working facility was for employees only. Employees checked in around 7:30 or 8:00 a.m., and the Laundry closed at 5 p.m.
“The people that worked here were good people. Hardworking. Never mistreated any of us. If you did something wrong, your parents would know about it, I’ll tell you that,” added Mary.
The Laundry burned down in the 1880s and was rebuilt into the building Mary and Alton remember as children in the 1920s.
Home for Mary, Alton, their siblings and their parents was on Farrow Road, far from the Bakery at BullStreet but still on hospital property. They called the stretch from their house on Farrow to the hospital grounds “The Highway.” They would often travel to the hospital grounds to see their father at work.
Standing outside the renovated Bakery, Mary and Alton point out landmarks from their childhood, including the icehouse, car garage, firehouse and homes of key employees.
“At the bottom of the street down here that goes out to Calhoun, there were about six houses. Coming this way,” points Alton to Mills Drive, the road facing the back of the Bakery, “you had the head honcho of all the engineering spaces, Mr. Guy.”
Continuing to point down the road, Alton rattles names off: “Mr. Dowlin. Mr. Tocowlasoa. Mr. Deckert; he was the backyard man. Mr. Reikart. And Mr. Ross was head of the bakery.”
“We were mostly the hospital brats,” continues Alton. “We were privileged to go into the doctors’ houses because they were so much nicer than our houses. During WWII – 1941 – we still did not have electricity. We finally got electricity in 1943.”
“That was during the depression days, and I thought we had it pretty good. But after I went into the Navy, I found out that we were poor Joe’s turkey just like everyone else.”
“But we never went without food,” chimed in Mary. “We never went without clothing. We had everything we needed and some of what we wanted.”
“I will tell you one thing,” she adds. “I know you can’t go back. And I would never want to go back. I really would not want to go back to those days, knowing what I know today. It made you think, ‘How lucky you are. You survived all that.’”
Their old house has since been torn down.
“We had a good life,” said Mary. “I guess you would say there were so many other people in the same boat we were, because you have to remember this was in the ‘20s and ‘30s. We came a long way. And it is hard to believe we are still here.”
Alton and Mary sometimes played with the other hospital employees’ and physicians’ children on the grounds, and went to school (off grounds) with many of them. The two talked about their former peers and what they knew about them now. Many have passed away in recent years.
“The fire chief here, his oldest son, became the fire chief of Columbia,” said Mary. “These people that lived here, they grew up and they became good people.”
“They all did well. They really did. I don’t think any of us went to jail,” joked Alton.
The duo remembered some of their unique childhood experiences on the grounds of the hospital.
“Every fourth of July they had a barbeque for the patients and we got to be here for that, as the employees’ children,” remembered Mary. “The first movie I ever saw as a little girl was Shirley Temple, and it was here. They had a theater here for the patients.”
“They had cowboy pictures every once in a while,” added Alton.
Alton and Mary noted that during the 1920s, their mother would look after the patients even when she was off duty.
They remembered that patients were sometimes given treats of watermelons and chewing tobacco, and Alton recalled a youthful mishap. “Me and my youngest brother had a wagon, and I slipped and got a piece of dad’s chewing tobacco and I put it in my mouth. By the time we got down to the gate there, I was sick. He had to pull me home.”
“They had one patient here called the Goat Man,” said Alton. “He housed and managed goats in a building back here. He had a stick, and those goats would mind him and everything. He was the only patient that could walk by himself, without supervision.”
After posing for a quick photo in front of the Bakery and then the Laundry, Mary and Alton began to make their way toward their cars, wrapping up their visit.
“This is about the good times we had here on the hospital property, and it is just so sad to see the deterioration of this place here,” said Alton.
“And it’s been like this for quite a while, added Mary. “There’s been no activity until now, you know. Like I said, this Laundry has had additions to it since we were here, and I would just love to see inside.”
Master developer Hughes Development Corporation is working with the City of Columbia, Richland County, the University of South Carolina and a number of other developers and development partners to transform the former S.C. State Hospital site over a 20-year period into a new downtown district, known as the BullStreet neighborhood.
Located within blocks of Columbia, S.C.’s vibrant downtown neighborhoods, BullStreet is a 181-acre, mixed-use redevelopment of the former South Carolina State Hospital campus, set for completion on a 20-year timeline with an anticipated $1.2 billion annual economic impact. Master developer Hughes Development Corporation of Greenville, S.C., is using a new urbanist, form-based code, working closely with other developers who possess deep domain expertise to create a city-within-a-city, filled with spaces that maintain the integrity of the historic district; mix commercial and residential uses; create a walkable and bicycle-friendly place; provide parks and open space; maximize economic impact and increase the City’s tax base; and connect to the Midlands community. S.C.’s first urban gigabit community, BullStreet is home to Spirit Communications Park (awarded 2016 Ballpark of the Year by BallPark Digest), the First Base Building office/retail complex, the Parker Annex office building, the upcoming Ensor Building and the new Bakery at BullStreet building in the growing BullStreet Technology Village. BullStreet contains 125,000+ square feet of commercial/office and retail space and is zoned for up to 3.3 million square feet of commercial use and 3,553 residential units. For more information, visit http://bullstreetsc.com.
Feature Photo: Alton Ray Blanks and Mary Blanks Lucas stand in front of the renovated Bakery at BullStreet and the original Laundry at BullStreet, across the street from the Bakery, during their visit on October 10, 2016.