Stop to shop or stay awhile South of the Border: Alan Schafer, beer distributor turned entrepreneur, has created a tourist mecca beneath the sign of the sombrero.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DILLON, S.C. -- From the highest point on Alan Schafer's spread, the nighttime highway appears as a vein of red and white light.

You can stand up here and look northward for miles, to where the interstate narrows to a twinkling ribbon and disappears behind the rolling Carolina hills, and watch the south-bounders stream toward you as if pulled by a magnet.

All night they come, drawn irresistibly off Interstate 95 and onto the nearby interchange. You can watch as they turn onto U.S. 301-501, numbed by endless miles of tree-lined sameness, eager to leave their cars.

And you can almost see their jaws drop.

Because your vantage point is a mammoth, neon-edged sombrero 200 feet off the ground, overlooking a splash of light, color and mercantile frenzy unequaled on the East Coast.

Below, a sombrero-shaped restaurant serves steak. A 97-foot, sombrero-clad colossus stands guard outside a gift shop, cars rolling between its legs. Motel guests swim in a pool enclosed by a sombrero-shaped solarium.

Neon sombreros and cactuses and rockets light the night. Supermarkets of fireworks and rubber whales and souvenir back scratchers abound.

Even the billboards fail to prepare you for South of the Border.

You know the billboards. Drive the nation's busiest highway between Baltimore and Orlando, Fla., and you can't avoid them: yellow lettering and fluorescent sombreros on fields of black, their messages a mix of pun and guileless outburst.

"Camp Weeth Pedro!" screams one, a half-hour out. "Pedro's Weather Report: Chili Today, Hot Tamale," another advises. "You Never Sausage A Place!" insists a third, illustrated by a massive, three-dimensional kielbasa.

Close to 200 of them straddle Interstate 95, luring the road-weary an exit just yards over the South Carolina line. As you get close, the signs seem to breed, blotting out the roadside's pines and cedars, trumping drabber billboards for cut-rate smokes. On one curve, travelers can see eight of them at once. Still, they understate the place.

You see the sombrero tower first: curving steel legs, a glass elevator, the massive hat. Once off the interstate, you hit gas stations, fireworks stands, arcades. Restaurants slide by -- Pedro's Coffee Shop, Pedro's Pizza & Sub Shop, Pedro's Diner, the Sombrero, the Peddler Steak House, Pedro's Ice Cream Fiesta.

Pig-collector heaven

Dark now, awaiting summer, are the rides at Pedroland Park. Do not fret. All 14 stores are open. You may wander among tiny Buddhas, lewd bowling towels and Pretty Mermaid dolls. T-shirts. Shot glasses and key chains.

You want pig figurines? Here they are: pigs in baskets, in burlap sacks, playing cards. Pigs quaffing foamy mugs of beer. Wearing knapsacks. Slicing carrots.

"I was here when I was, like, 10 years old, I think," says Craig Stoll, a James Madison University psychology major returning from a spring-break trip to Florida and standing in the supermarket-sized Mexico Shop.

He shakes his head, a bit overwhelmed. "It's just a mess," he chuckles. "We had to stop in."

"We're the total tourist stop," Susanne Pelt says, "not a trap."

Ms. Pelt is South of the Border's publicity officer, and she describes her domain with no hint of irony.

"When you think of a tourist trap, you think of price gouging, of things being far more expensive than you'd find them in other places," she says. "And that isn't the case here."

True. Interstate 95's best-known wayside is, in fact, a fine value. South of the Border reckons that 7 million travelers have pulled into the place in each of the last three years -- a figure which, if accurate, places the 350-acre spread among the nation's top tourist shrines.

But each has spent an average of only $4. South of the Border's goods and services aim for the change in your pocket, nothing more.

"We've had people say, 'God, I'd love to stay at South of the Border, but I don't think I could afford the rooms,' " Ms. Pelt says. "And what they don't realize is that the rooms are extremely reasonable."

Also true. Roomy digs at the South of the Border Motor Hotel set you back $42.80, including tax. Twenty dirt-cheap honeymoon suites come equipped with headboard mirrors and Andre champagne. Every room has a carport.

You're buying style as well as shelter. Oversized statues of gorillas, bulls and elephants lurk outside. In neighboring stores, signs push deals like carnival barkers, and at the Little Africa Shop, chunky wooden jewelry and kente cloths sell beneath an illustration of a native with a bone through his nose.

"You have access to all we have to offer," Ms. Pelt says earnestly.

Entire vacations

Most guests make it a one-night stop. Others, she says, "stay here their entire vacations."

True, too. Loiter in the motel lobby and you may encounter them. Perhaps they'll resemble the teen-ager who approached the motel's front desk one afternoon recently.

"Excuse me," she said. "Do ya'll rent bathing suits?"

South of the Border's emergence as a vacation destination happened by accident, Alan Schafer says. He just wanted to sell some beer.

Mr. Schafer, 82, is sitting in a leopard-print armchair in his headquarters building, the hub of a bustling back lot of warehouses and offices clustered beneath a mustard-colored water tower marked "S.O.B."

"All an accident," he says. "We didn't anticipate the tourists."

He's owned the property since 1949, when the adjoining North Carolina county voted itself dry, and Mr. Schafer, the Miller beer distributor hereabout, suddenly found himself long on stock and short of retailers.

So he bought 3 acres on the state line, planted an 18-by-36-foot cinder-block shack there, painted it pink and called it the South of the Border Beer Depot. Trade was brisk.

The name, however, didn't sit well with the state liquor folks. Mr. Schafer got them off his back by dropping "Beer Depot," adding "Drive-In" and building a diner, its menu a short list of sandwiches.

"Grilled cheese. Grilled ham. Peanut butter and jelly," Mr. Schafer says. "That was the whole menu, except for soda and coffee -- and beer, of course."

So it may have stayed, a simple outlet for Miller Beer, had a salesman not run out of cash one night in the early '50s, wandered into the diner and pitched a deal: If Mr. Schafer gave him enough money to get him to New York, he'd hand over all of his samples.

A deal

"So I go outside with him," Mr. Schafer says, running a hand through a curly, uncombed corona of gray hair. "He had a station wagon filled with plush toys -- bears, elephants. So I bought them. I took about a five-times mark-up, and I put these animals on all the shelves, and in three weeks they were gone."

A few billboards appeared along U.S. 301-501, the main link between the Northeast and Florida, advertising Mr. Schafer's food and beer. Tourists immediately showed up looking for rooms.

"They'd aim for South of the Border after seeing our signs, thinking that we had a motel here," Mr. Schafer says. "For a while, we had them sleeping on the floor in the dining room. Then I thought, 'Well, this is silly, to have them staying here for free.' "

He opened the motel's first wing, 40 rooms, in 1954. It did not have a vacancy for three years.

By the late 1950s, the Mexico Shop was open, and the original diner had grown into the Sombrero, a sit-down eatery with mock-cowhide booths and a sombrero-shaped salad bar. It looks today almost exactly as it did then.

"You'd see Cadillacs in the parking lot," he says. "Lincolns."

Mr. Schafer strove to pamper his well-heeled motel guests with bellhop service and a par-3 golf course out back. His Mexican motif found its mascot, legend holds, when guests took to calling the bellhops "Pedro."

You could find then, as now, license plates from throughout the United States and Canada in the parking lot, though the cars have changed over the years.

"If you see a Lincoln or a Cadillac now, it's a Washington pimp or something like that," Mr. Schafer growls. "The people with money do not drive their cars down to Florida anymore. They fly."

That said, it may surprise you to learn that Mr. Schafer advertises in the New Yorker.

South of the Border is not mentioned: The notices tout Blenheim Ginger Ale, hailed as the world's best soda by Forbes, New York magazine and legions of connoisseurs.

Fairway bottling plant

Mr. Schafer owns it, and it's bottled right here, in a plant he built on a fairway of the now-closed golf course.

Visit any Border store, and you'll see Blenheim advertised -- and in those come-ons is a clue to Mr. Schafer's genius.

He remains the region's Miller and Heineken distributor. You'll find only those beers in the coolers and restaurants. His Ace-Hi Advertising firm builds all of South of the Border's billboards, which he writes himself.

He owns Porky's Truck Stop, just up 301-501. It doesn't make any money, he says, but it keeps the Border's parking lots clear of big rigs, leaving more room for tourists.

He is now the nation's largest retailer of fireworks.

Even his liberalism -- he's probably Dillon County's highest-profile Democrat -- has proved good for business.

"This was the first place on I-95 between Baltimore and Miami where black people could come in and nobody would notice the color of their skin," he says. "They could eat here, they could get a hotel room here."

Overhead is high: The Border employs nearly 600 people at peak season, and its electric bill -- swollen by neon and a four-color, 24,576-bulb moving sign out near the interstate -- totaled $1.3 million last year.

Still, Mr. Schafer makes money. He may dress in open-collared shirts and sneakers, his eyeglass case clipped to his pocket, but he drives a convertible Jaguar XJS.

Staying profitable has meant reacting quickly to the public's fears and desires.

When Florida saw a flurry of tourist shootings a couple of years back, Mr. Schafer put up billboards advertising "24-Hour Security" at the Border, and he constantly tinkers with his boards' tone and design.

"I like Las Vegas because it gives me a lot of ideas," he says. "They're always ahead of the rest of the country in showmanship."

College students bound for Florida were the first wave of the 47th annual deluge at South of the Border; Memorial Day travelers will be the second. Around July 4, the place'll be wall-to-wall with people.

Among this "cross-section of the great American public," as Mr. Schafer calls his customers, you will find your pause time well spent.

Its souvenirs might repel as much as they attract, and the best that can be said about the food is that you won't starve, but what's that matter? At the least, you'll take away good stories.

Pub Date: 4/15/96

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
97°