If you Google “the most racist roadside attraction,” all your results will come back with “South of the Border, South Carolina.” Anyone who travels down I-95 crossing the border into the Carolinas will recognize the neon-illuminated giant Sombrero tower. At 200 feet tall, it’s a tacky Space Needle that suddenly appears on the horizon out of nowhere, yet you knew it was coming because you saw a ton of billboards for this attraction counting down your arrival. Several of the billboards feature a caricature of a Mexican bandito named Pedro, and if you were offended by the mascot, just wait until you arrive.
South of the Border is a massive complex that features restaurants, gas stations, a motel, a zoo, a small amusement park, and countless cheap stores to sell merchandise. It opened in 1950, back when roadside attractions were in their heyday and cultural sensitivity was not a concern. In fact, ethnicity was sadly often treated as a theme for these attractions, especially when it came to Native Americans. South of the Border, however, ran with a Mexican motif that sadly didn’t stop with the décor but instead leaned heavily into using “brown-face.”
I wanted to understand how this place manages to survive, whereas similar roadside attractions died out a very long time ago. Although in decline, this place still serves as a primary income provider for its town. City leaders hold their economic summits at the South of the Border Convention Center, where guests speak next to a Pedro statue. Many of America’s roadside attractions have a dark history with race, and this particular one includes a wild story involving political power and even a Klan showdown. A lot of it doesn’t make sense to me, but when you are staring at a giant hat elevator while leaning against a sombrero-wearing dinosaur, that probably should have been expected.
To understand the South of the Border phenomenon, you need to understand the very unique American history of the roadside attraction. These attractions became popular after the 1930s, when highways connecting vast swaths of the country were built. They were designed to be stops along long stretches of road as opposed to final destinations, as they gave travelers something to gawk at while also serving as a place to refuel, eat, and rest. Although many people are nostalgic for the cross-country road trip experience and view that time period as a symbol of American independence, for Black and brown Americans, they were anything but.
People of color could not stop at parks, pools, and attractions along their journeys. They were not allowed to sleep, eat, or even purchase fuel at these locations. For these motorists, traveling across the country was not a representation of freedom but a dangerous excursion that was to be taken only if absolutely necessary.
If they did travel, Black and brown Americans were forced to bring everything that they would need to survive, including multiple gas cans, portable toilets, blankets, clothing, food, and drinks. Even soda machines were labeled “For White Customers Only.” Worse were the hundreds of “sundown towns,” or all-white communities that forbade anyone who was not white from being in the city’s limits after dark. Breaking down in one of these towns could sometimes prove to be fatal.
Many businesses along the new routes also made it clear that they were beholden to the Ku Klux Klan, using not-so-subtle titles such as “Klean Kountry Kottages” or “Kozy Kottage Kamping.” Some roadside attractions, like the Fantastic Caverns in Missouri, were not only associated with the Klan, but were actually owned by them. The Klan even used Fantastic Caverns as a meeting place to burn crosses inside.
Today, we generally associate roadside attractions with being harmless and stupid. Maybe you could catch a glimpse of the largest ball of twine in Minnesota, or the largest ball of paint in Indiana—both of which still entertain visitors today. Unfortunately, there are still a few left that retain the ethnic theming.
One reason for the construction of so many Native American “tributes,” such as Indian statues, “trading posts,” and “Wigwam Motels,” was the fact that several of the interstate roadways cut directly through Indian reservations. This was certainly the case with the infamous Route 66. Some of these attractions have long been abandoned, but plenty are still being maintained today. Such is the case with the Wigwam Village Motel in Arizona and Totem Pole Park in Oklahoma. You can also still find plenty of generic “Big Indian” statues.
Then there’s this monstrosity in Natchez, Mississippi, that was built in the early 1940s and still runs today. Mammy’s Cupboard is a roadside restaurant built in the shape of a mammy archetype. Mammy figurines are still sold in the store. The current owners insist the place isn’t racist, but you can probably guess the race of the clientele who say they are fine with it. If you try to look for it on Google Maps, the building is blurred because so many people have complained.
Yet the largest and arguably most famous roadside attraction in the United States is also the most well-known ethnically-themed attraction: South of the Border in Dillon, South Carolina. The story begins with an entrepreneur named Alan Schafer, who opened this place originally just as a very small beer stand in 1949. He built it in Dillon because the town was immediately south of the border of North Carolina, and all the nearby North Carolina counties banned alcohol. Schafer’s South of the Border Beer Depot was a huge hit, as crowds of people from North Carolina would make a daily trek to buy his beer.
Business was so successful that Schafer decided to expand it into a roadside attraction that would include a restaurant, souvenir shop, and motel. The surrounding land was owned by a Black woman, and Schafer paid her $500 for three acres to start building. (This was a fair price, as an acre of land in Dillon went for $115 per acre in 1950.)
As part of the theming, Schafer traveled to Mexico and bought numerous trinkets and kitsch items to sell at his shop. He decorated his building with Mexican-style décor, which meant geometric patterns, vibrant colors, and rustic furnishings. There were plenty of sombreros, ponchos, and serapes sprinkled in and around the complex.
Since so many patrons jokingly asked where the Mexican employees were, during one of his trips to Mexico, Schafer brought back two Mexican nationals to work at his hotel. These men were among his first employees.
This being the 1950s, his hotel patrons insensitively referred to the men as “Pancho” and “Pedro,” even though that wasn’t their names. Schafer, however, encouraged the practice, and soon all employees working for him were instructed to be called “Pedro” regardless of their race. Thus, the site’s mascot was born.
One might assume that the local Ku Klux Klan might be pleased with a roadside attraction based entirely on an offensive racial stereotype, but they absolutely hated Alan Schafer—for good reason. For all of his cultural insensitivity—something he held onto his entire life—Schafer was also a civil rights pioneer. Unlike most other roadside attractions, Schafer’s business never refused service to anyone who could pay. He refused to abide by the segregation laws in South Carolina. Furthermore, he hired literally hundreds of Black employees to work at his establishment. Since half of the population of Dillon was Black, this was a big deal.
As a result, the powerful local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan organized a boycott of South of the Border, yet Schafer didn’t budge. When the boycott started to gain a little steam, Schafer took action. Since all workers were paid in cash, he decided to send a strong message to the town. He paid all the worker’s salaries entirely using $2 bills. He did this to flood the town’s businesses with the distinctive denomination to showcase how much money his attraction was bringing into the local economy. The tactic worked, and the boycott fizzled out soon after.
This left the Klan enraged, but Schafer made things even worse for them. Not only did he continue to employ hundreds of Black Americans and other minorities, but Schafer also decided to help them register to vote. The infuriated Klan decided to resort to more drastic measures. Their members marched to the attraction with the intent of starting a riot. (White supremacists threatening violence when things don’t go their way is something that sadly still hasn’t gone away.) Instead, Schafer greeted them with a 12-gauge shotgun and demanded they leave. The Klan dispersed, and they never tried that again.
Meanwhile, South of the Border continued to expand. It grew to include a cocktail lounge, gas station, and more souvenir shops. It moved heavily into fireworks to take advantage of the fact that fireworks sales were banned in North Carolina, which provided Schafer with yet another steady income stream as folks traveled over state lines to buy them. The complex soon added more attractions, like mini-golf and go-kart tracks.
The peak of South of the Border hit in the 1960s. By this time, it had become such an economic powerhouse that Schafer was able to personally intervene when the interstate was going to be built 30 miles away from his complex. Schafer and his friends were able to become commissioners on the state highway commission, and coincidentally, plans for the upcoming interstate highway being built from New York to Miami, the I-95, were changed so they would go right through South of the Border in Dillon. Once the interstate opened, business exploded. His complex was the exact midway point between New York and Miami, and for decades, there was almost nothing in that area except for this massive, neon attraction.
By the 1970s, the attraction was at 300 acres and evolved into essentially its own township. It had its own drugstore, post office, barber shop, and even a zoo. This was in addition to the multiple restaurants, bars, shops, and a campground. Patrons were even encouraged to take their honeymoon there, where they could stay in this monstrosity.
Despite its popularity, Schafer still bought hundreds of billboards along I-95. From the ’70s through the ’90s, there was one billboard at each mile marker for a hundred miles in both directions. The billboards and their upkeep cost almost as much as the whole attraction. South of the Border spent upward of $40 million on billboards as recently as the early 2000s.
At one point, there were over 250 billboards stretching from Philadelphia to Daytona. No one knows why Schafer was so obsessed with the billboards, but he personally created or approved every single one when he was alive. There aren’t as many as there were twenty years ago, but there’s still more than enough.
The billboards, like the complex, were devoid of political correctness. Many featured Pedro using broken English to promote the attraction, such as, “Ees onlee wan South of the Border, Amigos” or “Pedro No Shoot Ze Bool!”
The “Mexican-speak” caught the attention of the Mexican Embassy, which demanded he remove the offensive billboards. Schafer angrily responded by complaining that his attraction spent millions buying goods from Mexico. He adamantly refused to get rid of the Pedro mascot, but did finally acquiesce to taking down the signs that used broken English.
Well, most of them, anyway.
Even Schafer’s endeavors to become more culturally respectful at South of the Border had issues. The best representation of this came from Schafer’s attempt to open an African shop in 1995 to appeal to Black customers. Thankfully, the store did not feature the offensive stereotypical depiction of Africans that the attraction showed for Mexicans; however, the store’s “authentic” African artifacts proved problematic. Some visitors complained of the store selling “colonization figures” as African. Others complained that Schafer seemed to be commodifying African cultures, while others took issue with the store simplifying the unique identities of tribes by labeling everything as just “African.”
However, the store did adjust. It eventually removed the colonization figures and added notes to all of the figurines explaining their origin and purpose. The shop eventually closed in 2009, and the items have moved to a different store that sells artifacts from around the world.
By the 1990s, South of the Border was far removed from its peak, but Schafer was still trying to find a way to reinvigorate the site. Despite this being a conservative religious community, Schafer never had any qualms about adding morally questionable ventures to increase revenue. He build a huge soft-core pornography store on location, called the “Dirty Old Man Shop,” which lasted up until 2010.
However, what really put him at odds with some in the local community was an idea that would prove to be extremely lucrative: video poker. Although gambling was illegal in South Carolina, video poker fell into a legal loophole that Schafer exploited. Schafer built a casino on site with over 400 poker machines that soon became a large portion of the attraction’s revenue stream.
When a court case banned the poker machines in South Carolina, Schafer financed the appeal and won. Yet a statewide referendum finally put an end to the practice, which was soon followed by a state Supreme Court case that ruled every video poker machine in the entire state be shut down. The site continued to operate for a brief time afterward, and the company pled guilty to running an illegal gambling operation. Schafer had invested so much money into the poker machines that he suffered a serious loss with their closure. More than 200 employees were let go as a result.
Today, South of the Border has certainly become a shell of its former self. Growing up in Virginia in the 1980s, we passed by this attraction every single year as we traveled to South Carolina for an annual vacation. As kids, we always wanted to stop and play; there were arcade games, fast food, and fireworks to purchase. I remember the place was always packed, but that was a long time ago.
My family in Virginia visited South of the Border this summer on a trip to South Carolina during the height of the summer traffic. They stopped visiting decades ago and usually just pass by the attraction, but I specifically asked them to stop this time to let me know what they see. They took many pictures and walked the complex as we used to do so long ago. The gas station, they said, was busy, but nothing else was. You can still find a stuffed Pedro to buy in some of the stores, but the ubiquitous confederate flags they used to sell were no longer there. The place clearly has fallen into disrepair. Many tourists suspect it is going to close down soon, although the owners insist the site is just undergoing renovations.
Perhaps no one was there because it was a slow travel day, but that wouldn’t explain how the nearby Buc-ee’s was packed to the gills. Buc-ee’s is a travel center/attraction that has muscled into South of the Border’s territory a few miles away off the I-95. A local reporter called it the “clash of the kitsch.”
Buc-ee’s is a Texas chain that best exemplifies one of the two new types of modern roadside attractions. This type is entirely focused on kitsch and convenience, and it’s designed to draw in a crowd for a fun experience who are on their way to somewhere else. Buc-ee’s is technically a giant gas station, but each of its 41 locations has a 54,000-foot building packed with branded merchandise and food. Yet despite having a brisket station, fudge shop, bakery, and a 50-foot wall entirely dedicated to jerky, there are no places to sit and eat anywhere. The establishment is under no illusion that anyone wants to stay for too long, and that’s fine.
Like South of the Border, Buc-ee’s also has a mascot based on a real person that they put on all their merchandise. It’s named after the founder of the chain, Arch Aplin III, whose nickname growing up was “Bucky Beaver.” Unlike South of the Border, however, no one has ever complained that their mascot is offensive. Even here in Florida, I see Buc-ee’s T-shirts and bumper stickers everywhere, just like I used to see for South of the Border when I lived in Virginia decades ago. However, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen anything with the iconic South of the Border logo.
The other type of modern roadside attraction focuses more on the attraction aspect, but takes into account the contemporary trend of having a fully immersive and interactive experience. The best illustration I found for this is OmegaMart next to the I-15 freeway in Las Vegas.
OmegaMart is a mind-bending artistic endeavor, like all MeowWolf installations, that takes place in a surreal grocery store stocked with bizarre products like tooth slime, Who Told You This Was Butter?, and cracker spackle. People are encouraged to wander the aisles, discover the secret passageways, and piece together the story. It can take 2-3 hours to engage with the experience. It’s very different from the old-fashioned roadside attractions that existed half a century ago, where tourists were essentially just given something tacky to gawk at. Even if South of the Border isn’t going out of business, and didn’t have its cultural appropriation issues, the model it's based upon is long outdated.
The founder of South of the Border, Alan Schafer, died in 2001. He was certainly a man of contradictions. Here was a very progressive Jewish man whose claim to fame was building a massive Mexican-themed tourist spot in one of the most Protestant conservative regions in the American South, where he built his fortune on alcohol, fireworks, soft-core porn, and gambling.
He was a bigwig in Democratic politics, but was also beloved by Republican business groups. He donated heavily to the same local churches that condemned his business practices. He loved being politically incorrect to the point of being blatantly offensive, but was also a force for civil and voting rights in the area. Schafer was a man who was somehow simultaneously ahead of and behind the times.
I don’t know for sure what the future holds for this bizarre attraction, but I doubt it survives. Nonetheless, it will leave an interesting legacy behind. Upon concluding my research, I don’t see South of the Border as much as a tourist trap as I do a small microcosm of race and Southern history wrapped up in a giant sombrero. Many people will miss it, and many others will cheer its demise. All I know is that, once it goes, there will never be another place like it ever again.