Shortly after this article was published in early 2018, Lancaster’s Store was completely demolished.
Situated along a relatively undisturbed stretch of Carolina Highway, more commonly known as Highway 321, this general store stands forgotten and forlorn. The building is located in the hamlet of Govan – named for Govan Kennedy, the son of one of Govan’s founding families (1) – and was once the centerpiece of a bustling agricultural community.
In 1907 Luther L. Lancaster purchased the structure from the Kennedys in order to start his family business. By 1908 his son, John Frank Lancaster, freshly graduated from Osborne Business College, had joined him. The mercantile sold hardware, tools, groceries, meat, shoes, hats, and other dry goods. The store was the most successful business in the area, beating out three or four others in town. In 1910 Luther Lancaster passed away, leaving his eldest son, John Frank Lancaster, as owner.
Starting in 1914, John Frank Lancaster also served as Govan’s postmaster, a position he held for a little over four decades. The post office was located within the general store, which increased the store’s prominence in the community, as did its location directly across from Govan’s railroad depot. Eventually, with the advent of the automobile, gas pumps were installed out front to supply residents with the needs of an evolving time. During the 1930s and 1940s, Lancaster Store employed two clerks to serve its customers, many of whom came from surrounding areas to shop. (One of the clerks, Mrs. Julie Lee Gunnells, worked at Lancaster’s Store for almost 40 years.) A cotton gin also stood on site, and cotton was both bought and sold here.
John Frank Lancaster would go on to organize the Bamberg County Bank in 1939, where he served as director. Although the bank was bought out by the South Carolina National Bank in the 1960s, Lancaster remained its director until 1975. In addition to his duties at the store and bank, John Frank Lancaster served as a trustee of Denmark-Olar schools and a member of the building committee of the Bamberg County Agricultural Society. When Highway 301 was constructed, he also served on the board that oversaw the relocation of the Bamberg County Courthouse.
The celebrated artist, Jim Harrison, of nearby Denmark, used Lancaster’s Store as inspiration for one of his many beloved paintings (seen above). Lancaster closed his business in 1975 and eventually passed away. His son, Wilmot “Bill” Lancaster, later tried unsuccessfully to re-open the store.
When comparing the modern building to historic photographs, one may notice that the facades are different. This is likely the result of water damage, which led to a complete refacing when the wall was restructured. The Town of Govan purchased the building in hopes of turning it into a community center, but funding could not be secured. The once thriving general store now sits empty. Govan itself had little more than 65 residents at the time of the 2010 census.
The South Carolina Picture Project wishes to express our gratitude to Priscilla Goethe Elledge, John Frank Lancaster’s granddaughter, for her major role in providing us with this information, along with newspaper clippings and historic photographs. Priscilla writes about the store:
During the summer, the double doors at the front and back of the store were always open, which is what you see in Daddy’s photos. In the winter, the doors were closed and we were all hugging the old pot-bellied stove. If you’ve ever seen the old store exhibit at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia, Grandaddy’s store looked very much like that. There was no running water at the store when we were young – had to use the pitcher pump outside.
Lancaster Store: An Institution is Closing
The following newspaper article was published by the Barnwell People-Sentinel, Volume C, Number 16, on Thursday, December 30, 1976. It was written by staff reporter Sunny Mayo Hartley.
LANCASTER’S STORE AT GOVAN — After almost 70 years in the same location, this Govan landmark — the Lancaster Store — will be closed at the end of this year. See accompanying story for more details and an interview with John Frank Lancaster. (Photo by Tri-City Studio)
An Institution is Closing
By SUNNY MAYO HARTLEY
In order to find out if there was truth in a rumor, on the first mild day in quite a while, I whistled up my good black Lab, and hopped in the car, heading for the little town of Govan, just across the Barnwell County line. I wasn’t quite sure where Govan was, but, I made it to Olar and stopped to ask where Mr. John Lancaster’s store was located. Told I was going in the right direction, I made my way 4 miles north from Olar on Highway 321. There, opposite the old railroad depot, was John Frank Lancaster’s store.
It is an old weatherbeaten wooden building, with no identifying sign and a couple gasoline pumps standing in front. As the dog and I walked up to the door, a man I took to be John Frank Lancaster came around the corner of the store, puffing on a huge black cigar and carrying a scuttle full of coal.
We introduced ourselves and my dog and I were invited in. Mr. Lancaster pulled up a chair for me beside his at the pot-bellied stove, which was glowing warmly in the center of the store. When my eyes became accustomed to the dimness, I could make out mostly empty shelves going down along either side of the large open room. There was a counter on the left by the front door and behind it, the shelves were stocked with a few necessary grocery items. On the counter near the stove was a small portable television set with a familiar soap opera in progress.
Coming right to point of my visit, dog lying peacefully by the stove, I asked Mr. Lancaster if he was really closing the store at the end of the year, after the almost 70 years it had been run by the Lancaster family.
Yes, the reports are true. He felt that the responsibility of the store was getting a bit heavy for a man of his years. He, told me that Mrs. Julie Lee Gunnells, who had been with him as clerk for nearly 40 years, had retired last July and now it was time for him to give it up. But when asked what he would do when the store was closed, he told me that he intended to come over from the house several times a week and open the store anyway.
Mr. Lancaster gave me some background information on himself, his family and the business. John Frank Lancaster was born in 1892, son of the late Luther L. and Annie Lee Lancaster. The family has been in the Govan community for several generations, but he remembers hearing his grandmother tell of going to school over London Bridge. In the nearby Georges Creek Baptist church, many markers testify to the generations of Lancasters who have resided in the area over the years.
In 1907, Luther L. Lancaster purchased a store building in Govan from a Mr. Kennedy and started the business. Also in 1907, John Frank Lancaster graduated from Govan Graded school and went to Augusta to enroll in Osborne Business College to study bookkeeping. At that time he made the acquaintance of a man who was to become a lifetime friend. Edgar A. Brown was also at Osborne Business college learning the tools of commerce, shorthand and bookkeeping. (We interrupted our chat and went back to his desk in a small room at the rear of the store where an autographed sketch of Mr. Brown was hung. It read: to John Frank Lancaster, one of my real friends — Edgar Brown.)
I noticed about that time that we were in what was an old post office and was informed that Mr. Lancaster had been appointed Postmaster in 1914 and continued in that position for 42 years. But that’s jumping ahead in the story.
John Frank Lancaster joined his father in the business in 1908, and when his father died in 1910, as he was the oldest boy of 10 children, he became the head of the family and the business.
The Lancaster store was originally a general store, selling hardware, shoes, dry goods, hats, groceries and fresh meats. Situated on a strategic county road (the main roads had not been paved), the store did the best trade of the three or four businesses in Govan. In the thirties and forties, the Lancaster store was quite busy, employing two clerks and customers coming from all around the area. There was also a cotton gin on the premises, where cotton was bought and sold, as well as a 1600 acre farm around and in Govan, that still is part of the Lancaster holdings.
In 1939, the Bamberg County Bank was organized by Mr. Lancaster and 4 or 5 other stockholders. The doors opened in 1940 and in the sixties, the South Carolina National Bank bought out the Bamberg County Bank. Mr. Lancaster remained as a director of South Carolina National Bank in Bamberg until last year.
Many other responsibilities have been taken on by him throughout the years. He was trustee of the Denmark-Olar schools; he was on the building committee of the Bamberg county Agricultural building; and he was on the Bamberg County Courthouse Moving committee; when Highway 301 was put through.
Reminiscing of earlier times, Mr. Lancaster told of the post office being robbed several times over the years. It was located in a cubicle at the rear of the store, on the right hand side. People tried to gain entry in many ways; coming up through the floor, through the transoms and one night an ingenious intruder actually pried apart the bars over the post office window. He and his son were at their home a short distance away and were alerted when the dogs set up a commotion. They proceeded to the store, with Mr. Lancaster picking up his shotgun as they went out. The thief was trapped in the post office, Mr. Lancaster telling him to stay in the cubicle until the deputy arrived or he would kill him. He stayed.
At the time of World War I, John Frank went into Bamberg and told the county clerk of his intentions to enlist. The clerk informed him that as the head of a large productive farm, postmaster and supporter of a large family, he could best serve his country by remaining at home. Mr. Lancaster told me his wife, the former Jessie Zorn, had died in 1964. They were the parents of four children: Mrs. A. W. (Helen) Hagler (deceased); Mrs. James (Virginia) H. Goethe, of near Santee; Mrs. Heath (Marjorie) Blake, of Bamberg; and Wilmot (Bill) Lancaster, of Allendale, who is farming the family land. All the Lancaster children graduated from college and there are six grandchildren.
The afternoon was drawing to a close and a customer was sitting by the stove with us, so I thanked Mr. John Frank Lancaster for sharing his story with me and said my goodbyes. As I went out the door, I heard the customer remark: “Patient dog.”
1. Private H. Govan Kennedy died in the Civil War. He was just 17 years old. He is buried in a Confederate mass grave in Warrenton, Virginia. The community of Govan was originally called Verden, but when railroad officials decided to change the name of the station, Kennedy’s brother, Lawton, suggested Govan in his brother’s honor. Govan was incorporated on December 23, 1885. Other founding family names include Browning, Cook, Gunnells, Hartzog, Hay, Hutto, Lancaster, Odom, and Ray.