Tucked away in the boggy woods of Berkeley County sits the ominously-named Hell Hole Swamp. The origins of the Jamestown swamp’s colorful moniker are unclear, though the phrase “Hell Hole” predates the Revolutionary War, appearing on James Cook’s 1773 map of South Carolina. Nevertheless, local legend credits General Cornwallis with the name; he is said to have written in a letter to King George that General Marion and his men had vanished into “one hell of a hole of a swamp.”
Regardless of how Hell Hole Swamp got its name, people have gathered here since 1972 to celebrate its geography and lore, which is famously mired in bootlegging and murder. A former depot for the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad, seen above and below, serves as festival headquarters.
The festival mascot is not an animal, nor is it a person. Instead, an actual moonshine still, once seized by federal agents, is displayed at the annual event, paying homage to Berkeley County’s reputation as a haven for corn liquor. The area became a moonshine hub in the 1920s and 1930s during Prohibition – to the chagrin of Governor John Richards, a proponent and enforcer of the state’s “blue laws,” or laws prohibiting certain activities on Sundays. Governor Richards also detested alcohol and sought to arrest those making or carrying the substance illegally. Family rivalries abounded in Hell Hole, and gunfights often erupted in the backwood thickets of the county. Moonshining in Hell Hole once even led to the death of a South Carolina senator.
On the morning of July 24, 1930, Senator Edward J. “Ned” Dennis of Pinopolis was shot on his way to work in Moncks Corner by W.L. “Sporty” Thornley. Senator Dennis died the following day, and his family’s account of the incident claims that he was shot by a man hired by Hell Hole bootleggers in response to Dennis’ strict enforcement of Prohibition. However, others say that the senator, a lawyer, was involved in a moonshining racket himself, representing apprehended moonshiners and subsequently lining his pockets with attorney fees in a plan involving Dennis, the sheriff, and the deputy sheriff. The group was also rumored to sell the seized moonshine to bootleggers.
Whether or not Senator Dennis was a rigid Prohibitionist or a corrupt player in a moonshining racket, he was indeed murdered for his role in the illicit liquor trade. His son, Senator Rembert Dennis, ran for his father’s old seat in 1943 and served in the state senate until 1988. Prior to that, Rembert Dennis served in the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1938 until 1942. The Rembert C. Dennis Building within the State House complex in Columbia is named for him.
Prohibition was officially repealed in 1933, but moonshiners continued plying their contraband liquor. When resident Cecil Guerry founded the festival in 1971, he selected the still as the symbol for the event, proudly placing it behind festival headquarters. The festival includes unusual events by modern standards, including a spitting contest, a legs contest, arm wrestling, a parade, the Miss Hell Hole beauty pageant, and a race called the Hell Hole Gator Trot. The Hell Hole Gator Trot is the Lowcountry’s oldest 10k race, besting the renowned Cooper River Bridge Run in Charleston. Winners of the race receive fake alligator heads as trophies and get to participate in the parade, held after the race.
The Hell Hole Swamp Festival is held during the first full weekend of May. For those in the Lowcountry at that time, the event is quite memorable. Behind the former depot you can catch a glimpse of the old still – and maybe even some newer ones, depending on how deep into the swamp you choose to go.