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Hell Hole Swamp Festival — Jamestown, South Carolina

SC Picture Project  |  Berkeley County  |  Hell Hole Swamp Festival

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Hell Hole Swamp Festival

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.”

Hell Hole Swamp Festival Depot

Ann Helms of Spartanburg, 2009 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent

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.

Hell Hole Swamp Headquarters

Charles Payne of Rock Hill, 2016 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent

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.

Hell Hole Swamp Festival Performance Pavilion

Yvonne Price of Ladson, 2017 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent

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.

Hell Hole Swamp Festival Performance Pavilion

Yvonne Price of Ladson, 2017 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent

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.

Hell Hole Festival Headquarters

Charles Payne of Rock Hill, 2016 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent

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.

Hell Hole Swamp Festival Depot

Ann Helms of Spartanburg, 2009 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent

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.

Hell Hole Swamp Festival Info

Address: French Santee Road, Jamestown, SC 29453
GPS Coordinates: 33.286268,-79.692796
Website: http://www.hellholeswampfest.com

Hell Hole Swamp Festival Map

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5 Comments about Hell Hole Swamp Festival

Ron Welch says:
October 13th, 2019 at 11:18 am

My father, Marion A. Welch, grew up there. His father was William Welch, and I understand he had a lumber mill in Hell Hole Swamp.

SC Picture Project says:
April 28th, 2019 at 1:17 am

In years past, it has not been. It is more a family/community fun fair festival/event.

Nicholas Hughes says:
April 27th, 2019 at 1:31 pm

Is the Hell Hole Swamp Festival an alcohol friendly environment? I showed up thinking I was going to be able to have a cold beer and it seemed to me as though nobody around here had beer.

Douglas Decker DDS says:
July 7th, 2018 at 2:34 pm

My mother, Clara Brinson Williams/Decker was remembering how the train would come by the depot when she was a child. The train did not stop. But they had an arm that stuck out that held the mail bag and the train with scoop it off as I went by. Thank you for your information. She lived down off halfway creek road a little south of the cemetery across from Schuler Lane

Varena Fulmer Henry says:
July 10th, 2017 at 1:17 pm

My aunt, Willa Scott Shuler was the depot agent here for many years! When we went to visit there wasn’t even a paved road into town! She was my dads sister, Willa Fulmer from Springfield!


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