- Lancaster was home to the world's largest cotton mill under one roof
- The textile titan closed just as the economy slowed
- Voters in Lancaster want a president who will strengthen the economy
- Many also want a champion for their Christian faith
Faith, says a church sign on Highway 21, makes things possible, not easy.
But in this God-fearing community known as the Red Rose City, possibilities can seem as rare as blooms in mid-winter.
Some call this place Charlotte exurban, but most just say it's hurtin'. Once wholly reliant on cotton, Lancaster fell on misery after the local textile titan, Springs Industries, shuttered in 2007, just as the economy began slowing. Many of the county's 70,000 folks never found another job. Others are earning far less.
The double whammy means the parking lot at the Dollar General is brimming with cars. So is the repo lot at the credit union.
Things got so bad that in 2008, Forbes Magazine called Lancaster the most vulnerable place in America: Unemployment had skyrocketed to more than 17%. It's back down to just below 13% but still above the national average.
Those are just numbers, though. The real proof of Lancaster's misery lies in the lives of people who live in tattered neighborhoods and shop in strip malls, far different from the relative prosperity across the North Carolina border in Charlotte. In Lancaster, many of the old mill houses sit empty or worse: dilapidated and occupied. This is where workers, covered in white fuzz, returned home each day.
Understandably, the mantra for voters planning to cast a ballot in Saturday's Republican presidential primary is jobs, jobs and more jobs.
That jibes with the rest of South Carolina; in many ways, Lancaster could mirror the state. It's a mix of Republican voters with Southern drawls so strong they might need subtitling and transplants from the North and West who settled here for the warmer weather and lower cost of living. There are fundamentalist Christians, suit-clad moderates and even the-hell-with-government Libertarians.
Voters say they want a fiscal conservative to end an era of big government. Many also yearn for a champion of Christian faith.
In the churches that sit on lonely highways and in family-style eateries known for comforting all-you-can-eat buffets, Lancaster's conservative voices are united in their rejection of President Barack Obama.
"He's the worst thing that's happened in decades," says Russell Goins, 55, a laid-off Springs employee who makes a fraction of his previous salary at the local telecommunications company. "I'm concerned about what will happen to my grandchildren."
But who could best lead America in the next four years? In Lancaster, ahead of their state's pivotal primary, talk of faith, finances and future is colored in many shades of red.
Red rose, blue city
Lancaster's name goes back to England. Its red rose symbol, the insignia of the House of Lancaster. But it was king cotton that built the town.
In 1895, Col. Leroy Springs started the Springs Cotton Mill, which expanded into the world's largest such mill under one roof. It spewed 4 million yards of cloth a week and employed 5,000 people. Many more worked at the hospital, parks and bank that Springs started.
That the mill would close was unimaginable, but it did, leaving behind a crater in the middle of a proud, hard-working community. Springs went farther south, to Brazil. It was, many people here say, free trade at its worst.
"It was the most fervent prayer of every citizen of Lancaster that another large company would come here. They didn't care what it was," says Peggy Frazier, a former human resources manager for Springs.
The main brick mill building was torn down a few years ago. Nothing remains except the two rescued stoops where mill hands sat before their shifts and acres of contaminated land that no one has money to reclaim. Other Springs structures sit silent, ghosts of prosperity.
Rhonda Parker whirls her Suburban around the empty parking lot at what was once the Springs customer service center. Used to be, she says, that if you got a job here, you were set for life.
Nearby sits the massive distribution center, where Springs products such as Wamsutta and Springmaid bedsheets began their journeys into America.
It's a place that's especially painful for Parker, 39, whose former husband worked at mill facilities. The only remaining life signs are the semis that pick up cotton goods from Brazil through the port of Charleston and distribute them to retailers such as Wal-Mart.
The irony does not escape anyone. Residents don't know whether to blame Democrats, Republicans or NAFTA. Or whether there's any use in looking back.
Parker tries not to dwell too much on the past. Life had been good; she was a full-time teacher. Now she relies on substitute jobs. The money is not bad at $60 a day, but she doesn't get called nearly enough. She has epileptic migraines but no health insurance.
"My credit went to hell, too," she says. "If it weren't for my family and fiancé, this would be a very, very hard time."
Parker struggles to pronounce Rick Santorum's last name, but she is counting on the former Pennsylvania senator to make things better.
People born and raised here, she says, will never leave Lancaster. They're not looking for government help -- just the right man to give them back the life they feel slipping away.
"I want a great president who's not focused on himself," she says, on her way to purchase a $50 Straight Talk card that lets her make unlimited calls and send texts without having to sign a contract.
She maneuvers her SUV past the empty storefronts on Main Street and the landmark courthouse built in 1828 with slave labor and fronted by a monument to Confederate soldiers. As she drives past a wall of fame that includes Andrew Jackson -- he was born in Lancaster District -- and astronaut Charles Duke, she voices a wish list for Santorum.
"I wish for more help for our children," she says. Sometimes, she sees kids in her classrooms with holes in their shoes and wants desperately to buy them new ones.
Parker lives by her mother's motto: "I am the best but no better than the rest."
"I have lived with that all my life," she says. "If only we had a president who thought that way."
God and country
There's nothing lavish or ornate between the stark walls at Fellowship Baptist Church. No need to embellish the power of the congregation's faith.
Beth Fournier, 45, began attending Sunday services here when she moved to Lancaster three years ago because of her husband's job. She was glad, after a lifetime in the Northeast.
She feels more in synch in a small, conservative community where her three children aren't likely to see gay people publicly displaying affection.
"It's wrong," she says. "I don't want my children to see it as right."
She sends her kids to the small church-run school. At a public school, they might fall under the custody of people who have not accepted Jesus, she says.
Sitting in the pastor's office, surrounded by hundreds of books about Christ, she says she doesn't want a president who won't stand up for her values and beliefs -- she's against abortion and gay marriage. No Republican in the race right now meets her standards.
"I haven't decided," she says, "because it's the lesser of evils."
Her pastor, Huey Mills, feels the same way.
"A person's religious faith is the number one issue for me. There's no question about it," he says. "I would have been euphoric if (Michele) Bachmann would have become president. I'd have said, 'God has smiled on this country.' "
Mills won't vote for front-runner Mitt Romney. He believes Romney, a Mormon, belongs to a cult.
"I will vote for anybody but Romney," he says. "I want someone who will try to move the country back to its historic position, which I would say is the biblical position."
Derek Smith and his father, Winston, have been attending this church a good chunk of their lives. Derek, 32, works for a company that supplies feed to turkey farms. Winston, 58, runs a trucking business.
The younger Smith will also cast a ballot for someone who is not his first choice. He supported Herman Cain, then Bachmann. Both dropped out long before South Carolina could weigh in.
"Just hold your nose and vote for Romney," says his father. That's what Winston did in 2008 when he voted for McCain.
But Derek feels so strongly about a Christian candidate that if Romney is the eventual nominee, come November, even if it's a close race, he may just leave the presidential ballot blank.
Liberty vs. tyranny
No. 1 on Jeff Mattox's political agenda? No government interference.
That puts him in line with many of South Carolina's Republicans.
No. 2 on his list? No God.
That puts him directly at odds with many of his neighbors, like the congregation at Fellowship Bible Church.
"Did God send an e-mail to the president that we are the most moral people in the world? Because we're not," he says.
Not that Mattox, 52, is a nonbeliever. He grew up the son of a military chaplain; he says religion serves as a good moral compass but has no place in politics.
Trouble pushes many folks here to ponder their faith. But trouble pushed Mattox to think hard about the role of government in America.
He used to make a decent living in home construction. But when people stopped building, he stopped earning and his income plunged from $100,000 to a meager $5,000. He gave up his house, car, phone, bank account, belongings. He stays at a friend's place and gets online to rile voters to action.
"I pick up odd jobs here and there, but that doesn't concern me anymore," he says, a Ron Paul button pinned to his sweater. "I've got three kids, and I'm looking at their future. And they don't have one."
Mattox knows his candidate's toughest sell will be his dovish foreign policy in hawkish South Carolina. Withdrawing U.S. troops from foreign soil and sitting down to talk with Iran are not popular positions among voters who feel strongly about maintaining America's superpower status.
"We cannot be the bully of the world," Mattox says.
Beyond that, Mattox says, it's about government intrusion into people's lives. He can't bring himself to cast a vote for any candidate who supports the Patriot Act, anti-terrorism legislation that made it easier for authorities to search medical records, e-mails, telephone calls and financial documents of Americans.
There's just one way for Mattox to gauge this election.
"We are all coming to the time of decision," he says. "Tyranny or liberty, freedom or slavery, prosperity or poverty. The choice is here and now."
Redneck and proud
Cotton Cole had made pizza only once in his life -- a frozen Chef Boyardee. But now at Poppi's Snack Shop on Pageland Highway, he's busy on a Saturday night layering pepperoni, canned mushrooms, sausage and cheese on ready-made dough.
Cole served as fire chief for nine years and has an auction business that's struggling. He started up the pizza place largely for his daughter to run; she hasn't had a job in a year.
"We have moved our office in with our pizza shack to save money," says his website. "So if you call and someone answers the phone saying Poppi's, just ask to speak to someone from the auction company."
As a boy, Cole, 56, thought the demarcation line between North and South ran along the border of the Carolinas.
"I'm a redneck. I know it. And I'm proud of it," he says, sliding a 3-inch-thick pie into an oven.
He opened Poppi's because down the line, it might create jobs. In the meantime, his specials are popular with the locals: $8 for a large one-topping pizza, $6 for a small.
Santorum stickers stare back at customers at the register.
"He took the time to seek me out and talk to me back in the summer," Cole says. "He's an honest person. He's not just going to tell you what you want to hear."
Cole places his freshly baked supreme pizza onto a plastic platter for an eagerly awaiting customer.
"I'd love him a whole lot more if he weren't a Catholic," he says about Santorum. "But I'll get behind whoever the Republican nominee is. We have to make things better."
'People have got to change'
Poppi's customers consider Charley's Restaurant in downtown to be high-end. On the menu are Lowcountry shrimp and grits and prime rib. On the tables are real linens and candles.
Owner Ken Killingsworth, 50, arrived in Lancaster 16 years ago from out West and remade the Main Street cafe. When the economy weakened, he took filets off the menu and stopped hiring.
"This town shuts down at 9 p.m.," he says.
It's what he likes about Lancaster after the hustle and bustle of San Francisco and Seattle. But it's also what he doesn't like. The small-town mentality gets in the way, he says, standing behind a bar stocked with California red wines, Fat Tire beer and whiskey.
Locals understand why Killingworth packs a Ruger pistol in his front pocket. They don't always get why he wants to open up his bar on Sundays. There are customers, he says, who have walked out of his eatery after noticing he serves alcohol.
"I'm happy for your religion," Killingsworth says about folks in town. "But don't put it on me."
He likes Santorum on gun rights but can't accept his positions against abortion and gay marriage.
"Times have changed," he says. "People have got to change, too."
In 2008, Killingworth voted for Obama. But not again. He will vote Saturday for a Republican who can get the economy under control. Maybe Romney.
At lunchtime, Winston Smith, the owner of the trucking business, wanders into Charley's wearing a plaid shirt and a Bluetooth earpiece. This is not a place he frequents. It's too upscale for Lancaster, he says.
He questions Killingsworth about his roots. Smith thinks outsiders sometimes bring ideas that ought to stay where they came from.
"This is South Carolina. We don't care how they do it in Massachusetts."
The two get into a heated exchange over Sunday alcohol sales. Killingsworth argues the prohibition is a form of government regulation. So why is Smith such a proponent?
"You don't think it will bring more restaurants?" Killingsworth asks.
"But what's the cost? Drunkenness?" Smith responds. "At a personal level, it's a moral issue."
Eating a pork chop at the bar, Francis Bell chimes in.
Government's role, he says, should be limited to providing electricity, water and roads. He's against raising taxes -- even for dog pounds.
"I got a plan for that. It's called the .30-30 plan," he says referring to the rifle.
Bell once served as a state senator. That was back when voters around here were still Democrats, before the post-civil rights Red tide swept through Lancaster County faster than a hurricane.
Bell says he's done with politics; he just sticks to running his law firm, minding his own business. He's a regular at Charley's, where he can smoke his Marlboro Lights at the bar and watch the news on the flat-screen.
Switching the channel to CNBC, Bell says: "Now that's what it's all about."
There's nothing more important than money matters in this election, he tells Killingsworth.
"Ken, you can't blame Obama for the bucket of poo he inherited." But you can blame him for getting America deeper into debt, he adds.
Bell doesn't fancy himself a social conservative like his neighbors. Romney's religion doesn't make a difference. Nor do his positions on moral issues. Bell just wants to make sure Obama goes down in November.
"A candidate," he says, "has got to have electability."
Washington is broken
If anyone knows Lancaster's economic woes, it's Keith Tunnell, 47, who arrived here nine years ago from Tennessee to work at the part-private, part-public Lancaster Economic Development Corporation.
Tunnell tries to lure new industries to town by offering lucrative incentives such as free land and low taxes. And he's had some success. Nutramax Labs, a pet supplement manufacturer, moved to Lancaster and created 225 jobs. Internet sales and marketing firm Red Ventures employs another 600 people.
But Tunnell knows in the current economic climate, it will take a long time to recover from the Springs departure.
He drives down a road that runs along the 39 miles of north-south railway line in Lancaster County. The track is old and isn't suited for heavy rail. That, he says, deters new industry from moving here.
He thinks people in Lancaster spew anti-government-tinged rhetoric but don't understand the importance of federal dollars in mending the city. That money, he says, is needed to build infrastructure and for work-force training programs especially in a community where people never considered college -- you didn't need a degree to get a job at the mill.
Tunnell thinks the priority for politicians who represent the people of Lancaster should be to bring home a fair share of the budget pie and to make sure the money is accounted for.
"I don't care whether you are Republicans or Democrats, we should all be for jobs investment," he says. "Everyone wants jobs, but here's what they don't understand. We can't have jobs without infrastructure. I don't see it getting better no matter who's in the executive seat."
Tunnell believes that at the heart of both the tea party and the Occupy movements is the same anger: Washington is broken.
"And I share that anger," he says. "Until they show me they're willing to work with the other side, I'm not going to vote for any of them."
Come Saturday, voters in Lancaster may make their decisions based on values or campaign promises. The bottom line for Tunnell is the candidate who cares.
"The one I'd vote for is the one who will come back to South Carolina after next Saturday to check on us," he says, making his way atop Lancaster's "Mill Hill," where the world's largest cotton mill once stood.