Cotton Museum: Lizard Man!
Bishopville, South Carolina
"What is the only creature on earth that eats cotton?" asks Janson Cox, executive director of the South Carolina Cotton Museum. Since we're standing in front of a goliath-size model of a Boll Weevil, our "Boll Weevil" answer seemed easy. "No!" Janson replied, springing what must be a well-worn trap. "It's humans!" Janson then listed some of the mass-produced foods that contain cotton: ice cream, toothpaste, pretzels, cookies, potato chips. "It's everywhere," he said.
The South Carolina Cotton Museum is in Lee County, historically the heart of South Carolina's cotton country. A hundred years ago the Boll Weevil nearly destroyed the cotton crop (eating the plant, not the cotton), and a map in the museum shows the bug's relentless year-by-year march across the South. The museum's custom-built weevil -- the World's Largest -- is a six-legged nightmare, with bulbous eyes and a roto-rooter-tipped snout. A microscopic real weevil sits at its feet, in a bottle, for comparison.
Despite their ruthless reputation, the weevils are all gone now, and Janson said the museum has the last Boll Weevil captured in South Carolina -- but it's not the one in bottle. "I would not put one that rare on display," he said.
Exhibits in the museum contrast the hardscrabble past of cotton with its apparently limitless future. Janson tells us that biodegradable cotton may soon replace styrofoam as packing peanuts, and that America's "paper" money is already 75 percent cotton. Videos on view in a small theater include, "Cotton: Nature's Food and Fiber Plant," and "Cotton: The Perennial Patriot."
But more memorable in the museum is its full-size sharecropper's shack, still a common sight into the 1950s, all bare wood with the kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom (slop jar) in one room. Old cotton mill machinery is exhibited along with miniature, fully operational versions of a 19th century cotton gin and cotton press, built by a local man.
In one corner stands a crazy mechanical cotton farm mule, its toothy jaws endlessly clacking. Janson said it was built in 1942 for a department store in the state capitol, and that generations of kids sat on its back before it was donated to the Cotton Museum. "That's the original motor running him," said Janson. The clacking teeth were because the mule used to "talk," and in fact it still has its original record player inside it, but the record has thus far eluded discovery.
The Lizard Man
More terrifying than the mule, or even the giant weevil, is another creature featured in the museum: the Lee County Lizard Man. With scaly green skin, weightlifter arms, and glowing red eyes, Lizard Man appeared near a Bishopville butterbean-drying shed in 1988 and quickly became infamous for tearing pieces off of cars and terrifying local residents. One exhibit suggests that it might be a prehistoric Camufex carolinensis, "Carolina butcher," a nearly-nine-foot-tall crocodilian that "walked on its hind legs and ate the relatives of early mammals."
The museum has original plaster casts of Lizard Man's footprints (donated by the sheriff), and sells Lizard Man t-shirts, a CD of Lizard Man tribute songs, and butter beans salvaged from the original shed. The monster may still lurk in nearby Scape Ore Swamp, but repeated attempts to find it have proven fruitless.
Why is Lizard Man in the Cotton Museum?
"Because no one else was dealing with it," said Janson. "Rather than see all this material just gone, we've expanded our collecting policy."