Pedro figure and Sombrero Tower, Eiffel Tower of the South.
Pedro statue and Sombrero Tower, Eiffel Tower of the South, in its green paint days.

South Of The Border

Field review by the editors.

Dillon, South Carolina

You're speeding along I-95 near the North Carolina - South Carolina state line, where heat and fatigue have shredded your senses like old tire retreads on hot asphalt. Suddenly a huge alien sombrero rises above the horizon, towering nearly 200 feet high.

Pedro entrance sign.
The Big Fellah, largest neon sign east of the Mississippi.

It's not a hallucination; it's the Sombrero Tower, roadside landmark of the South of the Border tourist complex. It's not a surprise, either, because every traveler on I-95 knows that South of the Border is approaching, thanks to its relentless, accelerating onslaught of nearly 200 billboards, strung along 500 miles of interstate north and south of this Dixie Tijuana.

The mascot of the place is Pedro, a grinning mustachioed caricature topped with an outsized sombrero. It is Pedro who speaks from the billboards. It is Pedro -- known affectionately as "The Big Fellah" -- who stands inside the SoB main entrance, 104 feet tall, "the largest neon sign east of the Mississippi." Visitors can drive between his legs.

Why not stop for a few minutes? Venture into Mexico Shop East -- West being across the street -- and pick up any one of apparently millions of souvenirs. Quantity rules, with, for example, eight types of flip-flops and twenty-two types of coffee mugs. Rifle through bins of maracas and sombreros, refrigerator magnets and key chains, many of them customized with Pedro's smiling face. "Bins" is no exaggeration, as the displays overflow with thousands of each type of classic roadside doodad.

Early view of the SoB beer stand.
Earliest official photo of South of the Border, circa 1952. The "Champagne Room" was for traveling celebrities.

Relief from mosquitoes and humidity can be found in the Sombrero Room restaurant, serving the best Mexican food in northern South Carolina. If your stomach demands something more substantial, the Peddler Steak House puts to rest the longtime myth that one cannot get a good tenderloin in a building shaped like a Mexican hat.

SOB in the early 1960s.
South of the Border in the early 1960s.

Before getting back in the car -- which by now is an oven anyway -- take a ride up the glass elevator to the top of Sombrero Tower, the same monolith that initially caught your eye. South of the Border built it for $1.5 million back in the 1970s. As you walk around in the brim of this huge hat, look out over the piney woods and peanut fields cut in two by the interstate. There is nothing to see. SoB is a real oasis.

A first-time visitor might naturally wonder: What is all this Mexican stuff doing in South Carolina?

It arrived here thanks to a visionary named Alan Schafer, who carefully guided its growth for over 50 years. In 1949, after neighboring Robeson County, North Carolina, had outlawed the sale of beer, Schafer bought some land just south of the state line, built a small cinderblock building, painted it pink, and called it South of the Border Beer Depot. By 1950 he was selling hot dogs and burgers along with the beer, and making more money from food and tourists than from border-jumping North Carolina locals.

Steakhouse shaped like a sombrero.
South of the Border's steak house is shaped like a sombrero.

"One day a salesman stopped in from Florida," said Ryan Schafer, Alan's grandson and current SoB commander. "He had some souvenirs -- back scratchers and stuff -- and he didn't have enough money to eat and get back home. He said, 'If you feed me dinner I'll give you these samples.'" To Alan Schafer's surprise, the souvenirs sold out almost immediately. A neon light went on in his head. "My grandfather," said Ryan, "had a full order for the guy by the time he got back to Florida."

Ever-changing: 1985 model of motel lobby and Pleasure Dome. [Roadside America archive]
Ever-changing: 1985 model of motel lobby and Pleasure Dome. [Roadside America archive]

Schafer began to import Mexican novelties, and to transform South of the Border -- it's new, truncated name -- into a very American version of a Mexican village. Today it sprawls across 300 acres, with its own mini-golf, bank, motel, gas stations, a bottling plant, a truck stop, an RV campground, and over a dozen places to buy souvenirs. The crucial decision about what to sell in the gift shops -- Painted cow skulls? Mexican jumping beans? -- was Alan's alone, and today that responsibility rests exclusively with Ryan. "It's just me," he said. "I do a pretty good job with it, I think."

In its early days South of the Border had an exotic and slightly naughty allure that attracted an upscale Cadillac crowd. Hollywood celebrities such as Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth would overnight at SoB and order champagne delivered to their motel rooms. But the democratization of long-distance auto travel changed SoB's customers, and Alan Schafer changed with them. It wasn't always easy. He had to fight his own Chamber of Commerce to get the I-95 exit ramp on the South Carolina side of the state line. The KKK harassed and threatened him for years because of SoB's policy of renting the same motel rooms to blacks and whites. Later, when Schafer was criticized for South of the Border's Mexican theme and Pedro cartoon character, it hurt him personally, even though most people know that Mexicans don't live in buildings shaped like sombreros or even wear them.

Myrtle Beach Shop and sea life photo ops.
Myrtle Beach Shop and sea life photo ops.

South of the Border survives because it continually adapts, casting its jalapeno-hued glow in new directions as popular tastes evolve. Like Las Vegas, the cycle of attractions within the enclave of SoB is always spinning; even the colors on its many concrete animal statues -- possibly the most photographed animals in America -- are constantly changed. Gone are former standbys such as Pedro's Coffee Casa, the Leather Alone Shop, and Circus Maxicanus. In their place, under Ryan's stewardship, is a sprawling motocross course, SOBMX, and Ryan's current favorite, Reptile Lagoon, the largest indoor cold-blooded animal attraction in the USA. Ryan, like his grandfather, is always trying to attract a younger crowd -- knowing from experience that the new generation will return to SoB the next time they travel I-95, just like their parents and grandparents before them.

Sunset at South of the Border.
Sunset at South of the Border.

And yet South of the Border's basic idea remains as solid as a double-wrapped overstuffed burrito. Visitors to SoB will always find a place to eat, shop, sleep, buy fireworks, get married, and have a memorably discombobulating experience 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. "Crazy stuff happens here all the time," said Ryan. "Crazy is normal."

We could be accused of viewing SoB through Mexican-sunset-colored glasses -- we will always love the place -- so we asked Ryan what he thought about his critics, those who view South of the Border as just a cheesy, outrageous tourist trap. "That's all we aspire to be," he said, laughing. "Where else is there a place like it?"

Also see: Alan Schafer: Hero of the Highway

South Of The Border

Address:
3346 US 301 N., Dillon, SC
Directions:
I-95 exit 1. Follow the billboards.
Hours:
Always open. (Virus outbreak may affect access to attraction. Call to verify.)
Phone:
843-774-2411
Admission:
Sombrero Tower: $2.
RA Rates:
The Best
Save to My Sights

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May 30, 2020

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