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The road to Prosperity

Sacred Spaces

The road to Prosperity is clearly marked. Travel Interstate 26 into the heart of South Carolina, take Exit 82 westward, then follow the signs past the wheat fields and cow pastures until the tiny rural town once known as “Frog Level” comes into view.

Greenville-area author/photographer/entrepreneur Bill Fitzpatrick drove past that exit sign a thousand times during his adult life, rushing from one city to the next, never really curious about those places tucked into South Carolina’s interior.

That all changed on a crisp autumn day in 2010 when he went in search of an historic mansion located in the middle of nowhere. Intrigued by what he found, Fitzpatrick spent the next four years exploring the state’s rural history and collecting friends, stories and photographs along the way. Then he spent four more years wondering what to do with his extraordinary experience.

He found his answer on the road to Prosperity.

On any given sunny day during the 1970s, a boy was often spotted racing along the streets of Prosperity, pumping the pedals of his banana bike as hard as he could. The boy was on a mission to find the house or building referred to in the latest story told to him by his grandmother, the town’s historian. His grandmother carefully wrapped each description of a place with a story about the families that lived and worked there, pointing to pictures in a book she’d written as she went. The boy was eager to find the actual place and compare its current state with that in his grandmother’s story. He also knew when found it that if he waited long enough, listened hard enough, the house would reveal itself to him in intricate detail.

One of his favorite stories told to him by his grandmother was about the town’s re-naming. In 1873, at the insistence of its 300 residents, the legislature changed the name of the town from “Frog Level” to “Prosperity” in anticipation of the prosperity to come. The new name was inspired by the boy’s ancestral church, the Prosperity Associate Reformed Presbyterian Meeting House. Built in 1840, it was where the father of famed American novelist, Erskine Caldwell, once pastored. On many of those days spent riding his bike around town, his journey took him past that meeting house’s successor, the Prosperity A.R.P. Church (built in the 1880s) where he’d pause long enough to wonder at its metal roof, narrow Gothic windows and distinctive hexagonal steeple and to listen for the faint voices of those who once worshiped there. That little church anchored him to Prosperity, even when his dreams led him elsewhere.

Michael Bedenbaugh grew up on the outskirts of Prosperity on a farm that has been handed down through five generations of family farmers. He eventually outgrew his banana bike but he never outgrew his passion for history and architecture. With his life deeply rooted in Newberry County’s red clay dirt, Bedenbaugh placed his “history hobby” on the shelf and went off to explore the world. While serving a stint in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS South Carolina, he returned to his hometown on leave to discover the steeple of his beloved church had been cut off to remove its bell. While the loss was devastating, Bedenbaugh had no idea what to do about the deteriorating old church … or, for that matter, the dilapidated train depot, or any number of other neglected structures around town in need of some tender loving care.

After five years in the Navy, Bedenbaugh settled into college life, focusing on international studies and history (of course), first at the University of South Carolina and then at Columbia University in New York City. Following his college days, the country boy from Prosperity eagerly jumped into the city rat race to help build a product marketing company that catered to the entertainment industry. Instead of the farm chores of his youth, he found himself jet-setting between the company’s offices in New York City and Los Angeles, meeting with clients including DreamWorks Animation, MGM, Island Records, Paramount Pictures and Philip Morris. Life in Prosperity was in his rearview mirror. Michael Bedenbaugh had hit the big time in the big cities with the big buildings filled with clients willing to pay the big bucks for his serves. Hundreds of meetings and presentations later, he slowly began to realize that the red clay dirt of home still held tight and that all roads in his life led back to Prosperity.

In 1991, Bedenbaugh moved his product marketing company’s “world headquarters” to Prosperity, maintaining satellite offices in both New York City and Los Angeles. The move helped realign his universe. Without losing a beat in his thriving company, he became active as a member of the local planning commission, chaired the Newberry County Board of Zoning Appeals, joined the board of the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation and was elected to Prosperity’s city council. As a member of city council, Bedenbaugh finally saw his opportunity to save Prosperity A.R.P Church.

But he was too late.

In 1998, the church was demolished.

He said this of the event that changed the face of Prosperity forever: “What made it worse for me personally was that because of the steeple removal in the 80s, the church sat open to the elements for 15 years. By the time I got on city council, it had so deteriorated into ruin that it was a public safety hazard and I had to make the motion to remove what remained of it.”

After nearly 15 years of the corporate rat race, Bedenbaugh realized his dual life was taking its toll. So he hit the re-set button on his life, taking on the management of the social studies program for Newberry Academy, a nearby private school. He restored his great grandfather’s Victorian house. And somewhere along the way he came up with an idea to transform his old “history hobby” into a consulting business to save historic buildings across the state.

Realizing he needed a non-profit to help him, he called an old friend at the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation. “Sorry,” he was told. “We can’t help you. We can’t find an executive director,

Ah — Serendipity reared her beautiful head.

Michael Bedenbaugh assumed the reigns of the Palmetto Trust (now known as Preservation South Carolina) in 2007. It didn’t take him long to gear his life back into overdrive.

Describing his non-profit’s work, Bedenbaugh said this, “At one point, we were working on restoring an 800-square-foot Gullah house on Daufuskie Island. At the same time, we were working on moving an 800-ton Italianate mansion two blocks in Greenville. Our work is not about the monumental architecture. It’s about the monumental stories. History is a man-made thing. It’s about the human experience. It’s about how our own consciousness connects with a structure and imbeds there. I’ve always known that the essence of place is just as powerful as the intention that went into building it.”

In recent years, Bill Fitzpatrick takes South Carolina’s back roads whenever he can. As he travels south from his home just outside of Greenville to meet the man from Prosperity for the first time, he has no idea what to expect. So he settles in to enjoy the ride through state’s amazing scenery.

Fitzpatrick had arranged to meet Bedenbaugh halfway to show him the book he had compiled to commemorate his experience photographing and researching over 600 of the state’s sacred spaces. As Fitzpatrick flipped through a succession of pages, lingering on those that featured images of those most at risk and the people struggling to save them. As Bedenbaugh looked on, memories of Prosperity A.R.P Church and its ultimate demise fluttered through his head.

Within minutes of their meeting somewhere along the road to Prosperity, two men traveling from opposite directions came together, their paths becoming inextricably merged toward a common mission: To save South Carolina’s Sacred Spaces.

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