The rich history of Little River includes a visit from President George Washington, rumored moorings from the pirate Blackbeard and evidence of Native American campsites from thousands of years ago.
But what gives Little River its charm isn’t a pit stop by the former president or visits from notorious pirates – it’s the families and traditions of the community that have endured for generations.
Toni Bessent, 70, has lived in Little River for most of her life and said her family has been in Little River since around 1766.
“Little River has been here for so long and has so much history,” Bessent said. “I’ve tried to leave a couple times and I come right back. It’s just where my history is and it’s where I have lots of friends I went to school with who are still my friends today.”
This month, Horry County officials are remembering Little River as a historic place by unveiling a historic marker.
On Aug. 10, a memorial commemorating the history of Little River will be unveiled in a ceremony at 10 a.m. at the County parking lot at 4466 Mineola Ave. The South Carolina State Historical Marker is sponsored by the Horry County Historic Preservation Commission, which is funded by the Horry County Council. The wording is approved by the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.
“When you do a state marker, it’s vetted,” Susan Platt, chair of Horry County’s Historic Preservation Commission, said. “We do the research, it goes to the state, they have a PHD who adds to your research, takes away and then works on what text will be on the actual marker. Then, it goes to yet another committee of staff members who are PHDs, and this is their career, who also look at it before they approve that state marker.”
Little River is widely regarded as one of the first permanent settlements in Horry County. According to an article in the Independent Republic Quarterly by late historian Catherine Heniford Lewis, British colonists had lived in the area since before 1734. Evidence that Native Americans fished and camped in Little River has been found from as early as the Middle Woodland Period (400-800 A.D.), according to Horry County Museum curator Abigail Geedy.
Platt describes the people of Little River as resourceful, using the expansion of Highway 17 as an example. The widening of the road from two to four lanes caused many plots of land with historic structures on them to be condemned to make room, but instead of allowing the demolition of the buildings, many residents opted to pick up and move the historic structures.
One example is the historic Parson’s Table restaurant, a former church that was moved from the intersection of Mineola Avenue and Highway 17 to its current location.
The unveiling of the historic memorial is the latest initiative to come from the county’s Historic Preservation Committee. The committee also began interviewing longtime residents for an oral history program last year.
Even with tourism, Little River’s character remains
The Little River economy, which, early on, was centered around commercial fishing, lumber and turpentine trade, shifted after the great depression. Recreational fishing, party boats and now casino boats drive the economy of the Little River docks off Mineola Avenue.
Wade Long, however, has continued his family’s tradition of fishing commercially in Little River. He owns the docks next to the Crab Catcher’s Restaurant, offering jet ski rentals to visitors of Little River but also supplying restaurants with fresh seafood through a family commercial fishing business. Long said his grandfather moved to Little River, fished and built boats and that commercial fishing on Little River has been a family tradition ever since.
“In my lifetime there hasn’t been a lot of change in Little River,” Long said. “I still talk to some people I worked for when I was here as a kid. Danny Juel rents from me and puts his boat in the dock. I worked for him when I was a young kid. He’s in his 60s now and he’s fished his whole life. The Juels and the Longs have both been here a very long time making their living off this waterfront.”
It isn’t just the casino boats and watersport activities that draw people to the Intracoastal. It’s also the character of a small fishing town that Little River still holds, which is evident from the docks on Water Front Avenue.
“Traffic from Highway 17 and so many people coming here from other places have changed the character a good bit,” Bessent said. “But I think it still has some of its original character and that’s kind of the draw of Little River, which is ironic because tourism is what changes the character.”
Horry County is home to many historic properties, Little River included. Structures that are historically significant can be recognized on the National Register of Historic Places and also the Horry County Historic Property Register.
“One of our highest priorities is to get structures on our local register because it adds a level of protection,” said Lou Conklin, a senior planner for Horry County and staff liaison for the Historic Preservation Commission. “If you’re on the local register, it does help you in regards to development because a developer can’t just purchase your property and tear your structure down.”
Soon, an app will be launched which will make more accessible the catalog of historic structures in the county.
“If you have all this history and great stuff and you can’t get it into the hands of tourists or new people who don’t know it, it’s worthless. It’s in a book or archives somewhere,” Platt said. “An app opens it up to everyone.”
According to Horry County’s Preservation Plan, 89% of the historic structures cataloged are cemeteries. With so many historic cemeteries in the area, the HPC has been busy filling out a cemetery database, which aims to document information from all the gravesites in historic cemeteries in Horry County.
Conklin said that the cemetery database is important because many families used to bury loved ones in the backyard. Descendants from some of those families may eventually move away and sell the land, meaning the gravesites may be lost to the next generation.
Even though Little River is changing and growing, the spirit and history of the small fishing town remains, and the families do, too.
“If those big live oaks on that hill could talk, you could hear some of the best stories you could ever imagine,” Long said. “This was a magical place to grow up as a kid, and you couldn’t beat me away with a stick. If you took me away, I’d be walking back to Little River.”