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Roadside legacy

Alan Schafer lured millions to a wacky tourist trap along I-95 with a string of banal billboards from Florida to New Jersey.

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2001


Alan Schafer lured millions to a wacky tourist trap along I-95 with a string of banal billboards from Florida to New Jersey.

DILLON, S.C. -- Anyone traveling along Interstate 95 has seen them: the groan-inducing, retina-scorching green and orange billboards.

* * *

Too Tired to Tango? (Rest Weeth Pedro!)

Pedro sez: Chili today, hot tamale.

Keep America Green! Bring Money!

You Never Sausage a Place! You're Always a Wiener at Pedro's!

Keep yelling kids! (They'll stop.)

* * *

Alan Heller Schafer was the man behind each of the 250 billboards. They stretch from Daytona Beach to New Jersey to lure motorists to his South of the Border tourist attraction. On Thursday morning, Mr. Schafer died after a long battle with leukemia. He was 87.

For more than five decades, South of the Border has attracted restless travelers, reportedly as many as 8-million a year. The $40-million Mexican-themed complex includes motel rooms, campsites, gift shops, restaurants, an amusement park and a large observation tower shaped like a sombrero. The park, with about 750 workers, remains one of the largest employers in an economically depressed county.

Its mascot is the wise-cracking Pedro character made famous by the billboards and created by Alan Schafer.

Born into a Jewish family in Baltimore just as World War I was starting, Mr. Schafer lived almost all of his life in South Carolina's rural Dillon County.

He was a journalism major at the University of South Carolina, who left during his senior year in 1933 to take over a cafe and a beer distributing company for his ailing father.

After World War II, Mr. Schafer noticed hordes of families from the Northeast zooming down U.S. 301 to South Carolina and Florida beaches. He decided to offer them a place to stop for a meal and souvenirs.

He started in 1949, with an 18- by 36-foot, shocking-pink beer stand just south of the state border. The nearby North Carolina counties were dry, meaning it was illegal to sell alcohol there. The next year, he added a 10-seat grill -- the South of the Border Drive-In -- at the request of then-Gov. Strom Thurmond, who wanted to quiet complaints from anti-drink forces in the neighboring state.

Next came the curios. One night in the early 1950s, a traveling salesman wandered in. He had run out of cash on the way home to New York City from a Miami trade show.

Mr. Schafer bought the man's stock, a collection of plush elephants and bears, for $100. He distributed the stuffed toys around his store. A week later, he had sold them all for $500.

Over the years, the site grew to encompass 350 acres. Pedro was born, according to the official history of the business, after Mr. Schafer traveled to Mexico "to establish import connections" and returned with two young Mexican men who went to work as bellboys. Everyone called them Pedro, the story goes, and even today, young male employees are referred to as Pedros.

"He was the greatest marketing mind in the 20th century in South Carolina," said Kevin Geddings, a marketing consultant for Mr. Schafer. "This is a gentleman that never finished college and he built one of the biggest tourist attractions on the East Coast from scratch."

Mr. Schafer, a resident of Little Rock outside of Dillon, gained wealth and clout as the attraction grew. Eventually, he began to exercise his political muscle.

When it came time to build the interstate, Mr. Schafer "had the political influence to get I-95," said University of South Carolina historian Walter Edgar. "It makes a little jag there to go through South of the Border."

Mr. Schafer's political imprint is clearest in the Democratic Party. He gave freely to candidates and the party. Perhaps a little too freely.

In 1981, Mr. Schafer went to prison for a year after being convicted in a federal vote-buying scandal.

He also was one of the biggest spenders in campaigns to protect video gambling, pumping tens of thousands of dollars into advertisements. South of the Border held the state's largest video gambling operation until the state outlawed the games.

Former Gov. David Beasley's campaign sued Mr. Schafer and fellow video gambling operator Fred Collins to try to stop the ads, claiming gambling interests illegally coordinated their efforts. Circuit Judge Tom Ervin ruled in favor of the businessmen.

In the '90s, Mr. Schafer rescued another South Carolina gem. He bought Blenheim Ginger Ale, a soft drink once used for colds and nasal aliments because of its spicy kick. Now, the beverage is marketed across the nation.

"It was the only soft drink invented in South Carolina," Geddings said. "You know Georgia had Coke and North Carolina had Pepsi, he didn't want to see the brand lost forever."

In addition to tourism, Mr. Schafer would later go on to buy a car dealership and other companies, but he always shared his good fortune.

"He played a big part in helping a lot of different people," said S.C. Rep. Jackie Hayes, who got his first job at age 12 pumping gas at South of the Border. "He gave a tremendous amount of money to schools and churches throughout Dillon County and throughout the state."

In the waning days of segregation, South of the Border was one of the first rest stops between Washington, D.C., and Miami to welcome African-Americans.

At the end, Mr. Schafer's empire was valued at $50-million, and it included a beer distributorship, billboards, car dealerships and the ginger ale. But South of the Border, with its billboards, neon lights and cheap tchotchkes, will be his biggest legacy.

"South of the Border is known internationally," Edgar, the historian, said. "People in Europe know about South of the Border."

Mr. Schafer will be memorialized Sunday at the South of the Border convention center, beneath the shadow of the 97-foot-tall Pedro and the 207-foot-high sombrero observation deck.

- Information from the Charlotte Observer, the State, the Washington Post and the Raleigh News and Observer was used in this report.

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