Cult Soda and Soft-Core Porn in Imaginary Mexico

South of the Border is a made-up Mexican town in South Carolina that grew up as a boozy escape from nearby dry counties. It's also the little-known residence of Blenheim Ginger Ale. Emily Wallace takes a look inside the weird past and present of a century-old soda company and its unlikely home.

The Welcome sign at South of the Border (SOB), South Carolina's very own Imaginary Mexico.

Among many things (campground, gas station, amusement park), SOB is also a hub for fireworks.

A product from another era, Blenheim's production was relocated from its original home in Blenheim, SC to SOB in 1993.

Kenny Cook Jr., the executive manager of Blenheim Ginger Ale, which is located (somewhat improbably) on-site at SOB.

Blenheim comes in three varieties—regular, diet and hot (which is made with capsicum extract).

Still a homegrown operation, Blenheim keeps its production documented with a handwritten tally.

The original Blenheim production house where Dr. C. R. May and A. J. Matheson began flavoring local mineral water with Jamaican ginger in 1903.

Under the brim of Pedro’s 200-foot-tall Sombrero Observation Tower, across from the Hats Around the World store, between statues of neon animals and a few steps from the Reptile Lagoon—this was supposed to be the spot. But a blank stare on the other side of the register told us it was not.

“The what?” a cashier asked. We were standing inside a T-shirt shop at South of the Border, the sprawling tourist park known fondly as “SOB,” located off Interstate 95 and Highway 301, just inside the South Carolina line. Having grown up along the I-95 corridor in North Carolina, this was a forbidden place—one well associated with a past of gambling, booze and seedy motels. Unbeknownst to many (even those selling the stuff), it’s also home to one of the country’s most beloved producers of ginger ale.

“Blenheim,” I told her. “They make it here.”

My friend (and photographer) Kate Medley pointed to a small display of Blenheim Ginger Ale bottles stacked by the register. Soon two more employees were called upon to help us locate the bottling plant rumored to be on site.

“I think it’s behind the truck stop, way back in the woods somewhere,” said an SOB worker dressed in a “#1 MOM” T-shirt. Although she had never been to the facility, she admitted to having just polished off one of the spicy golden ales.

Barring its specific point of origin, the soda is no mystery. It’s a classic—well-known among soft drink enthusiasts since 1903, when Dr. C. R. May and A. J. Matheson began flavoring local mineral water with Jamaican ginger in Blenheim, South Carolina, about 30 minutes from today’s SOB park. Now available in three varieties—regular, diet and hot—it’s coveted on cocktail menus nationwide as a boon to the perfect Dark ‘n’ Stormy. That’s particularly true of the red-capped variety (Old Hot #3), made with a capsicum extract. As Francis Lam once described, “It’s like drinking pins and needles. Like drinking down a sneeze.”

How appropriate, then, to find the Blenheim factory tucked beyond the bright lights and fireworks stores at South of the Border. Also, how confusing—until you consider that the entire complex is a mishmash of seeming contradictions: a Mexico-themed gift store next to the Myrtle Beach Shop, next to dinosaur sculptures, next to a shop selling leather goods and antiques. It’s a lot to take in—a slow burn.

Behind the truck stop, and further into the woods behind the SOBMX dirt track, Blenheim’s yellow, wood-planked “PLANT #2” looks nothing like the rest of the South of the Border complex, minus two oversized eagles that would fit in well across the street. But it feels the same: tired and lonely—a place that the zest of ginger can’t perk up, nor the glitz of neon cover over.

Under the direction of Dillon County native Alan Schafer, the park began in 1949 as a small roadside stand called South of the Border Beer Depot, which catered to thirsty residents of North Carolina’s nearby dry counties. Hence its name, originally a wry nod to this strategic southern locale, just below the dry border with North Carolina. (Later, in the 1950s, it’s what inspired the park’s growth as a figurative Mexican border town, including a mascot-cum-ambassador named Pedro, whose figure towers above the park.) Though the purpose was well understood—one sign reportedly declared “Beer By the Case”—Schafer didn’t always shout his boozy offerings. Instead, taking advice from South Carolina’s then-governor Strom Thurmond, he changed the name of the store to South of the Border Drive-In and opened a grill to sell sandwiches.

But alcohol continued to expand the site. The Champagne Room opened in 1951 and a liquor store was set-up in 1957, and with a burgeoning tourist and interstate culture, over the decades that followed other aspects of the park grew, too—motels, an ice cream parlor, a steakhouse, rides for children and the Dirty Old Man’s Shop (a soft-core porn store that purported, “men only—ladies keep out,” which has since closed). As Nicole Smith describes in her comprehensive history Sombreros and Motorcycles in a Newer South, South of the Border was “both controversial and family-friendly.”

In 1993, Schafer purchased South Carolina’s iconic soda and moved it from a failing factory near his boyhood home to his SOB complex. By then, alcohol was available at seemingly every stop along the highway, and ginger ale was part of a growing beverage industry that emphasized pure waters and natural flavors. As the New York Times reported in 1992, “With its spicy bite and light taste, ginger ale is a natural contender for the changing consumer tastes.” (The article’s headline, “A Dowdy Soft Drink In Search of a New Age Remake,” appeared less flattering.)

Behind the truck stop, and further into the woods behind the SOBMX dirt track, Blenheim’s yellow, wood-planked “PLANT #2” looks nothing like the rest of the South of the Border complex, minus two oversized eagles that would fit in well across the street. But it feels the same: tired and lonely—a place that the zest of ginger can’t perk up, nor the glitz of neon cover over.

At Mexico East and other gift shops (Mexico West, included), Blenheim’s ales practically hide underneath wooden bins of SOB koozies, but nothing advertises that it’s made on the premises. In fact, beyond a page on South of the Border’s website, the soda isn’t mentioned at all.

“When you advertise, you put a target on your back,” says Kenny Cook Jr., Blenheim’s executive manager. His statement stands in stark contrast to the approximately 175 South of the Border billboards that stretch along I-95. “You’ve never sausage a place,” beckons one adorned with a giant red dog. “Chili today, Hot Tamale!” announces another. But his point speaks to the product, not the place. Cook fears that if Blenheim gets too big, a soda conglomerate will attempt to buy it out.

At present, it’s hard to envision Blenheim mastering the consistent production schedule it would take to produce large quantities. The day Kate and I visited, one of the factory’s employees was let go, leaving only five total. And following that, some of the vintage equipment failed, halting assembly and leaving just 842 bottles in stock.

But, almost miraculously, sales have increased. According to Cook, Blenheim’s sold 600,000 bottles when he first started working at the plant in 2009. By 2013, the total topped 2.1 million. Still, that’s a relatively small number considering the company’s distribution. It’s sold as a boutique product in almost all 50 states and, increasingly, worldwide. “I talked to China this morning,” said Cook. He keeps a kimono hanging on the otherwise bare orange walls of his office, ready for occasional meetings with Japanese soda buyers.

Eyeing the garment, I wondered what these foreign visitors to Blenheim and the South of the Border complex must think. The place isn’t quite the small-town-in-rural-South-Carolina image that Blenheim seems to conjure in its “Pride of Carolina” branding. Instead, it’s a non-descript factory lodged within a misplaced notion of Mexico.

Its only idyll seems to exist in the soda’s namesake town of Blenheim, whose population hovers around 150. Kate and I asked Cook for directions, but having never been there, he could only offer a grainy Google image of the original Blenheim spring, supposedly discovered during the American Revolutionary War when a Whig lost his shoe in a hole. Thankfully, Timmy Townsend, a general manager at South of the Border, had all the details one might need: “Turn right by the convenience store.”

On the highway, Dillon County gave way to Marlboro County, and flashing signs to cotton fields. We passed a turn for “mineral spring” before McArthur’s store and stopped for more directions. We got them, plus two sodas and a tip: “Blenheim,” a man said. “I drink those for breakfast.”

At a shady dead end, we found the source that started it all. Blenheim’s mineral water trickled from a crumbling fountain; a few feet away, gutted walls and a pile of bricks were all that remained of the first plant. We searched the rubble for some sign of the drink when a family and their dog happened past. “You know what that was?” the father asked. “It’s where they made that Blenheim soda.”

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Emily Wallace is a freelance writer and illustrator based in Durham, NC with a master's in pimento cheese. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Oxford American, Southern Living and GOOD.

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