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Once swimming with Marine life, sleepy S.C. town tries to revitalize

YEMASSEE, S.C. -- Most drivers on Interstate 95 who take exit 38 near here do so to make a pit stop.

Then there are some who are lured by the billboards for the Le Creuset outlet and hope to score a bargain on the high-priced French cookware. And a few are headed for Harold's Country Club -- the name derived from its country setting and supper club origins -- in the limited hours it serves down-home cooking.

But former Marines and their families venture into the heart of Yemassee, a mile off the highway.

These days, Yemassee (YEM-a-see) is a sleepy town of about 1,000 inhabitants situated around the crossroad of Highways 17 and 21. The town fell hard after I-95 was completed in the early '70s. Downtown shops lost business to new ones along the interstate. Now all but a few sit empty and neglected.

What made the town even livelier back then were the Marine recruits heading to boot camp at nearby Parris Island. Starting in World War I, the greenhorns would arrive by train almost daily, sometimes hourly. (Now they fly into Charleston.) In the second World War, about a quarter of a million men were said to have started their military lives in Yemassee. In May 1942, Life magazine ran a photo essay on the town scene.

By 1965, when the Marine Corps ended its 50-year association with the town and the train depot, more than half a million recruits had passed through town on their way to Parris Island. Those who arrived late in the day, after the last bus had departed, would stay overnight in the Yemassee barracks.

''It was an event when the trains came in. It must have been quite a show," said J.L. Goodwin, 67, who, as a drill instructor in the 1960s, ''welcomed" the recruits. ''This was their first taste of the Marine Corps," he said. ''We'd get them as soon as they stepped off the train. There'd be a lot of noise, fast moving, a lot of yelling. We'd be grabbing people to move them into formation."

The men would be put to work as well. ''They'd clean up the town," Goodwin said with a smile. ''We'd have them cut the grass about twice a day."

Now, as mayor of Yemassee for seven years and counting, Goodwin is hoping to repair and restore the depot and spruce up the tiny town center. Leathernecks already visit, but he wants to further entice them, and other travelers.

''Once you've been through the Marines Corps process, it stays with you for life," Goodwin said. ''It is a brotherhood."

A few years ago, Goodwin and civic leaders formed the Yemassee Historical Association, which plans to buy the lone barracks, now housing a furniture store. Thanks to federal grant money, the town is in the process of landscaping downtown and fixing up the depot, currently a stop for two daily Amtrak trains. It also hopes to restore the old town hall, bank, and jail buildings.

''We don't have to create anything -- just develop it and market it. We definitely have to get the tourist industry going," said Goodwin, whose tall, slim frame looks more like a runner's than a Marine's. It's also possible, he predicted, that people will start moving toward Yemassee as they get outpriced from the upscale coastal area of Beaufort 25 miles southeast and, farther south, Hilton Head Island.

In the past few years, a small subdivision was built in town, adding 25 homes connected by a looped dirt road. This year both Family Dollar and Dollar General stores went up, and there's talk of a supermarket; the closest one is 20 miles away.

During Yemassee's heyday, all Marine recruits east of the Mississippi were processed here, and Goodwin recalls a good number of them were from South Boston, ''and that their dads and granddads had been Marines."

If anyone is likely to notice Marines checking out the place, it's Roy Hughes, who for 35 years has run Hughes General Merchandise with his wife, Margaret. Their run-down, half-stocked country store sits across the tracks from the depot, selling appliances, used furniture, and Marine-themed T-shirts.

''I guess I've seen thousands of those retired Marines out at the train station with their families," Hughes said. ''About 10 years ago I started asking if they wanted a reunion," he said. The answer was a resounding ''yes, sir!"

This year's reunion will be Oct. 14, and this time it will be on Parris Island, from about 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. Hughes expects that a large contingency will then move on to downtown Yemassee.

''One guy told me that his first step on Yemassee soil changed his life forever," Hughes said. ''I think that's how they all feel. If you could see a lot of those guys' faces. They really appreciate us doing this."

One of the favorite stops on the memory train is the barracks. Although only some recruits had to stay overnight before reaching Parris Island, the barracks remain infamous, said Eileen and Burbage Lyons, who own Yemassee Furniture and Hardware in the former barracks. The Lyonses have agreed to sell the building to the historical association at market price.

''Last year at the reunion we had all these small groups of Marines with their wives come through," Eileen Lyons said. ''They'd point out things like, 'Right here is where I slept on March 10, 1943.' And they all love the bathroom. It has the same sink. Some say that if they spoke out of turn they'd have to clean the toilets. One guy remembered scrubbing the bathroom with a toothbrush."

Contact Diane Daniel at ddaniel@globe.com.

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