GREENWOOD, S.C. -- The rural Old 96 District is a world away from the crowds that gather on the state's coastline for golf and sun worshiping. Travel along scenic back roads in South Carolina's upcountry and you find small towns that give new meaning to the term ''family values." Add in people's friendliness and the slower pace of life, and Old 96 is just what the doctor ordered.
Old 96, one of the state's 10 regional tourism districts, includes five counties tucked into the state's northwest corner: Abbeville, Edgefield, Greenwood, Laurens, and McCormick. About 120 miles southwest of Charlotte, N.C., bordered by the Savannah River to the west and a stone's throw from Georgia, Old 96 is compact, just 60 miles across at its widest, putting all of its charms within an hour's drive of one another.
The area has many calling cards. Communities here are headquarters for companies such as Fuji Film, Wamsutta, and BMW. Native sons include President Andrew Johnson and the late legendary US senator Strom Thurmond. History greets you at every turn: Greenwood County was home to the first Southern land battle in the Revolutionary War, and the Confederacy was born -- and buried -- in Abbeville. Ask any of the docents at the historic Burt-Stark Mansion in Abbeville to tell you the story and they might even drive you over to Secession Hill, where the first public meeting to consider secession from the Union was organized on Nov. 22, 1860, two weeks after Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency.
Greenwood's Inn on the Square is an ideal home base, with its comfortable rooms and first-rate restaurant on the historic town square. Drive 33 miles to Edgefield to check out the wild turkeys -- and not the kind poured over ice. The National Wild Turkey Federation is a gem. After years of equating turkeys with big-breasted birds that come equipped with a pop-up temperature gauge, it's a revelation to see the birds in their native state, complete with brilliantly colored feathers and wings good for more than gnawing on.
The federation is one of those out-of-the-way attractions that delivers more than expected. The only museum in the world dedicated to the restoration, management, and hunting of wild turkeys, it invites visitors to step into a low-country dawn in the video theater, where the calls of wild turkeys and other birds are captured on audio and video. A grizzled old hunter -- he looks like one of those animatronic Disney characters -- talks turkey on his front porch. Dioramas, turkey calling, conservation information, and trivia, along with specimens of all five subspecies, make this stop a must.
Head back toward the inn to get to Emerald Farm, located on the edge of Greenwood. The 75-acre goat farm is Kathryn Zahn's labor of love. Zahn started raising Saanen goats some 30 years ago for the healthy milk they produce, and soon her part-time hobby became a bustling enterprise. The business now includes a soap factory and cosmetic line featuring goat's milk, a holistic store and organic grocery, even a craft and model train shop. Ask to see the baby goats; there are usually some around. The goat farm is open for tours. You might find Zahn fussing over a postpartum goat named Sugar, feeding the fish in the pond, or trying to keep track of the ever-multiplying rabbits in the yard. That's Bismarck the bassett hound who greets you at the entrance, one of a few canine residents on this wonderful farm. Bring a picnic lunch, relax by the pond -- Zahn's welcome mat is always out.
Just up the road is Park Seed Co., the largest mail-order seed company in the world, so large that it has its own zip code. Free 30-minute tours are offered daily from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and plants, seeds, and garden doodads are available at a discount in the shop.
If the dictionary had a definition for ''small Southern town," a picture of Abbeville could accompany it. With its tree-lined town square, old storefronts, Civil War monuments, and antebellum homes, the town harks back to another era. A location for the 1991 film ''Sleeping with the Enemy," Abbeville made national headlines when a black friend of Julia Roberts's was not allowed into a local pool hall. Locals shake their heads when telling the story. Not everybody around here is like that, they are quick to say.
Plan to have dinner at the Belmont Inn, renovated and reopened by Audrey and Alan Peterson a few years ago. The inn, with its sweeping front veranda, is located beside the Abbeville Opera House, once an overnight stop for touring companies traveling by train between New York and Atlanta. Troupes would spend the night at the inn and perform next door with the likes of Jimmy Durante, Sarah Bernhardt, and the Ziegfeld Follies. Now the setting for top-rate repertory theater, the Opera House attracts patrons from as far away as Atlanta and Charlotte.
Before heading back to city life, plan on having a country lunch at Somebody's House in the small town of Hodges. The house belongs to Lou Youngblood, who started cooking in her kitchen for local residents some 30 years ago. Her daughter Marty now runs the business. Although the menu changes daily, as Marty Youngblood says, ''We couldn't open our doors without fried chicken and macaroni and cheese."
Against a backdrop of family photos, floral wallpaper, and well-worn furniture, the dining room buffet groans under a dozen different dishes: juicy baked chicken with dressing and gravy, smothered pork chops, crispy fried chicken, potato salad rich with mayonnaise, and that wonderful macaroni and cheese, oozing yellow cheddar. As for vegetables, fried okra and turnip greens keep company with string beans and a rather lackluster iceberg salad, which nobody seemed to pay much mind.
On a steamy Sunday in July, folks dressed for church lined up for the Southern home cooking and dessert temptations. Choices included a white cake dusted with shredded coconut and an outstanding peach cobbler, testimony to South Carolina's second-in-the nation ranking when it comes to peach production.
Beth D'Addono is a freelance writer in Belmont Hills, Pa.