By Betsy Finklea
Under the picnic shelter surrounded by trees and nature with a soft rain falling, members and guests of the Dillon County Historical Society learned about the beginnings of the Little Pee Dee State Park at their spring meeting.
Guests enjoyed a delicious meal prepared by Norton Hughes of Shuler’s BBQ. Hughes is the nephew of Lafon Norton, the park’s first superintendent.
Norton was a forester. “That man loved trees,” she said. His job was to protect the trees. He was in fire control for Dillon County. He not only put out fires with his crew, he also did a great deal of education. He went to the schools and took all of the Smokey the Bear material and passed it out. Pittman said one of her earliest memories was sitting in his office in the agricultural building coloring Smokey the Bear. He spoke to the Boy Scouts and to the Girl Scouts. He spoke to the Girl Scouts so often, they made him an official member. He also spoke to civic clubs and individual landowners about how to protect their trees. All that time he kept thinking about his vision of a state park in Dillon County. He thought that being in nature was rejuvenating, inspiring, and healing and that Dillon County needed a place to have that experience by themselves, with their friends, and with their families.
Pittman said she enjoys walking the dam with her husband and the boat rides.
Pittman said that Norton, and the people he got interested in it, pursued getting a park until they won.
Lafon Norton Shares The Story of The Park
The next part of the program was a video of Lafon Norton
speaking about the park. Tom Norton, Lafon Norton’s son, said when he made the video, his father was dying and recorded this for posterity on August 24, 1997. Less than a year after the recording of this video, Norton died on July 17, 1998, at the age of 89.
Norton said the vision for the park got started about 1938. Mrs. Brown, Phil Brown’s mother, went to visit some state parks in Texas. When she returned, she called Norton and told him what she had seen and got him interested in a state park. This was sometime after CCC was in operation here in the county. He started to inquire what could be done. The county officials at the time turned him down flat and said they didn’t need a state park. He said they were still in the depression years. When the war came along, they had to abandon the whole idea, but he had found an old place south of Dillon called “The Devil’s Woodyard.” According to Tom Norton, The Devil’s Woodyard was a hideout for Henry Berry Lowry of North Carolina, who fought for the Confederacy and turned criminal after the Civil War. He said he was seen as a type of Robinhood. The future park was the perfect place for a hideout because it was woods and swamps.
“The was nothing in there, but several thousand acres of trees and brush and bootleg liquor stills,” Norton said in the video. He also found out there was the possibility of having a lake there. About half a dozen landowners held the property. He got them together in the office in Dillon and told them they could have a state park or not have one, but they were going to make a decision one way or the other. Norton had already been instructed by the Senator that they could pay $40 for the uplands and $20 for the lowlands. He told the landowners that is what they would get and no more. He told them that he would leave the room for 10 minutes, and at the end of that time, he would come back and they could tell them where they wanted a state park or not. When he came back, they decided they would sell the land. They got some surveyors and it took about six months or more to complete this.
Old Mr. Julius Ray, who owned most of the lakeside, said he wanted to give his property, not sell it. All the rest were going to sell their property.
Norton was the Dillon County Forest Ranger at the time, a position he held for 16 years, and he had no idea of going to the state park, but the time came to select someone to oversee the park. The officials in Columbia told him they would send somebody. “I couldn’t exactly see that, sending a strange man in here to build a state park,” Norton said.
Finally, Norton was asked to build the park. He would be paid his same salary of $2,808 a year. He thought about it for a while and decided to do it. It took him about a year to get the deeds together while he was working in fire control.
When it came to the point of building the house, he called on old Mr. Shillingburg, who was from Sweden. “He was an architect, and he was a good one too,” said Norton. Mr. Shillingburg helped him pick the place for the dwelling house. Soon it was time to let the contracts for the site. The first contract was let on the dwelling house. Sherwood Mobley got the bid.
Phil Brown, the House member, got $25,000 earmarked for a park in Dillon County. The money could only be spent in Dillon County, not anywhere else. “That crowd in Columbia didn’t like that at all,” Norton said.
With that money, they built a dwelling house, bought a pick-up truck, and about $100 worth of tools.
He recalled the day his wife, son, and daughter went down there to decide if he was going to take the job. After they left, he sat on a stoop and prayed for God to guide him in the right direction. On the way home, he decided to take the job.
The Norton family moved to the park around October 1951. Norton said they told him in Columbia if they ever got the money, they would send him some to clear the lake. He said he couldn’t see himself sitting there on and on not making some movement in making a lake. He got Mr. I.P. Stackhouse, the road supervisor, to give him some chain gang crew members help to clear the lake. He described it as the most awful place in the world—bushes, trees, even four or five liquor stills. In 1952, they began clearing the lake. The first year they got about five to ten acres done. He kept asking Columbia to give him a chainsaw. They were sawing with a cross-cut saw.
One day, he saw his immediate supervisor, Mr. Ravenel, coming down the dam with something heavy in his hand. Ravenel told Norton that he “stole” $500 from another park to get him a saw. Ravenel said the saw cost $503, that he didn’t know a thing about it, but the instructions were on the inside. “It was a twin-engine Mercury chainsaw, and I was so proud of it,” Norton said. He put it together, put some gasoline in it, and cranked it up. “That was a sweet running thing,” Norton said. It was a two-man saw. He asked the chain gang if any of them could run a chainsaw and almost every one of them hollered “Yeah, we can run it.” He found out they didn’t know a thing about it because the second day they tore it up. He took it to a shop in Hemingway to be repaired. It cost $80. He had to pay it out of his pocket. They told him in Columbia that he was going to have to operate it. He ran it from then on. He said he didn’t trust it to the chain gang help to do it. The second year with the chain gang help, they got about 25 acres cleared. Then the state came in and gave him $200-$300 to hire a bulldozer. He hired John D. Coleman’s bulldozer and cleared a good bit of it that year. The dam and spillway were already built so they cut off the stream and started backing up the water. It took 31 days to fill the lake.
On the 31st day, the lake started to pour over. There were some logs in there that they had to clear. They had to lower the water and pull the logs out by hand or roll them out. They worked on this two and half to three years. The next time, they filled the lake it only took about two weeks. Then came the job of preparing the beach. The money was short. He had to haul a lot of the sand from the river in a pick up truck. Finally, he got a drag line in there, and it cleared a lot of it.
“I found myself there running a state park with very little money to run it on,” Norton said.
In 1955, the lake was opened. He recalled Dr. Hankins coming there in 1954 and asking when the lake would be opened. Norton told him it would be the next year. Dr. Hankins said, “We’ll swim and dive in ’55.” Norton said he told the doctor that he reckoned so.
A number of people started coming in to the park. The first year about 25,000 people came. When he told some of the other state parks about this, they laughed at it because they were having a million and half people a year.
“The park was young,” he said. “I figured it would grow, and it did.”
In 1964-1965, the park was closed because of integration. The state closed the parks for nine months. No one went in to the Little Pee Dee State Park, but the two people, Norton and Lavern Coleman, who worked there.
The Feds gave the state $12 million in BOR money for permanent developments in all state parks. He said he thought they were doing this to get them to integrate and open back up, but he could have been wrong.
The park director asked him what he needed for the Little Pee Dee State Park. He said he needed another house for the park ranger to live at the park. He wanted two more shelters for more people to be able to use them because there was never enough space. He said they never got those, but they got the house.
When he left 21 years later at the age of 64, the attendance was about 100,000 a year, and he was taking in enough money to operate which was about $20,000 a year. There have been several superintendents and park rangers since then.
“Running a state park is far different from working for the forestry service and fire control. When it was all over, said and done, they honored me by naming the lake for me. I reckon I’m proud I did that job,” Norton said.
The lake was named Lake Norton in 1991 in Lafon Norton’s honor for his dedicated service and significant accomplishments. It was the first time a state park lake was named after an individual
Jackie Rowland shared that they used to have square dances at the park on Saturdays and First Baptist Church in Dillon had tent camping in the park during the summers.
Tom Norton shared memories of working with the chain gang at the park. He said they were a colorful bunch of people. Wives and mothers could bring the inmates supper.
He said the first couple of years they got complaints about soot in the water because everything was burned around the lake. People would get in there with white suits that weren’t white when they came out. He said the swimming was never that good because of that. There were five different drainage features coming into the lake. Three or four people were lifeguards—Tom being one of them. They worked two on and two off.
Norton Hughes recalled that you had to pass a test to swim past the floating line out to the island.Tom said he never saw a little boy fail to make it, but little girls would get out there 10 or 15 feet and call for help.
Everyone enjoyed the program and recalling memories of the park.