Owner Seeks To Bring Back Depot’s Blues Hall’s Glory Days
Cracked, discolored wooden boards creaked underfoot as Daniel Prince walked up to the dusty, yellowed counter where beer was once served to eager, dancing patrons – the drafty echo inside Jackson Station today belies the booming roar of guitars and saxophones that once filled the now dilapidated blues club.
It’s a roar Prince wants to bring back. One he said has been sorely missed.
Built in 1852, the former train depot was host to Confederate President Jefferson Davis when he boarded a train to Abbeville to sign the papers of surrender at the end of the Civil War. In 1897, former S.C. Gov. Ben Tillman hosted the state’s first political stump meeting on the station’s steps.
Damian Dominguez /The Index-Journal via AP – Jackson Station
But in 1975, Gerald Jackson bought the historic depot – which was then located in central Hodges, near the current Hodges One Stop – for a single dollar, and the promise to move it or tear it down. Jackson moved the depot to the corner of U.S. Highway 25 and S.C. Highway 185, and named it Jackson Station after his family’s general store, which burned at that spot years earlier.
Jackson was a Navy medic in Vietnam who would tend to wounded Marines, said Lander University sociology professor Daniel Harrison. Harrison, who is working on a book about Jackson Station, said Jackson taught himself plumbing, construction, carpentry and electrical work using old Time-Life books, and used that knowledge to refurbish and repurpose the depot into a bar and blues club.
“He came back from Vietnam and wanted to open up a club,” Harrison said. “He had seen a lot of clubs overseas on R&R in Asia…. He was a music aficionado. He loved the blues and had an extensive music collection himself.”
The club opened in October 1977, and Jackson ran it for about 13 years, when on April 7, 1990, a patron hit him in the head with a bush ax, leaving him unable to continue running the club and in constant need of medical care.
Jackson died in 2010 and although the building that echoes with centuries of history still stands where he planted it, the club’s stage that hosted blues greats has remained silent since the attack.
As Prince was growing up in Donalds, word about Jackson Station was ubiquitous. There was no avoiding the notoriety and popularity of one of the Lakelands’ hottest music spots.
“I was aware of it my whole life,” Prince, now 36, said. “Lots of family members came here, they were always sharing stories.”
His sisters, Holly and Lisa, went to Erskine College, and the only nightlife spot many students there had was Jackson Station. Since its closing, there had been a number of failed attempts to buy and restore the building, he said.
“It almost sold to a Dollar General, and I couldn’t stand to see it be commercialized like that,” he said.
The building that once cost Jackson a single dollar – which he later got back – cost Prince $150,000. It was bought Aug. 26, 2016, but Prince said he had backed out of buying it earlier in 2013 and 2014.
The restoration won’t be easy or cheap. He said the cost to fix the badly damaged roof alone is estimated to be about the price he paid for the whole building. But with a 10-month-old child and hopes for another, he said he’s willing to take his time.
“I don’t have all the time in the world, but I’ve got time,” he said.
While talking about his plans, curious onlookers drove off the highway and up to the ramp leading into Jackson Station to ask why he was on the property. After hearing his plans, they couldn’t help but be excited.
“I came a few times near the end of it,” said Dennis Smith, who drove up to talk to Prince. “Then it closed down, and started to deteriorate. It’s such a waste.”
Prince said it’s these memories and stories that inspired him to take on the project.
“All the souls that passed through this place, it’s just incredible,” he said. “If the walls could talk, that sort of thing, you know?”
As he slid the squealing barn door to the back deck aside, he pointed to the barren stage where so many musicians had stood during the club’s heyday.
“That’s why I want to get it back up and running,” he said. “I think bands will want to play here, given the history.”
An integral part of that history was Jackson himself and his partner, Steve Bryant, Harrison said. In researching for his upcoming book, Harrison said he’s spoken with people and read articles that paint a gregarious and determined portrait of Jackson.
“Gerald was one of those very charismatic figures,” he said, “and he created with Steve this very welcoming, hospitable environment…. Many venue owners do not have the best reputation, but Gerald was the opposite. His philosophy was ‘treat me right and I’ll treat you better, treat me bad and I’ll treat you worse.’”
Jackson frequented other blues clubs and never burned bridges with the musicians he met along the way, Harrison said. When a Swedish blues band came to the U.S., the musicians brought their whole families along on the trip, Harrison said. When Jackson booked them to play at the club, he put all of them up in a hotel and provided free drinks and cigarettes, he said.
“Because of that, I think bands enjoyed playing there,” he said, “and if bands didn’t know about Jackson Station, other musicians would tell them they had to play there.”
The tradition of old-style blues was passed around in Jackson Station, but the diversity of sound was never to be discounted. From R&B, blues and gospel singer Nappy Brown and West Coast country rock outfit Poco to all-female group The Sensible Pumps and an early incarnation of the Georgia Satellites simply called The Satellites – Jackson Station offered legendary musicianship from across the country.
The band Widespread Panic played at the station at least six times, and “Steady Rollin’” Bob Margolin – who for years played alongside Muddy Waters – became a regular performer there.
“It was a real Southern roadhouse,” Margolin wrote in an email. “I had different musicians come in with me over the years, all remember Jackson Station as being special, its own little world.”
Margolin said while he played, the crowd would talk, drink and dance – and even though he met some intoxicated people, he never ran into any trouble there. Jackson’s mother collected admission fees at the door, and once inside, Margolin said the love of music and southern hospitality were apparent.
“One of the best things Gerald did was to arrange for musicians he knew to work with my band,” he said. “In the world of blues music, it is hard to make money as a musician, promoter, or club owner compared to more popular styles of music. Most people who do it are in it for love of the music rather than to get rich.”
Aside from the love of music, the club attracted an eclectic mix of people and attitudes, said Jeff Smith, who spent many nights and saw many mornings dawn from the station’s deck.
“You would see bikers, people really dressed up, really preppy people,” he said. “If you got there at midnight, you’d just be one of a handful of people. By 2 a.m., the place was just packed. Gerald and Steve just wanted everyone to have a good time – when you were there, it didn’t matter who you were.”
Before the bands would start their sets, Smith said there was always a record playing on the stereo system, and people were encouraged to pick out music or bring their own. He was always partial to the B-52s.
The energy and atmosphere was ever-shifting, he said, and each new album on the turntable could shift the party from a relaxed, laid-back hangout to a lively, explosive dance hall. When trains would pass by on the railroad tracks behind the station, he said Bryant – who worked the bar – would offer a dollar discount on beer.
“That whole wooden structure would kind of shake, and you’d just see people heading to the bar in a rush,” he said with a laugh.
Pam Fagan, who started going mid-1980s, said the bare bones wooden structure would get bitterly cold in the winter and sweltering in the summer heat – but it never seemed to deter music lovers.
“It was very organic and authentic,” she said. “It just was what it was.”
In the winter, the pot-bellied stove in the middle of the station always had a pile of wood beside it to keep it stoked, she said. During the summer, each of the massive barn doors would be flung open to let the breeze in.
“If you were anybody, you didn’t go on Saturday, you went on Friday,” she said. “I was in my 20s, but you could be in there at 30, 40 and 50. When all the bars closed, you go to Jackson Station.”
Plastered along the walls were band posters, hand-drawn murals, memorabilia and knick-knacks that Jackson had picked up along the way. Fagan recalled an enormous poster of former Alabama governor and U.S. presidential candidate George Wallace hanging from the wall. The face of the infamous segregation supporter looked like it had been peppered with buckshot, she said.
It was the only place at the time to get imported beer, such as Red Stripe or Guinness, she said.
“Probably my most fun days at Lander were spent there,” she said.
For Harrison, who has interviewed musicians and patrons for his book, the stories passed down about the place show what the area is missing today.
“It was a totally different world,” he said. “The idea of going and staying in one bar for seven hours – plus there was the random element. You wouldn’t know who you would run into.”
Although Prince said he hopes to rebuild the place so many knew and loved with a family friendly atmosphere, the end result could be different from the Jackson Station people remember. The project might take years, but he said he’s eager to give Hodges one of its most popular and historic hotspots back.