For one reason or another, if you grew up or live on the east coast of the United States, you will likely someday find yourself driving on Interstate 95. Among the terrifying highway signs warning you of eternal damnation with the backing of Old Testament fire and brimstone, you will see the kitsch of a character known as ‘Pedro’. ‘Pedro’ serves as a silly avatar of the most baseline Americana stereotype of a Mexican and promotes the cryptic oasis ahead, South of the Border. The signs are a bit of hyperbole in comparison to what you’ll see when you arrive but there are certainly some offerings of note to see.
South of the Border, which is basically just a massive rest stop, tries to be everything to everyone, at least in terms of your typical interstate driver. South of the Border has four restaurants, a coffee shop, an RV campground, motel (with honeymoon suites!), a grocery store, fireworks shop, video game arcade, t-shirt shop, gift shop, convention center, truck stop, gas station, mini-golf course, observation tower, amusement park rides, a reptile display center, playground, and more.
If you do drive by it and see the signs, you’ll wonder, what is this place and does it merit the hype that the signs suggest? We will tell the tale of South of the Border’s storied history and our reflections from a recent visit.
History of South of the Border
The origin of South of the Border began rooted in a cornerstone of many successful American enterprises: alcohol. In 1949, Robeson County, North Carolina had prohibition in place. Seeing an opportunity, entrepreneur Alan Schafer, a beer distributor, built a bright pink cinder block structure that became known as South of the Border Beer Depot. The location was just below Robeson County in Hamer, South Carolina making it easy for the thirsty North Carolina residents to swing down for beer. Shortly after, Schafer built a small motel on the land and shortened the name to South of the Border.
In 1954, Alan Schafer took a business trip to Mexico and ended up hiring two Mexican men to come work for him in South Carolina. The 1950’s South was hardly a bastion of political correctness, so guests would refer to the men as the common Mexican name ‘Pedro’. That spurred the inspiration for the ‘Pedro’ mascot, seen on signs from Virginia to Georgia, a character modeled after a Mexican bandito.
The business started to sell Mexican trinkets and kitschy items (an image that most certainly still lives on today) and eventually expanded to include a cocktail lounge, gas station and souvenir shop. Capitalizing on the fact that fireworks were also illegal in North Carolina, in 1962, a fireworks stand was added to the offerings of South of the Border. In 1964, it was announced that Interstate 95 would pass by South of the Border. The facility, by the mid-1960’s, expanded over 300 acres and included a barbershop, drug store, variety store, post office, outdoor go-kart track, and outdoor recreation facilities. Around this time, the over 100 foot tall ‘Pedro’ statue was also erected.
At the peak, 250 signs, all designed by Mr. Schafer spanned from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Daytona Beach, Florida. The signs make really goofy puns drawing on cultural stereotypes of Mexicans while trying to create a mystique about the destination. When Schafer received pushback on the use of what many deemed to be offensive signs, he would often note that he was a Jewish man in the South who hired African American and other minority employees at a time when it was frowned upon by southern whites. Additionally, he would help his employees register to vote. A Post and Courier piece that touches on the history even noted that at one point Schafer had to chase off Ku Klux Klansmen with a rifle due to their anger about his racially diverse staff.
By the 1990’s, the pressure to change the signs that often depicted broken English and other offensive stereotypes had grown immensely. The Mexican Embassy even sent a letter to Alan Schafer asking him to take the signs down. Schafer eventually relented begrudgingly and modified the signs to be less offensive. At the time, Schafer stated: “We have to communicate with the present generation — these baby boomers do not have a sense of humor.” The signs remain and are definitely still risque in 2021.
Schafer died of Leukemia at 87-years-old in 2001. Nearly 20 years after his death, South of the Border lives on.
Visiting South of the Border today
You’ll note in the history there is very little to say from the 1970’s to today. If you visit the place, you’ll understand why. It has hardly been updated and looks like a relic of another time. The facilities are completely dilapidated. We mostly just visited the video game arcade and the souvenir shop. The arcade had many machines that did not work and the selection was quite outdated. Nonetheless, you could still play games, get tickets and win prizes.
One of the interesting things is also the restrooms near the arcade. Like an upscale nightclub or five-star hotel, when you go inside the bathroom there is an attendant who hands you paper towels and other toiletries and takes tips. This was quite ironic given that the bathroom was notably rundown.
To be frank, given that we visited in the middle of a pandemic, I did not get as much footage as I’d like on the visit. In better times I’d have loved to stay in the motel or dine at one of the restaurants to get a first-hand experience at more of the customer service aspect of the place. However, this place is the epitome of American kitsch. If you’re curious, it is worth a quick stop. It is quite rare to find a place still thriving and open for business that is so lacking in structural updates. It is one of those vibes where it is equally hard to imagine this place existing in twenty years and equally hard to imagine it ever not existing.
You can check out our video that highlights the outside grounds, video game arcade, and souvenir shop:
Visit the official South of the Border website.