Documentary on lost towns features Barnwell people

It's a way of life that has all but vanished in modern times and faded from memory like a sepia-tinged photograph.

Those closely-knit communities where rich and poor, black and white - all joined together and helped one another and looked out for each other.

It is a town where a widow who lost a husband in war would wake up and find vegetables and fruits on her porch at the break of dawn.

It is a place where people gathered on a porch after a day of work and told tales and swapped stories against a setting sun.

Those were some of the unexpected tales that Augusta-based documentarian Mark Albertin - the head of Scrapbook Video Productions - unearthed when he was making his film.

"Displaced - The Unexpected Fallout from the Cold War," chronicles the stories of the people who were moved from their small farming communities to make way for the Savannah River Site.

The documentary features some people from Barnwell County giving their recollections of the vanished towns.

"These towns are gone - they are erased from memory - there is nothing left but crumbling brick and roads covered with pine straw and leaves," said Albertin. "Time is slipping by and I want people to know there were thriving towns there."

On Nov. 28, 1950, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission claimed parts of Barnwell, Aiken and Allendale counties to create the Savannah River Site.

Some 5,000 people were forced to move from the communities of Dunbarton, Meyers Mill, Leigh, Hawthorne, Ellenton and Sleepy Hollow in 1951.

Albertin makes documentaries and sales and marketing videos for Morris Publishing Co.

He first heard of the demolished towns when he was putting together a documentary on the city of Aiken in 2005.

Realizing that the people who lived in the towns were aging rapidly - Albertin said he thought the residents of those towns heroic acts would be lost forever if not recorded.

"Many of the people felt very strongly that it was their patriotic duty," said Albertin, on moving their homes to make room for SRS.

Albertin began attending reunions for the towns of Ellenton and Dunbarton and collecting stories.

"And from there it just kind of mushroomed - these people really wanted to tell their stories," he said.

Albertin interviewed and filmed more than 50 past residents and their stories are mixed with archival photographs and footage as well as regional historians providing annotations to the 90-minute narrative.

"I tried to show what it was like to live in these small towns," said Albertin. "Who were the town characters? What did the people do for fun? What did the people do for a living?"

Those questions and more Albertin tried to answer in his documentary.

"Some of the people in those towns had roots that went back for four or five generations," he said.

Despite some feeling they were doing their patriotic duty - others were upset with the government when it demolished more than 300 miles of land filled with homes, churches, schools and stores for the H-bomb plant.

"A lot of people felt they were being mistreated," said Albertin.

Albertin said some fought the government's right to take land and others felt they were not given a fair price for their land, especially when property values around SRS rose and the land started selling for a premium price.

"Some of those people contested it and Strom Thurmond represented many of them," said Albertin.

"The government bought the land for $20 or $30 an acre and then you would turn around to buy land in the area and it was more expensive," said Hamilton Dicks III of Barnwell.

Dicks lived in Dunbarton and he is featured in the documentary.

He was about 14 years old when his family moved to Barnwell from Dubarton and his father was the mayor of Dunbarton.

Something Albertin said he feels his documentary inadvertently captured is the passing of small town rural America.

"I think many of the people I interviewed miss the times as well as the community," Albertin said.

"Our world changed with the atomic age," he said. "Ellenton is erased from the map - but that way of life is also gone - you can't go back."

"Displaced - The Unexpected Fallout from the Cold War," will premiere March 20, 7:30 pm, at USC-Aiken, in the Etherredge Center.

For more information on the documentary, go online to www.displaced.us.