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Darla Moore Uses Gardening and Art to Bring Artfields to Lake City

Shani Gilchrist Shani Gilchrist
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.
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When Darla Moore gets an idea, you can count on seeing it in tangible form as soon as possible. Her talent for making things happen has led her to the top of the finance world, earning such accolades as being the first woman on the cover of Fortune magazine and a spot on the same publication's "Top 50 Most Powerful Women in American Business" listing.

Most recently, she was inducted, alongside former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, into Augusta National Golf Club, the club's first women members. Moore has been a significant part of the destinies of many corporations, but now that she has conquered the world of finance with her determination and creativity, she is turning those talents toward her hometown.

Moore was born and raised in Lake City, where she watched her neighbors come up with creative and convincing ways to sell their harvested crops to the people who would come to town for its farmer's market.

"We made markets in produce and in crops," Moore says. "That's a huge psychological and cultural aspect of this town."

As the economy continued to rise and fall over the years, Lake City managed to stay the same. The town was too poor to renovate or knock down the early-20th century buildings that lined Main Street.

"We are a 1910, 1920s town," Moore says. "We never tore anything down and held it all together with spit and tape."

While the farmers continued on, people began to bypass the little town on their way to the beach. But the thing is, when a community has a history of scrappy tenacity and persistent salesmanship, it doesn't disappear. It just takes a little rest. Lake City is now waking from its slumber and building attractions and events that have the entire Southeast watching with interest.

The 'cottage garden gone wild'

It all started when Moore, whose primary residence is her family's ancestral farm, decided to embark on a gardening project. The property had been full of row crops, but Moore wanted to re-create the grounds to be enjoyed with friends and family.

"As we got more and more enthusiastic and brought more and more talented people in here I started thinking that we could create something that could be an economic engine for this region if we can produce something unique that only this region can produce," Moore says.

This is when the project really took flight. What had begun as a "small" gardening project became a "cottage garden gone wild." More than 5,000 species of plants were added, a formal garden with four rooms, a relaxing Spring House, living walls, green roofs and so much more. Each new idea spawned a learning opportunity or chance for the growing staff and university interns to expand their creativity in ways that are unusual for American botanical gardens.

The current result - and the garden is always a work in progress - is that there is almost always something blooming on the 35-acre property. The Fire Tower that can be seen from all areas of the property beckons horticulturists and students to the modern, environmentally friendly building behind it where the next phases are planned and staff members congregate to socialize after a hard day. One of the most distinctive parts of the garden is the Spring House, which has a roof that was hand thatched by craftsmen brought over from England.

This "garden on steroids," as Moore calls it, can only be viewed by the public on specific days, as it is on Moore's private property. The garden hosts several classes during the summer months. Check the website for registration information.

Moore Farms Botanical Gardens is a place where creativity breeds. Staff members are encouraged to run with ideas that are unusual or might be dubbed as impossible. Visitors who attend public days leave feeling inspired to make their own spaces more beautiful.

The 'Epic Southern Artfest'

It is a feeling that Moore wants to see spread through the community of Lake City, as evidenced by the weight she threw behind ArtFields, Lake City's first art festival, launched in 2013.

The nine-day "Epic Southern Artfest" brought visual artists in from 11 southeastern states to participate in a competition offering $100,000 in prizes. In offering such large prizes, the competition attracted high-quality artwork from professional artists who will be seen for decades to come. The winners of the top prizes were required to leave their work in Lake City so that the town will amass a unique contemporary art collection for itself over the years.

The artists were undoubtedly excited to be selected as some of the best in their class, but this nine-day festival was not just for them. ArtFields was meant to reach out to visitors to remind them of the foundation that has built America into its current state.

"I think people in general want to move back to some authenticity," Moore says. "Something that feels community-based. We've all moved so far away from that now that people long for it."

People are searching for creative spaces outside of the hustling life of larger cities. Lake City has had a pulse of creativity fueling it since the area was settled before the Revolutionary War. Such creativity becomes part of a culture, and it has been reawakened in Lake City residents, who were thrilled to see faces from all over the country perusing their stores. With changes in store for educational and technical opportunities for students and the establishment of a young professionals networking group, Moore is planting the seeds for Lake City to evolve into the kind of town that young, creative entrepreneurs will consider when laying out the kind of clean-living, local-eating, community-building life they want to create.

"This is the reinvention of a town, not a revitalization of a town," she says. "We are reinventing it in its own image."

Moore and the team of staff and local business people that she has assembled are tapping into the culture of authenticity that has become a trend among people in their 20s and 30s. This culture is what has given towns like Athens, Ga., and Traverse City, Mich., a "cool factor" that is noticed nationwide. With the plans that Moore has, Lake City, though considerably smaller, might end up getting added to the list of towns noted for their mix of traditional and tech savvy.

ArtFields is but one aspect of the plan for reinvention. The festival served to excite small business owners about the prospects of the arts and creativity in an economy.

"The businesses are the galleries, and they got to pick what they wanted in their shops," she says. One such business was Joe's Barber shop on Main Street. "Joe the barber came and picked his stuff with such pride," Moore says. The result was the hanging of some of Columbia-artist Tonya Gregg's most moving and investigative work hanging in the shop where men gather to be groomed and catch up on the news of the town together. This is art working the magic that was always intended for it.

Moore Farms Botanical Gardens and ArtFields are the beginning of a movement in the Pee Dee region that is being led by Moore's vision. She is showing that when inspiration and creativity mix together in the right cocktail, the results multiply in infinite directions. Spending some time in Lake City will inspire many visitors, because the excitement is has reached a tipping point with the weight of an unleashed creativity that Moore has made into something we can all see. When in South Carolina, make a point to stop through Lake City to experience this new energy for yourself.

If you go, make a day or two out of it and explore the Pee Dee with the following:

* Eat: Crossroads on Main; upscale bistro, serving regional cuisine with a European twist. 118 W. Main St., Lake City

* See: Swan Lake Iris Gardens, 822 W. Liberty; Sumter

* Do: Lynches River County Park; hiking, canoeing, kayaking. 5094 County Park Road; Coward

Shani Gilchrist
Shani Gilchrist
More from "Shani Gilchrist"
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.