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Efforts to Save A SC Landmark Could Play a Role in Transforming the Nation’s Commemorative Landscape

Topiaries at Pearl Fryar's Garden in Bishopville, South Carolina.
Topiaries at Pearl Fryar's Garden in Bishopville, South Carolina.

When Pearl Fryar was no longer able to tend to his topiary garden in Bishopville, the local community tried to help, but the task was too great. Now with the help of the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina, a national grant could help preserve the garden and help change the nation's commemorative landscape.

The Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden in Bishopville features over 500 trees and shrubs sculpted into works of art. Since 1984, long-time resident Pearl Fryar has worked to transform his property into a place to tell the story of the beauty of nature but also community, hard work, and inspiration.

Fryar, 81, has been in declining health and tending to the plants of the garden has become increasingly difficult. In recent years, the topiaries started to deteriorate.

When Jane Przybysz, Executive Director at the McKissick Museum in Columbia, first saw the condition of the garden for herself, she called it a sad situation.

“It had been at least two years since some of those topiaries were tended to.”

The museum is known for telling the story of Southern life and has conducted extensive research on the extent African Americans have shaped that life. Its work has focused on the Sweet Grass basket tradition in the Lowcountry, the Alkaline Glazed Stoneware tradition, and enslaved potter David Drake of the Edgefield District. But the Museum has also worked with community gardens in Columbia. Przybysz said saving the garden was the right thing to do and she hopes a multi-million-dollar grant from a national foundation will help get the job done.

In 2020, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation launched the Monuments Project, an unprecedented $250 million commitment to transform the nation’s commemorative landscape by supporting public projects that more completely and accurately represent the multiplicity and complexity of American stories. The goal is to build on the foundation’s efforts to “express, elevate, and preserve the stories of those who have often been denied historical recognition, and explores how we might foster a more complete telling of who we are as a nation.”

“When I read that, I thought to myself it would take me all of 15 minutes to write two pages to make the case that Pearl Fryar’s Topiary Garden might be regarded as a monument to African American resilience and creativity in shaping the American landscape from the colonial period to now,” Przybysz said.

Fryar’s story can be considered an example of this resilience. He stated his garden to debunk the racist stereotype that blacks didn’t take care of their yards and ultimately cultivated three acres of topiaries in an ag-driven county.

“Lee County is an historically agricultural county with cotton and peanut farming being a primary economic engine; so it seems to me that Pearl’s garden is an opportunity to tell that bigger story.”

Recently, residents concerned about the fate of the garden gathered to show their support for Przybysz and her team’s work to secure the Mellon grant. Those who spoke echoed how Fryar’s Garden helps the town’s bottom line. One local business owner said 60 to 70 percent of their customers are in town because of Pearl Fryar.

“It’s no secret small towns all across America are struggling; but Perl Fryar has helped keep Bishopville on its last leg and I think that Pearl Fryar will be an important part of keeping Bishopville going for decades to come.”

Possible preservation ideas for the garden include expansion, a topiary art center, community agriculture project and connection the area’s downtown revitalization efforts.

Thelisha Eaddy is the local Morning Edition host for South Carolina Public Radio.