Walking the walk

Before she became the matriarch of South Carolina's textile industry, Anne Springs Close was a wisp of a towheaded girl who played in the woods around Steele Creek, weaving swings from grapevine.

Her childhood was surrounded in gentility, but she developed a love of the soil, the woods, the horses and the swimming pond near the White Homestead, her home until she was 12.

On Thursday, the strong gentlewoman, who insists she "will be 82 in the fall" rather than citing her current age, led an inaugural walk on the two-mile Nation Ford Trailhead along Sugar Creek.

In time, it will continue to where Sugar and Steele creeks meet and link into the Anne Springs Close Greenway, some 2,300 family homestead acres her eight children dedicated in her name to preserve open space into perpetuity.

About 300 people including numerous area dignitaries attended the trailhead's ribbon-cutting, and more than 100 attempted the walk up and down sloping hillsides in Thursday's heat and humidity. Most turned back before reaching the end.

Not Anne Springs Close.

"You gotta be in shape to keep up with her," said Jeff Updike of the Nation Ford Land Trust, which acquired land for the trail along with the Trust for Public Land. "I think if she'd had to quit, she'd have been the last one. She's the figurehead of land conservation in this area. People know her background and passion for this."

As she pioneered the trail in Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt that read, "I Walked the Walk," she gazed warmly on towheaded children romping along, oblivious of the heat.

"Some of those are my grandchildren," she said. "We just returned from a week of hiking in the mountains in Switzerland."

It's an annual trip. She has 28 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, with a fourth due in a month. This week, she's on a pack trip in the northern Cascade Mountains. After that, she's off on her annual bicycle trek.

Instilling a love of the land was just part of their upbringing, said her son, Elliott "Ell" Close. It can be evidenced around Fort Mill, where the Springs companies are increasingly developing the land as textile operations are moved to Brazil.

But Springs' farming fields remain untouched, and their developments reserve open space where children and adults can play. They include commercial and clean industrial uses to bolster the town's tax base.

"It's because this is our home," she said as she walked. "We don't want to see it paved over with asphalt."

"My father," she said, referring to the swashbuckling Col. Elliott Springs, "pounded it into my head even before I could walk: Give back to the community."

Rebellion against snobbery

Her father was the famous Elliott Springs of aviation, auto and textile fame. Her mother was Frances Ley, a Northern aristocrat who "bathed and changed before dinner," according to the daughter. Her mother's hands never saw a callous, and her daughter's bedroom was all pink and porcelain.

Anne ate in the nursery with her nanny.

"It didn't seem odd to me at the time," she said. "It does now."

One of the greatest influences, not only on Anne, but on her eight children and some of the grandchildren, was Tony Dehler, her nanny who came to Fort Mill from Germany during or after World War I. She walked all the Springs and Springs Close children to and from school each day and required them to hike and play outdoors, breathing in the fresh air until sundown, Ell Close said.

"She helped raise all eight of us and some of the grandchildren," he said of the nanny. When she developed a form of dementia in her 90s, she returned to be with her family in Germany, where she lived to be nearly 100.

Anne proceeded to take her own children on the pack and hiking trips. They climbed the Smoky Mountains' Mount Lecount every year, and Anne still does.

"I still make grapevine swings for my grandchildren," she said as she walked.

She married William Close, who was to become the president of The Springs Cotton Mills.

She opened her home to President Bill Clinton and served lunch to Princess Grace of Monaco and her husband, Prince Ranier. The royals were in town because Springs had bought some of the princess' dried flower designs for the company's linens.

"She was very businesslike," Close recalls. "He (Prince Ranier) was always 3 or 4 feet behind her."

Ell Close believes his mother eschews pretense because of her upbringing.

"I think she played her role that women were expected to play in those days," he said, "but I think she was always her own person."

He also thinks his mother's childhood persuaded her to provide sit-down family dinners each evening, when the children listened to their parents debate from opposite ends of the political poll.

"She taught us to think for ourselves and to speak our minds," he said.

Ruled by own expectations

"My children are all very independent individuals," Close said as she walked. "All eight of them had to agree on the (Anne Springs Close) greenway. If one of them had not agreed, there would be no greenway. That is why I think it has been the greatest honor I have ever had."

She has had numerous honors, many involving the land and environment, and has donated both time and money to other charities through the Springs Close Foundation and other sources.

Her favorite charity now is the greenway's therapeutic riding program that utilizes the farm's some 50 horses, her equestrian skills and her heart for children.

"She won't let anyone else take it over," her son said. "She does it herself."

Close, never one to whimper, did admit Thursday night that she "enjoyed the van ride back" at the end of the Nation Ford trail walk Thursday.

Just a day earlier, the Springs company had announced that Crandall Close Bowles, one of the eight children, was stepping down as a board chairwoman but will remain on the board.

"I'm glad," her mother said. "Now, she will have more time for her family."

Although walking the Anne Springs Close Greenway is the limelight-shy matriarch's favorite exercise, she swims regularly to keep her joints fluid.

Ell Close believes the 2,300-acre greenway could be one of a kind in another 100 years when York County's changing face has been developed out.

"We named it for her, and it's proven to be very important, not only to her, but to the area," Ell Close said.

Thursday, she referred to the new two-mile Nation Ford Trailhead as "just the beginning" and spoke of its future link to her namesake greenway.

"No matter what happens, that open space will always be there," she said. "Children will always be able to play there."