Fort Mill Times

From bicentennial to nostalgia, 1976 reigns again in River Hills.

River Hills celebrates 40 years since it began, 45 since the first of about 1,100 homes were built on Lake Wylie.
River Hills celebrates 40 years since it began, 45 since the first of about 1,100 homes were built on Lake Wylie.

It was a polyester and disco kind of weekend in River Hills.

Residents turned their clocks back to the 1970s with movies, music and memorabilia to celebrate the earliest days of a community that’s become more than just home to so many. The national bicentennial, 1976, was an anniversary celebration waiting to happen.

Now it is all over again.

Carmen Quesada is one of several residents who organized the anniversary events. Originally, the idea was to celebrate 40 years, but long-time residents had different ideas.

“River Hills as a community did not happen until 1976,” Quesada said. “That's when it was incorporated and the community association formed.”

Residents asked why not celebrate 45 years, too, since the first house was built in 1971. Though her decade living in the neighborhood may seem a long time in some areas, Quesada thinks of herself as a newcomer in River Hills.

"In this community?” she said.

“We have 76 families who have lived here 40 years or more. That doesn't count the offspring who grew up here in the 70s, and have come back here to live."

Tom and Marie Husvar moved to River Hills in 1973, when developer Sea Pines Plantation Co. was first building. Work moved them three or four times. Eventually, they got to pick where they wanted to live.

"I said, well, let's go home again,” Marie Husvar said. “Which is River Hills to us."

She still calls them children, but her youngest is now in her early 40s. All three children who grew up in River Hills returned to live there, too.

"It was just a wonderful, safe, natural way to live around here," Husvar said. "It was a safe, comfortable place."

What drew many to River Hills in the early days was its quiet location. There was a gas station or two. People had to drive to Charlotte or Gastonia, N.C., to get food. Bridges and roads were years from being widened to their current incarnations.

"It was away from the beaten track,” Husvar said. “It was like living in country. The kids loved it here."

Because it was quiet, residents banded together. The Husvars had family back in New Jersey, but began spending holidays here with an adopted family of neighbors.

"We grew up together like a family," Husvar said, recalling early gathering spots within the community. "It was like a large living room. That was the only way you met people, because otherwise you wouldn't know where any of them lived."

Some early River Hills locals became actual family. Sandee Wilkerson was hired by Sea Pines in 1970 or ’71. She worked on closings and other promotion of River Hills.

"There wasn't anything here," Wilkerson said. "It really was not even like working. I was probably maybe 24. The sales group kind of named some of the roads out here."

Wilkerson recalls a sales office where the clubhouse pro shop is now, and another at the marina when it was built. There was a general store with a replica potbelly stove. Community news came via the River Hills Press.

Wilkerson lived in Tega Cay at first, but one summer her car caught fire.

"For the entire summer we came to work and back by boat," she said.

A retired oil man, John, lived in River Hills. He bought the firm from Sea Pines and became Sandee’s boss. He asked her if she would work at another office of his in Tega Cay, since she lived there, but Sandee didn’t want to leave.

"I just thought River Hills was mine," she said. "I didn't go to Tega Cay. I quit."

It wasn’t for a while, when she was working elsewhere, that John Wilkerson asked Sandee to dance. This year they celebrate 21 years of marriage.

John Wilkerson literally wrote a history of the area, along with serving on the homeowner association and country club boards. He helped decide where the community church would go along S.C. 49, figuring someday there would be more people in Lake Wylie and they wouldn’t want to drive through River Hills to worship.

Sandee Wilkerson remembers those early days, when street signs were boat oars. She remembers bonding with people in the same boat she was, in an area where they needed one another.

"We all had to be friends," she said.

Which is why so many initial and early residents remain, why so many children have grown and come back to live in River Hills.

"There was no marina,” Sandee Wilkerson said.

“No tennis courts. Some of the fondest memories – there were so few people who even lived here –- they would have these huge oyster roasts. It's just a lifestyle. It's different from a lot of communities."

River Hills has 1,058 homes in its community association, plus about 50 predating that group but still within the gates. Returning this weekend were presidents, general manager, employees and early residents of the community. Three new flagpoles were dedicated. Legacy Park opened.

Poles and pavers planted firm for generations to enjoy, as so many have already.

“It’s just such a special place,” Sandee Wilkerson said.