A sign went up this week next to the McConnells town hall/fire department/post office, compliments of the town’s volunteer firefighters. It was on one of those trailers with the arrows and lights and moveable letters, standing all alone in a grassy plot.
“RIP John Harshaw. Founding Member. Past Chief. Mayor.”
Harshaw – mayor of the tiny western York County town at the intersection of U.S. 321 and S.C. 322 for 21 years – died Sunday. He was 79.
There was a big set of flowers on the town hall door. Two American flags – one for the post office, one for the fire department – hung sadly at half staff.
Harshaw was not what you might think of as your typical mayor. He was a throwback to a time when the mayor was also the fire chief and delivered the mail. His wife delivers the mail and his daddy delivered the mail.
John Harshaw Jr., a cattle and chicken farmer all his life, chaired the once-a-month McConnells Town Council meetings, where everybody pulled up a folding chair to fold-up tables in the one-room Town Hall. There is a cooler and a stove in what bigger cities would call the “council chambers.”
Before that, the Navy veteran was on the Town Council. Before that, he was the Boy Scout troop founder and fire chief.
Connected to the back of Town Hall is the volunteer fire department Harshaw helped create in 1955. He was a member, and at times chief, for 58 years. He drove the first fire truck to the town – all the way from Indiana.
The post office is sandwiched between Town Hall and the fire department. Harshaws have delivered the mail in McConnells forever, when they weren’t working the dairy farm – at one time home to 80,000 chickens – and an egg business.
There are mayors in South Carolina who have served longer, but not many. And there are surely few who knew almost every person in the whole town, which John Harshaw certainly did. Even fewer who had a special telephone in the house that was just for fire department business. Fewer still who founded their town’s Boy Scout troop.
“He was born in McConnells, and he died in McConnells after living his whole life in McConnells,” said Peggy Harshaw, his wife through all these years. “He loved his community, and he gave all he had for it.”
For so many elections in a row, Harshaw ran and won and was in charge of a town that had two convenience stores that sell gas. As far as commerce goes in McConnells, that’s about it. There are farmers and tractors and chickens and cows and people who like wide open spaces and going to church and family and community.
Harshaw oversaw one controversial time back in the 1990s. He wanted to have a little asphalt plant built on his land, but others did not. You would have thought it was Charlotte, such controversy.
“People, they got mad that one time, but they re-elected him,” said one of Harshaw’s two daughters, Deborah Harshaw.
The asphalt plant went away and so did the controversy.
Carol Harshaw Comer said her father cared about each neighbor, and he helped anybody when he could.
“He loved progress” she said. “He wanted people to do well.”
McConnells is best known for being next to Historic Brattonsville, near the site of the Revolutionary War Battle of Huck’s Defeat. It also is the home of Ivory Latta, the highest-scoring high school basketball player in South Carolina history. When the town put up signs to honor Latta, Harshaw led the way.
Big news is rarely made in McConnells. A huge ice storm in 2002 knocked out power. Harshaw and other dairy farmers shared generators and labor with their neighbors, and the cows got milked.
“Daddy believed all his life that you help people,” said John Harshaw III, “but you don’t ask anything for it. You just do it.”
Because elections are coming up for McConnells in November – filing had started just last week, and Harshaw was leaning toward one last run – there will be no special election to fill the mayor’s seat.
There is no rush.
In McConnells, first things first.
Tuesday night’s regular Town Council meeting was canceled.
Sunday night, Monday, into Tuesday, it seemed that the whole town came to the Harshaw home, waves of pickups carrying food and well wishes. Nobody asked who would take over as mayor. They came to pay their respects.
To get there, all passed by the sign out front of Town Hall, where Harshaw’s funeral procession will go by Thursday, led by the fire department.
A sign out there all by itself, in a town where everybody could see that the mayor had died.
Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065