The Reedy River: Past, Present, and Protecting its Future

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The Reedy River plays a vital role in Greenville County’s history and its ongoing development. Join us as we speak with Scott Butler, President of the Board of Friends of the Reedy River, to explore the river’s geography, its role in economic growth, and the ongoing efforts to protect its health. We’ll discuss the importance of environmental policy and how you can take action to help preserve this beautiful natural resource.


Friends of the Reedy River website

Don Koonce episode on textile mills

Boyd Millpond information


Katy Smith:

[0:03] I believe everyone who lives in or has even visited Greenville County has an awareness of the Reedy River because they visited Main Street in Greenville and walked over it on the iconic Liberty Bridge, or they’ve biked along it on the Swamp Rabbit Trail, or they’ve hiked past it at Conestee Nature Preserve.

But that little snapshot may be the extent of their knowledge.

Today, we will expand your knowledge through a conversation with Scott Butler, President of the Board of Friends of the Reedy.

Scott will orient you to the river’s geography, and he’ll describe how the river has impacted Greenville County’s history in economic development and the history of the river’s health.

He and I discuss how important both policy and civic engagement are in making and keeping the river beautiful and how you can get involved.

I’ll note that Scott references the history of textile mills in Greenville County, which is very tied to the river.

We did an episode on textile mills with historian Don Koonce, and we’ll link that in the show notes for you.

I’m delighted to be here today to talk with Scott about our beautiful Reedy River. Scott, thanks so much for being here with us.

Scott Butler:

[1:13] It’s a great pleasure. Thank you so much.

Katy Smith:

[1:15] Wonderful. Scott, I think it would be really helpful for you to just begin by orienting people to the Reedy River.

Scott Butler:

[1:22] Sure. Happy to do that. The Reedy headwaters, so to speak, are just outside on the other side of Traveler’s Rest. And it starts out as a spring-fed river and then, of course, flows through Greenville.

Eventually, at Lake Greenwood, which sits on the border between Laurens County and Greenwood County, it joins the Saluda and becomes part of the Saluda River, which then goes into the Congaree, and that goes into the Santee.

So it’s part of it. It’s just a small part of a big state-long watershed.

And there are wonderful places along the way, along the river.

Most of them are downstream from Greenville, believe it or not.

You know, Falls Park is a wonderful spot.

But if you want to see the river in its true glory, you need to get down around Log Shoals Road and Boyd’s Mill Pond, where it looks like a real river.

It’s flowing at a nice speed and going over rocks, and there’s no sediment to cloudy it up.

Katy Smith:

[2:23] Is there public access in those places?

Scott Butler:

[2:24] There is. Yes, there is. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Katy Smith:

[2:26] That’s really cool. Well, we can put a link in the show notes so people can know how to go check that out at Boyd’s Millpond.

Reedy River has played a huge part in Greenville’s recent tourism development, and that’s what most people think about.

But of course, it has played an essential role in our history that newcomers may not know or even longtime residents. Can you talk about that?

Scott Butler:

[2:45] Oh, boy, don’t get me started. I love the history of Greenville and, of course, have gotten to love the history of Reedy River.

And Reedy River really kind of came into being as far as a mill river in the mid to late 1870s, so about 150 years ago.

There were two mills built on the river right across from each other, which I thought was very interesting.

Then, over the next 50 years, more mills came.

And by the 1930s, there were 16 mills and two bleacheries along the Reedy River.

Katy Smith:

[3:25] All along our little Reedy.

Scott Butler:

[3:27] Yeah, yes. And today, 13 of those mills are still standing, and they’re within two miles of downtown Greenville. Those mills were regularly dumping dyes and chemicals into the river.

The bleacheries, of course, because of the name, were dumping bleach byproducts into the river. And that went on for 50 years.

So once that big group of mills was up and running completely, of course, Greenville was the textile center of the universe almost.

And they would have regular big conventions here. Then around the late 60s to early 70s, textile industry started moving over to the Pacific Rim for a number of reasons.

And towns like Greenville that were textile-based were at great risk of having their economy go downhill.

So around, I think, around 1979, somewhere in there, the city developed the first streetscape plan, thanks to the vision of Mayor Max Heller, who was from Austria and had this vision of a kind of a European downtown, a walkable downtown.

So that started in the late 70s, that vision.

And that was then anchored by the Hyatt Regency at one end and the Peace Center at the other.

It was about 10 years after that where a consulting firm said, you know, you may not remember this, but you have a beautiful little river that runs through this town, and maybe we should do some economic development around the river.

And of course, that led to a lot of changes because the River, the Reedy River was considered an at-risk river for many, many years, decades, in fact.

And I have friends, board members with Friends of the Reedy River who are natives of Greenville who didn’t realize that there was a waterfall on the Reedy River underneath that four-lane Camperdown bridge that used to be there.

One of the things that I really consider important in addition to Mayor Max Heller’s vision is the vision of the city leaders who followed him and their determination to stick to that vision of the development of downtown.

[5:51] And arguably, to some folks, not so much to me, and people who love the Reedy River, the Reedy played an essential role in that development of downtown.

When people come to Greenville, that’s usually where they go first, is the Falls Park and the Reedy River.

And the Liberty Bridge, which was not a popular idea when it was installed in the, I think, early 2000s, late 90s, early 2000s.

They wanted to take down a perfectly good highway over the river.

Katy Smith:

[6:34] That was the phrasing all the time.

Scott Butler:

[6:35] Yes.

Katy Smith:

[6:36] I remember a time before I think the idea for the Liberty Bridge and the park was there, but nothing had happened yet. And it had poured rain.

And I thought I want to go down and see what that looks like.

And I think I must have driven down Furman Hall Way and took my car down there and was a little worried because it was kind of sketchy.

But it was astonishing to see that beautiful flow of water and those waterfalls and then those posts of that bridge going over it.

Scott Butler:

[7:05] I think a lot of folks who know about Friends of the Reedy River know mostly about our two big cleanups we have every year.

One in the spring, usually in April, early April, and then one in the fall, usually mid-September.

And we usually turn out over 200 volunteers for those cleanups.

And we’re limited on where we can do the cleanups because these are volunteers.

So you want to be able to take them in spots along the river that are safe and have safe spots for them to access the river.

But we usually, typically, we’ll pull at each one of those two, three tons of trash out of the river and all the time, all the time, tires.

We’re always baffled at where these tires keep coming from because we always pull out 20, 30, 40 tires from the spots.

[7:55] The area that we usually concentrate in is between Swamp Rabbit Cafe on the upstream side and down at Ferris Road, kind of behind First Baptist Church of Greenville.

The city parks folks don’t like us to get in Falls Park because they take good care of Falls Park.

But every place between those two points, other than Falls Park, we do the cleanups.

So that’s what most people see us because that’s when we’re most visible.

We’ve got 200 people out there wearing their clean-up T-shirts.

But we do a lot more than that.

We do the testing, the regular monthly testing at three sites through Greenville.

Then we also have 14 citizen scientists who have adopted stream certifications that we’ve, that our watershed scientist has trained them in.

And they test at additional sites upstream and downstream every month.

And we provide them with the kits and supplies and the chemicals to do that.

So we do that regular testing. And we’re really the only organization that does regular testing to that extent.

And we appear before city and county councils when there are issues affecting the Reedy.

Katy Smith:

[9:11] Let’s talk in a little more detail about the importance of the connection between policy and folks beloved River, that it doesn’t just magically look as good.

I mean, magic because of volunteers and the city park staff.

But there’s a lot of policy behind it, too. Can you talk about the riparian buffer effort recently that succeeded at county council?

Scott Butler:

[9:32] Yes. The City Council has established guidelines for developers within the city as far as allowing buffer zone between the residential development and the river.

The county, in the unincorporated portions of the county, didn’t have a standard policy.

It was almost like they just addressed it as each new development came up.

So recently, to the great credit of the county council, after much deliberation, they passed a standard 50-foot buffer zone throughout Greenville County, throughout the unincorporated portions of Greenville County.

The incorporated portion pretty much all have standards.

[10:14] And 50 feet is really the minimum. When you stop and think about them, whenever there’s a heavy rain, the amount of runoff that runs down driveways, off roofs, into the streets, if that was all running directly into the river, you’d have oils and debris and cars where their antifreeze leaked into the streets, all that washing directly into the river, as well as runoff from yards, fertilizer runoff and things like that.

So the riparian buffer zones help slow that runoff, and they also help filter it before it flows into the river.

So the riparian buffers are very important.

We have Cleveland Park Stables is a wonderful example of a riparian installation that, with much gratitude to a $100,000 grant from Duke Energy five years ago, we helped get that installed.

And you can go over there and see wonderful examples of the native plants and it’s really important, the native plants, that’s what they evolved over the years to do, was to help with that filtration process.

Katy Smith:

[11:27] I feel like, in fact, both Cleveland Park Stables and the grant from Duke Energy and the recent success on county council are just beautiful examples of civic action.

Because I can understand if I’m a county council member, I’m not a water specialist.

I’ve not really thought much about intersection of development and a river.

And you all helped educate them and then helped bring out other voices, you and Upstate Forever, to say this is important to us and helped offer a policy solution and show public support for it. That was a win for everybody.

Scott Butler:

[12:00] Yes, it was. And it’s a key part of the process, too. And we really appreciate that the council members are open to learning about the importance of things like that. That’s a big step.

And I also want to take a moment to give a shout-out to the support we get from both the city and the county.

We get at the county level, there are two groups that particularly support us, that we couldn’t do what we do without their support.

One of them is the County Soil and Water Conservation District.

The other one I want to give a big shout-out to is the county’s Litter Ends Here project that’s headed up by Summer Gagnon.

Then at the city level, we’ve just developed such a great relationship with City Parks, Rec and Tourism, and with the engineering department.

So without their collaboration and support, what we do would be so much harder to accomplish.

And that’s really been valuable to us.

Katy Smith:

[13:03] I love that. I mean, that’s what Greater Good Greenville, which sponsors this podcast, is all about is the partnership between volunteers and staff at nonprofits, donors who make the work possible, and government staff and elected officials that all really want what’s best for the community.

Scott, this has been really helpful. And I bet there’s a lot of people listening who love the Reedy, but may not have ever thought about how they could get involved or what they could do to help keep the river beautiful.

What are some ways people could take action on their own or get involved with Friends of the Reedy?

Scott Butler:

[13:33] That’s a great question. I think probably the best thing, first of all, would be to get in touch with us because we’re getting ready to introduce these new guidelines.

We’re also getting ready to introduce a new citizen science project that anyone can help with, where we identify stretches of the Reedy where the bank is at risk of collapsing.

And we’re going to, we have a very low tech, but cool system to help monitor how those river bank sections are eroding and to track them and then hopefully help the city raise funds to protect those sections of the river. We also do, for example, Cleveland Park Stables.

That was an installation of all native species.

But the interesting thing about native species and invasive plants are the invasives establish faster and can take over if they’re not kept under control.

So we take volunteers into the Cleveland Park Stables area to help because you have to manually pull those invasive species out because they’re growing in among the, among the natives and it’s, you can’t treat them with herbicides because you might hurt one to get rid of the other.

So, so we, we take people who just love getting down on their hands and knees and getting their, getting a little bit dirty.

Katy Smith:

[14:56] Getting out in mother nature.

Scott Butler:

[14:57] Yeah. And the same with our river cleanups. And we have the two big cleanups a year, we will occasionally take groups in like we’ve, we’ve got, we’ve done this with Orvis, Publix stores.

We’ve taken their employees in when they’ve had a community service day.

We’ve taken them in to do cleanups along.

We don’t always have to go into the Reedy. We can go into Richland Creek, which feeds into the Reedy, or Brushy Creek, which feeds into the Reedy.

So there are lots of ways to get involved.

And even if you don’t want to get involved directly in the things we’re doing as Friends of the Reedy River, consider other organizations that we partner with, like Conestee Nature Preserve and Trees Upstate.

They can always use volunteers as well, which might be more in the interest of certain of the listeners than getting in the river and getting wet and muddy.

Katy Smith:

[16:01] Well, is there anything else you would like to say that you haven’t covered?

Scott Butler:

[16:04] I would just like to give, I like to give a little plug for the Reedy River.

I think, I think sometimes folks tend to take it for granted.

And they don’t realize what a key feature it is to the growth, to our tourism industry here.

I think sometimes, especially the folks that have commercial businesses along the Reedy, it’s going to lose appreciation for the value of being able to locate along the Reedy.

We’re trying to improve that awareness.

And we can use all the help we can get.

Katy Smith:

[16:42] I am glad you made that point because the way that the Reedy is beautiful now and it can continue to be more beautiful is all because of a ton of work and commitment and passion and literal rolling up of sleeves and pant legs, I suppose, and donations.

And so if people would love to keep it that way, I really encourage them to reach out and we’ll put a link in the show notes for Friends of the Reedy.

Scott Butler:

[17:07] That’s very, very correct. I mean, we are an all-volunteer-run organization.

We have no big staff hierarchy, so we depend on our volunteers.

And a lot of organizations like ours, or just nonprofits in general, will say, our volunteers are the best.

I’ll match our volunteers up against anybody out there.

We have the best volunteers, and we could not do what we do without them.

Katy Smith:

[17:36] That’s great. Well, Scott, thank you so much for your volunteer service, both in the river and in the boardroom for Friends of the Reedy.

And thanks for coming on the show.

Scott Butler:

[17:46] It’s a labor of love for me. And thanks for inviting us.

Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at This is a production of Podcast Studio X.

Image via Friends of the Reedy River.

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