Tailgating Traditions

September 16, 2010
More than just cabooses can be found near the stadium.  This is a former passenger car.

More than just cabooses can be found near the stadium. This is a former passenger car.

By Rachel Haynie

When you don’t have far to walk the walk, you can hang out a little longer to talk the talk.

Tailgaters take their positions, as close to Williams Brice Stadium as possible, on home game days. Their goal is to celebrate outside the playing field as long as possible and still make it to their ticketed seats in plenty of time for the kick-off. Those with established parking spaces or tailgate spots have a home-field advantage; they can make it to the game in only minutes.

Getting out to the stadium early aligns fans with what the players are experiencing at about the same time, and that includes partaking of a pre-game meal. Tailgating has become synonymous with picnicking, one of the South’s most enduring traditions. Some finger foods seem to have been destined for the tailgate hamper, even if their first appearance in the family recipe book pre-dates the invention of football. Standard recipes are adapted for tailgating portability and ease of handling. Besides requisite taste appeal, menu items also have to retain their freshness for hours because tailgaters typically return to their starting positions, after the game, ready for more munching.

Perhaps the notion of tailgating drifted across the street from the South Carolina Farmers’ Market where the state’s top growers have been selling their just-picked harvests from their trucks’ tailgates for more years than most Gamecock fans have been cheering on their team.

By the time the coin is tossed to determine which team kicks off, thousands of loyal fans have reconnected with friends and family – in parking lots in the stadium surrounds. So the game begins with a jubilant fan base, reputedly one of college football’s most loyal – as cohesive as a Gamecock family reunion. They come garbed in Garnet and Black, ready to support the Gamecocks against any foe.

Over the years the fan base has grown to match the stadium’s capacity. For the 1934 opener against Erskine College, the first game played in the WPA-project stadium, only 17,600 seats were available. With an estimated $30 million in improvements made over the past decade, the stadium now can accommodate 80,250 hollering fans. Clearly, competition for roadway en route to the game has become stiffer.

These former failroad cars convey the team spirit and support of loyal fans.

These former failroad cars convey the team spirit and support of loyal fans.

No wonder permanent tailgate locations have become such popular options. Fans have been willing to pay premium prices for small plots of real estate just to assure they, their family and friends, have close proximity to their favorite team. That the University of South Carolina typically plays about a half-dozen home games in a given season has been no deterrent at all (Note: this season there are seven home games.).

Vehicle parks have been part of the stadium scene now for a quarter century. Some contemporary fans can recall their early game experiences at their family’s permanent parking spaces. Now they are bringing their own little ones, starting them off young in the Gamecock tradition.

Frank and Sally Hafner were among the pioneer owners at Carolina Park. Their sons Trip and Brian grew up experiencing football game days that began at the family parking facility. Now the Hafner grandsons, Jonathan, age nine, and Matthew, age six, are continuing the tradition. Sons of Trip and Laurie Hafner, the boys love being part of the pre-game festivities, and are becoming Gamecock fans in their own right.

Carolina Park, with eighty parking spaces centered by a covered two-decker entertainment pavilion, set off a trend, and for years, any available piece of property that could be developed as a parking and tailgating site attracted willing investors as quickly as the asphalt dried.

As originally conceived the parking parks have only seasonal utility; however, ownership regimes often rent them as party facilities during the off-seasons. Alumni functions, fraternity and sorority parties, political fund raisers, and other private gatherings – including weddings and receptions -have spread the facilities’ functionality over more of the year.

Utility also was the motivation for repurposing railroad tracks that, to service an earlier era’s primarily-industrial area, ran behind the stadium site. No longer conveying produce or manufactured goods, the tracks were an eyesore until the Garrett family, owners of Lance Crackers, became inspired. Track and the property across which it ran, from Bluff Road to Key Road, was purchased and four former railroad cabooses were set down permanently on the tracks. They quickly became known as Cockabooses, adding new and colorful evidence of Gamecock fans’ fervor.

A long line of Cockabooses sits in the shadow of the staidum, ready for the  ultimate in tailgating.

A long line of Cockabooses sits in the shadow of the staidum, ready for the ultimate in tailgating.

Guests arriving well in advance of kick-off time have a specific place to gather and unpack their picnics. Out front, grassy surroundings afford green space for visiting and entertainment. Inside, the Cockabooses are air conditioned and heated, and most owners have installed high definition television so no one will miss any of the pre-game show. Whose Cockaboose has the most pervasive Gamecock décor or the most authentic memorabilia is subject to an on-going friendly competition. Access to private restrooms also have popularized the parking parks.

The attraction to Cockabooses does not depend entirely upon loving Gamecock football. “When we first came to Columbia, friends kept inviting us to join them for ballgames,” said Bhavna Vasudeva. “My husband had joined the faculty at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, and I was a university student myself. Football didn’t fit into what we were doing.”

But, the first time the couple accepted their friends’ overture, they became hooked on the friendly spirit permeating the stadium area. “Before long, we purchased a Cockaboose. Now our 18-year old son wants to have his graduation party there, just as I had mine when I completed my degree at USC,” Bhavna said. When he gets his high school diploma, the Vasudeva’s son plans to enroll in USC’s new biomedical engineering program.

Response to the Cockabooses led to the addition of a string of caboose replicas, then a partnership of owners fast tracked full-sized railroad cars onto the scene. Richie Ambrose explained that one difference between the regular 1950s passenger cars and the dining car is fewer windows. “Ours was once a regular passenger car, about two-thirds larger than cockabooses, with lots of windows. My partners and I had a thirty-foot long granite top bar installed, with a string of cushioned benches, and restrooms at either end.”

Ambrose, general manager of May Heavy Equipment Rentals and Sales, said the train car’s interior can comfortably host approximately forty guests. “We added a covered deck, where we have often had bands before games, and with that improvement we can accommodate another fifty fans,” so it’s not unusual for Ambrose and his partners in the Cockhouse to host a hundred friends and prospective customers for an in-town game.

The interior of the passenger car has been outfitted to provide ample party space.

The interior of the passenger car has been outfitted to provide ample party space.

“Besides home-game days, we use our car for other entertainment, just to hang out and watch other sporting events on one of the four televisions, or have card games.” Ambrose said of the original eight partners, most had been USC lettermen, playing football or baseball sometime between 1966 and 1992.

An after-game benefit to having a permanent parking spot, Cockaboose, or train car is having somewhere to wait out the departing traffic. Watching fans enjoy sticking around, tailgating again long after the final whistle gave area developers ideas: that some folks might like to live near the stadium, year ‘round. The high-rise residences that emanated from that idea have been dubbed Cockaminiums.

Carolina Walk developer Jimmy Rogers undertook both a two-phase high-rise residence, North and South towers, as well as an adjacent parking park. Parking spaces in Carolina Walk Park are privately owned, and there is an attractive center structure where space owners congregate before games. That ground-level pavilion, like the upper deck of the eight-story Carolina Walk, is sought out for parties, weddings, receptions, and other private events when the Gamecocks are not entertaining an opponent across the street.

Nearby, Faye and Abb Jeffcoat were among the first to purchase at the residence known as The Spur. “We love entertaining here during ballgame weekends, but we also have offered it to out-of-towners here to look at property, anticipating moving to Columbia. We have hosted Women’s Symphony League parties here, and sometimes we come out just to watch movies on the big screen,” Faye said. Although the couple’s unit does reflect Gamecock fever in its décor, the owner-decorator had used a subtle hand so that the interior is appealing to guests even when it is not football season.

The farmers market is set to be gone from the area when the Gamecocks open their football season against Southern Mississippi, but the tailgating influence from across the way has entrenched itself in the local culture.

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