Relatively small errors by surveyors using stakes, hatchets and mental arithmetic 240 years ago could mean the end of Victor Boulware's tiny convenience store.
For decades, officials thought the land where the store sits was in South Carolina, because maps said the boundary with North Carolina drawn back in the 1700s was just to the north.
But modern-day surveyors, using computers and GPS systems, redrew the border to narrow it down to the centimeter. Their results put the new line about 150 feet south of the old one and placed Boulware's Lake Wylie Minimarket in North Carolina, where the gas prices are 30 cents higher and the fireworks that boost his bottom line are illegal.
"If I end up across the line, it is going to shut this business down," Boulware said.
On a recent weekday, nearly every car stopping to get gas or a snack had a North Carolina license plate. The $3.59 per gallon price was the only reason Aaron Taule of Belmont, N.C., stopped.
"It's all about saving money, right?" Taule said. "If this place had North Carolina prices, I'd have just waved and passed right by."
For most of the 14 million people in both Carolinas who live far from the state line, the new survey is an interesting tale that might bring up a joke or two. Will the people who suddenly find themselves in North Carolina have to start liking basketball more than football or renounce mustard-based barbecue sauce in favor of the styles preferred to the north?
But for the owners of 93 properties who suddenly find themselves in another state, it's a bureaucratic nightmare. The state line determines so much in their lives — what schools they go to, what area code their phone number starts with even who provides them gas and electricity. Small utility cooperatives in South Carolina are banned from extending services across the state line. Most of the properties in question are near Charlotte, N.C.
"I'm having a hard time being funny about this when mysterious forces bigger than you are shoving you around," said Frederick Berlinger, who suddenly has been told that he goes to bed at night in Spartanburg County, S.C. after 15 years in what he thought was Polk County, N.C.
He studied maps when he bought more than 60 acres of land in the mid-1990s. About two-thirds was in South Carolina, but he picked the spot for his home in North Carolina. Or at least he thought he did.
The problems for Berlinger and the other property owners began before the United States was even a country, when the king of England sent surveyors to draw a boundary between the two Carolinas. His instructions in 1735 were explicit: Start 30 miles south of the mouth of the Cape Fear River and have surveyors head northwest until they reached 35 degrees latitude. Then the border would head west across the country to the Pacific Ocean. But the surveyors didn't follow the instructions exactly, and future instructions led to the state line's twists and turns around Charlotte and in the mountains.
The surveyors used poles and measured chains, determining what direction to head from the sun and stars, doing math in their heads, and putting hatchet blows on trees to mark the boundary. Over time, those trees disappeared, but the state line still needed to show up on maps.
'We don't know for certain'
For decades, mapmakers and officials in both North Carolina and South Carolina urged their states to revisit the line. The U.S. Congress set the boundary as the instructions given out by the king, not the line on subsequent maps.
"This should have been done decades ago before all this growth. People called us, we're supposed to be the authorities on the state line and all we could say is we don't know for certain," said Sidney Miller, who is helping lead the survey for South Carolina.
This survey is designed to put almost all questions about where the line is drawn to rest. The boundary will be recorded with GPS coordinates and permanently marked with stakes and stones driven into the ground.
Boundary disputes in the United States are as old as the country's founding and often get nasty. The U.S. Supreme Court has settled arguments between Georgia and Florida; Oklahoma and Texas; Missouri and Iowa. Michigan and Ohio nearly went to war in the 1830s over a strip of land.
North Carolina and South Carolina wanted to solve their problems with a little more Southern cooperation, so they created the Joint Boundary Commission nearly two decades ago.
The commission meets Friday in Rock Hill, S.C. Members are expected to work on proposals they hope will be passed in each state to grandfather in where landowners send their children to school, forgive them for back taxes they may owe and allow utilities to cross state lines to serve customers without disruption.
Jeff Langley has already spoken to members of the commission. He lives about a mile from the Lake Wylie Minimart in a subdivision that's split by the state line. Langley bought a home 15 years ago, checking carefully that it was in South Carolina. The new state line now goes through his back deck and the house is in North Carolina.
He's worried about a property tax increase and a potential drop in his property value. He's asked his South Carolina House member and senator for help, but chances are he soon won't be able to vote for either of them. He's aggravated about the change, but is resigned to it. But the government can't make the Clemson fan happy about it.
"I was born a sandlapper and I want to remain a sandlapper," Langley wrote to the commission. "And there is no way in hell I am rooting for the Tar Heels."
Once both Carolinas take action to make the transition easier for the 93 property owners, the commission will submit the new state line to the Legislature in South Carolina and the North Carolina Council of State for approval. Not approving the border could open either state up to a number of lawsuits.
The survey work isn't finished. The team is preparing to draw the rest of the state line all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Fewer problems are expected because the area is more rural.
But the team has already checked one very important cultural touchstone. The kitschy, Mexican-themed South of the Border roadside attraction and its mascot Pedro are definitely in South Carolina.
"South of the Border is where it's supposed to be," Miller said. "They won't have to dress him like a Canadian Mountie."