Quintessentially Lowcountry: Someone has to tend to septic tanks -- Barry will do it

November 20, 2009 

"Barefoot" Barry Lowther Sr. of Collins Septic Tank Service Inc. works on a plumbing job on Hilton Head Island on Wednesday. He's is not a fan of footware.


Stately live oaks and salt marshes aside, the rural Lowcountry owes much of its outward charm to a dirty little secret underground.

Facilitating the movement away from the outhouse in the second half of the 20th century, this device has meant that the pervading odor outdoors is the musky bouquet of pluff mud at low tide.

Today, we praise the septic tank.

And no one is more qualified to do that than Barry "Barefoot" Lowther.

In a job in which some might turn up their noses, or hold them, Lowther has embraced his occupation from his head down to his shoeless toes.

He's not called "Barefoot" for nothing.

From his family business in Bluffton on Barefoot Alley -- the road name was his wife's idea, in honor of his disdain for footwear -- Lowther has kept residents, from the haughtiest on Hilton Head to the humblest of the hummocks, able to live without the slightest thought of what goes on underground. The exception is when the tank overflows.

Then Lowther gets the call.

At 59, he still goes out at all hours of the day and night, seven days a week, a work ethic he's maintained since he got started on his career at age 18. In addition to his years of experience, Lowther sets himself apart by going barefoot most of the time, even on the job.

The contents of the septic tank doesn't faze him. He doesn't get squeamish and he works with no boots.

Lowther says he's always gone barefoot, even on family vacations to Gatlinburg, Tenn., where he walks downtown without shoes. He will make a concession when entering restaurants and other places where shoes are required. But even then, he's apt to give himself lots of wiggle room.

"I've got plenty of shoes, but I prefer moccasins or flip-flops," he said.

When asked how often he covers his feet, he said, "If I've got to, but it's real rare."

His wife, Melanie, doesn't mind.

"He's always been that way," she says. "You get used to it after 38 years of marriage."

Lowther says he's careful about hygiene.

"My wife makes me take a bath every night," he says and laughs.

His company, called Collins Septic Tank Service, is a family affair. His children and their spouses have joined the business. His wife has also been at his side, even on the late-night calls.

"She's a good wife," he said. "She doesn't mind helping me."

The Lowthers' work takes them throughout Beaufort County and into Hardeeville and Ridgeland. The business has branched out to other services, including installing and repairing sewer lines.

Over the years, the septic tank has fallen out of favor in parts of the Lowcountry and the state, as municipal sewer systems have been viewed as a more environmentally safe alternative. Efforts are under way in parts of Hilton Head Island, Bluffton and northern Beaufort County to phase out septic tanks, especially in areas where they have failed.

But septic tanks are here to stay for the foreseeable future, particularly in rural areas where it's too expensive to install sewer lines. According to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, more than 25,000 permits are issued in the state each year for the construction of on-site septic systems, and there are more than 1,100 licensed septic-system contractors and septic-waste haulers.

When asked his preference -- sewer lines or septic tanks? -- Lowther responds, "I'm a septic tank man."

His reasoning: "When a septic tank fails, that's a small problem. When a treatment plant fails, that's a big problem."

As to the odor around his job, he declares it doesn't bother him.

"I tell everybody it smells like money."

And as long as that's the case, Lowther will continue to be footloose and shoe-free.

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