Ray Miller's life is starting to sound a lot like the story of Noah's ark.
The 71-year-old Lowcountry Mennonite is best known for the yeast bread, fried chicken, meat loaf and shoofly pie at Miller's Bread-Basket restaurant and gift shop on Main Street in Blackville.
Once a bustling railroad town on the line from Charleston to Hamburg, Blackville now rests quietly on S.C. 3 and U.S. 78.
It is known as the home of the Healing Springs, an artesian flow believed since the days of Indians and Revolutionary War soldiers to bubble up special healing powers. It still attracts a crowd. And so hallowed is this hidden Lowcountry treasure that in 1944, the acre of wooded land the springs come from was deeded by its owner to Almighty God.
Many of us backroads nuts will coordinate trips to Columbia with the operating hours at Miller's Bread-Basket.
Ray and Susie Miller took a leap of faith in 1969 to leave their home in northern Indiana, seeking a quiet, rural place to rear a family. They found it in Blackville. He was a farm hand, but needed something more to support a family. He tried a paint and body shop, but his heart wasn't in it. The restaurant opened in 1987, and soon Ray was baking 50 to 60 loaves of bread each morning.
Ray says his business depends on tourism. He loves tour buses.
For years, the quieter sections of our state have been promoted to tourists. Blackville is in an area branded Thoroughbred Country. And U.S. 78 is part of the National Heritage Corridor. But Ray has long had a vision for more. He was behind an effort to restore a hotel in Blackville built in 1902.
Now he's working on a different vision. This one is of biblical proportions.
It has some people thinking the yeast has quit rising in the old breadmaker's mind.
Ray is hearing a call to build a Noah's Ark.
He wants to build it like the one described in the sixth chapter of Genesis in the Bible.
According to the Scriptures, people also thought Noah was nuts when he started building an ark.
Ray foresees a structure in rural Barnwell County that would be what he believes to be two-thirds the size of the ark in the Bible. He said it would be 338 feet long, 35 feet high and 51 feet wide. It would include live animals and daily shows.
None of the $2 million cost for The Noah Project is in hand. A site has been identified, but there's no money to buy it. He has incorporated as Christian Business Ventures, has a board and is seeking nonprofit status. He plans to build a $15,000 moveable model of the ark that would be 42 feet long, 15 feet wide and 9 feet high.
Ray said he has two visions.
The first is part of his faith. He feels that if people riding along a well-traveled highway were to come upon the ark he envisions, they would think one of two things. He said they might think of the love of God that saved the human race in Noah's day; or perhaps the judgment of God, which could cause them to seek forgiveness and live a better life.
Ray's secondary vision is economic. He believes the ark would attract visitors, and thereby boost the economy where he thinks a boost is needed.
"If you do something -- and that's been my cry in Blackville -- people will come to it," Ray said. "But you've got to do something. If you continue to do nothing, you continue being nothing. And you'll finally disappear."
Ray hears the doubters, even within his family. And he even second-guesses himself.
"I ask myself sometimes, 'Am I really weird?' 'Is God in it?' " Ray said. "Others will ask me, 'Has God actually spoken to you? Have you heard his voice?' And I say, 'Well, no. I just know when I don't pursue it, I don't have peace.' "
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