MARION, S.C. – MARION, S.C. (AP) — In Marion, a tobacco town bypassed by the four-lane highway but not the Great Recession, more worshipers are kneeling at church, youth baseball rosters are thicker and the public library seems as busy as the local employment office.
About 100 miles to the northwest in Chester, folks are turning out for free arts shows while fishermen try their luck at one of South Carolina's state parks where attendance is up sharply.
Free and inexpensive diversions are helping people forget their worries in two South Carolina counties hard hit by the recession.
"About all you can do is go fishing," said Cecil Finklea, 50, of Marion, who is looking for work after losing his job with a produce company several months back. "I do go to church and I go a little more now. It keeps me out of trouble."
Marion and Chester counties are among the 65 most economically stressed in the nation with populations greater than 25,000 residents, according to the Associated Press's Economic Stress Index, a monthly analysis of the economic state of more than 3,100 U.S. counties.
The index calculates a score from 1 to 100 based on a county's unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy rates. A higher score indicates more stress. Under a rough rule of thumb, a county is considered stressed when its score exceeds 11.
Marion County, home to 34,000 in the northeastern corner of the state, had a March score of 20.99, while Chester County, with a population of about a thousand less, had a score of 19.84.
The pursuit of an inexpensive escape isn't limited to the South Carolina counties: The Ida Public Library in Belvidere, Ill., reports an increase in usage of materials across the board, particularly DVDs. Surrounding Boone County had a stress score of 22.6, ranking it the No. 20 worst, after it was hit hard by layoffs in the automotive industry.
"It's cheaper than buying and it's cheaper than going to a video store," said Connie Harrison, the library director in the city about 75 miles northwest of Chicago.
Harrison said library computers hooked to the Internet are always busy, largely with people filling out job applications on line. Some people have also told her they've quit buying books.
"It seems to me there's a lot of fiction reading going on, which would kind of follow the escapist type of thing," Harrison added.
In South Carolina, Johnny Cross said he and his sons ages 11 and 14 find entertainment at home since he lost his job last year at a company that makes emergency vehicles in Marion, a city of moss-shrouded oaks and old homes named for American Revolution hero Francis Marion.
"We have a Bible study almost every night. On Saturday night we do what we had been doing — we look at the TV, cartoons mostly," said Cross, 38, who has printed business cards offering his skills at anything from lawn-mowing to carpentry. "I try to stay away from all that other worldly stuff. And on Sundays we go to church."
Tobacco farming was long the life blood of Marion, but the industry waned in the 1990s and was followed by major plant closings in the past decade — including the shuttering of a Russell Stover Candies factory that laid off almost 850.
While the recession has deepened the financial pain, it's also helping some find deeper meaning in life.
"Just the past few months looking around there are a lot fewer empty seats in the pews," said Marion Mayor Rodney Berry, a deacon at the biggest church in the county, downtown's Marion Baptist Church.
"We're far from out of the murky waters — as we speak we have the state's highest unemployment — but when you're in that situation, people do look for something to hold on to and so often it's the spiritual realm," he said.
Berry said registration for city youth football, basketball and baseball is also up.
Chester, a city about 10 miles off the interstate connecting Columbia, S.C., with Charlotte, N.C., has lost about 2,000 jobs during the past decade. Kids there once could expect to grow up and make a good living in one of several textile mills, but those jobs are gone.
Among many empty storefronts downtown is the office of the Arts Council of Chester County, a group that director Lauren Medlin says is having its best year in recent memory.
Its offerings, many of them free, are popular in a town where entertainment options are slim. They range from a spring garden party to ghost story programs in fall, as well as regular art exhibitions and book signings.
"We try to offer events nearly every week," she said. "We try to offer free things because we know people can't afford it."
Attendance at South Carolina state parks was up 10 percent during the first quarter, which officials attributed to people seeking cheaper entertainment.
"We are a bargain. We're $2 a car to get in," said Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism spokeswoman Dawn Dawson, who said there were record campsite reservations Easter weekend.
The county library in Marion is also seeing a flood of foot traffic, whether it's for checking out books or using the Internet.
"We stay busy all the time. People are coming in and filling out applications online and looking for work," said reference librarian Pat Koch who said on busy days, it can be a 90 minute wait to get on line.
The two South Carolina counties recently received some good news. A window manufacturer for mobile homes is bringing 125 jobs to Chester, while a landing gear company plans to bring 560 to Marion County.
Finklea says just stopping in at the employment office across town several times a week and searching for a job helps him cope.
"Sometimes I feel better, but they ain't taking no applications a lot of places," he said, adding it's hard to find a job at 50 and wishing he had made better choices as a young man.
"I wish I had gone on with school like my mama told me," said Finklea, who dropped out in the ninth grade. "She told me to go to school and she begged me to go to school. But I hung out with the fellas and drank."