Meet four locals who remember what Island life was like before the developers came
Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Lisa Staff
It may be hard to visualize, being as we are in the thick of Hilton Head Island’s glitzy resort era, but there was a time when Hilton Head Island was untamed. Wild. Free. It was a time when dirt roads snaked through quiet forests beneath canopies of live oak branches. When communities stretched only so far as to the nearest church. It was a much quieter Hilton Head Island, but there were many who called it home. It was their island long before it was ours, and this was their life before the bridge.
Everyone did their part
There’s a simple admission Mary Stewart made at the beginning of our interview that speaks volumes about who she is.
“I got a lot of laughter in me.”
Our interview begins with a prayer, Stewart requesting the Almighty’s help in sharing her story. “Help me, Lord, to say what needs to be said.” It would seem the Heavenly Father was listening, because Stewart proceeded to paint a picture of a fascinating life of a young girl whose growth mirrored the growth of the island.
Born in 1948 in what was then known as Stoney Plantation, the borders of young Mary Stewart’s world rarely extended past the nearby grocery stores and her small school on Squire Pope Road. Her family were all fishermen, working the shore to put shrimp and oysters on the table. And everyone did their part to keep the family fed. “What is a delicacy to people now, that was a way of life to us,” she said. “At an early age we knew how to pick crab, head shrimp… the Toomers had a dock and they had an oyster factory, so I learned. My momma did not raise lazy kids.”
It was her mother’s strong work ethic that defined Mary Stewart’s upbringing. When Mary would work the vast tomato fields in what is now Hilton Head Plantation, bringing her pay home in the form of fistfuls of dimes, her mother would make sure every one of them made it back to the family. She’d get back just two dimes, enough to buy candy from her mom’s store. It seems like a story of harsh parenting, but as with all things, Stewart shares it through laughter.
“My mama was always a hustling lady. She always made a dime. I think that’s one of the good things about me and my sisters,” she said. “I probably would have never told her, but Mama I thank you for the way you treated me. Those old people were firm.”
Her world expanded the first time when the school buses arrived, showing her what lay beyond the borders of Stoney Plantation. “There was a lot of the island we never saw,” she said. “When they started the school bus, that’s when we saw other kids. It was a lot of people but not a lot of transportation.”
Later on, another set of wheels would see her world expand once again.
“I remember standing in my yard one day and I see all these big trucks passing the house with all these logs, leaving the island,” she said. Those trucks were clearing land, and in the process ushering in Hilton Head Island’s era as a resort paradise. “Then I heard about this man Charles Fraser building a hotel, and that was the light at the end of the tunnel… I saw him as a blessing because then it took me and my sisters out of the oyster factory.”
Through the newly formed Sea Pines Plantation, Stewart found work in food service and housekeeping that allowed her to build a life, raise her daughters and chart her own destiny. Although the journey took her as far away as Nashville, she always found herself returning to her home. “I couldn’t wait to get back here because of the kindness,” she said.
She’s had her trials and her hardships, but she’s found herself on the other side of them with laughter on her lips and a deep abiding faith in her heart. “I would never be where I’m at today if it weren’t for the day Jesus showed himself.”
And just like her mother taught her, she’s still finding ways to make a dime. Sometimes it’s as a caretaker, sometimes as the purveyor of mouth-watering Daufuskie Island deviled crab.
“I’ve never been a lazy person. I’m 71 now and I’m still the same way,” she said. “If I can work for a living, you’ll never hear me ask for a handout.”
But what you will hear is laughter, and an inspiring story of growing up step by step with the island she calls home.
It was a natural paradise
Few can claim a front-row seat to the island’s growth the way Robert Graves has.
“Somebody told me this past year I’ve lived long enough to see a town birthed and see it come to fruition,” he said. “I’d never thought about it that way.”
A scion of the esteemed Graves family, who have lived on Pepper Hall Plantation for generations, Graves grew up among its fields and marshes. He vividly recalls the sight of flood waters approaching the plantation during the storm of 1940 which saw Daufuskie and Hilton Head slip beneath the waves. He tells stories, endlessly fascinating stories, of a wild and free Lowcountry.
Raised side by side with native Gullah, he can still slip into their language (although he admits it takes a few glasses of wine). And if you ask him what it was like, he’ll weave together stories of great hunts with his dog Red Rover that stretched from the Colleton River down to the May and west to where the great asphalt tumult of I-95 now runs. He’ll tell you of the peaceful existence of a kid raised on a farm in the midst of a vast natural paradise.
“Back then it was virgin timber. They’d burn the wood so you’d see under the canopy. It was just beautiful. Deer would be hopping and cattle would be grazing but it was just a different picture then than it is today.”
He came to Hilton Head Island in 1951, when his father bought the Seacrest with an eye toward providing a bed for those who’d missed the ferry. The hotel’s first innkeeper was a doormat, where guests would find a key and leave a $20 after checkout. His father would eventually build on this success until the Seacrest had more than 100 rooms and one of the island’s best restaurants.
And with that, the young Robert Graves saw a future in helping build this island. Selling his beloved livestock to fund his first project, he began building on the island in force in 1959. When he became the preferred builder for Charles Fraser, it was off to the races, with Graves crafting the homes that would fuel the great land rush onto Hilton Head Island. You’re likely to still find him out on site, swinging a hammer.
“It keeps my mind challenged,” he said. “I can truly say I wake up every day and I can’t wait to do what I do. It’s full of dirt and sawdust and all that, but I just enjoy creativity.”
Where his creativity truly shines is in his stories, stories to which we couldn’t possibly do justice. Late-night fox hunts filled with good-natured pranks. How his love of building boats saw him creating one for legendary boat builder John Rybovich (“That’s like Ernest Hemingway asking you to help him write a book.”) How the front room at what is now The Pearl was once Bluffton’s premiere spot to play some Fats Domino on the jukebox. How the 1972 oil embargo saw him flat broke, with nearly $10 million in work on the ground.
He’ll tell you all about his fascinating journey, and how it all happened in a place he still loves, no matter how much it has changed.
“You can’t take it back to the beauty of what I grew up in. I can tell you about it, but there’s no way to even paint a picture of what it looked like,” he said. “You’d come down these little roads and the moss would be hanging down and it was beautiful. But you had to widen the roads to make them safe. You had to build a bridge to keep the economics going. I’m not against productive things. If it’s creative, I like it even better.”
Frederick C. Hack, Jr.
The sounds and smells were different
Seated in the living room of his gorgeous Spanish Wells home, Frederick C. Hack Jr. is surrounded by reminders of his youth on a Hilton Head Island that was much different from today’s resort paradise. Walls to either side of him hold artwork that came from Honey Horn Plantation in which he grew up. And the windows before and behind him overlook the lush natural beauty that defines this island – Spanish moss dancing in the live oaks on breezes that come across the water. Both elements, the history and the scenery of unspoiled wilderness, define his upbringing.
“I don’t remember stories. I remember going into the dog kennels and smelling that food,” he said, his eyes far away. Far from the convenience of pet food stores, dogs at Honey Horn ate wild game, turnip greens, or whatever was lying around. “There’s another memory I hear, I don’t smell. The public road to the Spanish Wells and Joneseville areas was Honey Horn Lane that ran across Jarvis Creek. You can still see where the bridge was – of course it’s been pulled out, but there are two pieces of causeway. The marsh tacky traffic was by wagon and horseback. After dark, I could hear those horses galloping past the house.”
The smells of farm life and the sounds of an island on which the majority of travel was by horseback, this is the Hilton Head Island that Hack remembers.
Brought to the island in June 1950 at 3 years old, Hack grew up on Honey Horn Plantation, among the fields, woods, creeks and buildings that now house the Coastal Discovery Museum. His father had come to the island drawn by timber but would soon become one of the developers who would ultimately build Hilton Head Island’s future, and an icon in the island’s history. But for the younger Hack, the wonder of the island wasn’t in its timbers but in the quiet bucolic childhood it afforded him.
“Most of my life was centered on Honey Horn,” he said. “We played in the barn, we climbed trees. There was activity all the time.”
Again, his description of the island in those days doesn’t come out in stories. It comes out in a rich verbal tapestry woven together in places, people, and sensations. How he used to ride out with his father to the vast truck farming fields inside what is now Hilton Head Plantation, hundreds of acres growing everything from tomatoes to squash. How he and his brother Byron would go far afield hunting deer or doves. How he and his sister Avary attended a one-room schoolhouse that has long been torn down. How they’d park an old military-style Jeep right on the beach and go surf casting. The sounds of domestic turkeys gobbling in their pens. The smell of a wood-fired stove. The bristle of hay as he baled it. This was his Hilton Head.
After the bridge, Hack would attend school in Savannah, then Duke, then, after several years working alongside his father at The Hilton Head Company, South Carolina Law School. But his heart was always on the island. He returned from law school to an island that had changed, but still captivated. As it marched from idyllic getaway to community, he was there to help usher it along, serving on the Hilton Head Commission, a county-created precursor to incorporation. He was a charter member of First Presbyterian Church, which his parents organized in 1957. The earliest services were held in the chapel at Honey Horn, which he and his sister swept out before service. He and his family served on the board at Coastal Discovery Museum, with his own involvement starting in 1998. He was on the board and chairman at Sea Pines Montessori, and has volunteered with Volunteers in Medicine, the Jaycees, Hilton Head Island Rescue Squad. And perhaps most importantly, he and his wife of 35 years, Carol, have raised two daughters on Hilton Head.
From a farm boy in a secluded Southern paradise to a retired attorney who helped play his part in shaping the island’s growth, Hack has lived and breathed Hilton Head Island. And he shares it not in stories, but in moments that defined an island before – and after — the bridge.
It was a small, tight-knit community
By now, you’ve no doubt read about the tremendous impact that the Richardson family has had on our island’s history. How Norris Richardson built the island’s first true supermarket, then expanded his Forest Beach Market to encompass Coligny Plaza, bringing with it the island’s first of nearly every business you can think of: laundromat, car wash, ice cream store, etc.
You no doubt know of how his son continued that family legacy, developing Windmill Harbor and the South Carolina Yacht Club, helping found Coastal States Bank, and volunteering his time at nearly every organization you can think of.
But before he was the JR Richardson who helped chart our island’s destiny, he was just a kid traveling by barge to his new island home at the edge of the world. “I remember coming over to the island and thinking, ‘What am I getting into?’”
Hilton Head Island’s bridge was still months away from being built, and on that cusp of explosive growth the island was still in its infancy. Compared to his relatively metropolitan hometown of Thomasville, Ga., the island was wild. Whatever misgivings Richardson had about moving were quickly washed away as he began to explore.
“There was so much vegetation, with dense forests and the roads were two-lane dirt roads,” he said. “There was one paved road. It was like paradise in the wild kingdom. And oh that beach, that beautiful pristine beach. I grew up with the ocean as my front yard.”
While he remembers the wilderness of Hilton Head Island in those days, and the endless possibilities it offered for exploration and hunting, many of his most treasured memories of those days center on his family, and the small community around them who called Hilton Head home.
“One time I was playing on the beach with my mother, Mary Katherine, and Collins. On the horizon, so close you could almost touch the boat, Bennie Hudson was shrimping. He yelled to my mother if she swam out, he would give her some shrimp,” said JR. “I can still see her swimming with a bag full of shrimp in one hand over her head. We had shrimp for dinner that night!”
Even in the years following the opening of the bridge, setting the stage for the development in which JR would play his part, the island was still a small, tight-knit community. One where the novelty of seeing another car driving on the road would be enough to propel both parties to pull over and chat.
“There was a great sense of community for the people that lived on Hilton Head Island. We knew all the people on the south end of Hilton Head Island. We met even more people because my mother wrote a little sign by hand for all customers to see,” he said. JR would be put to work, setting up the family home on Sunday mornings for Sunday school classes his mother organized for anyone visiting the island.
“We met so many people who loved the beach and the beauty of our Island as much as we did.”
(click on gallery thumbnail for larger photo)