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4/3/1994 The New York Times: An Out-of-the-Way Isle in South Carolina

By Henry Leifermann


They were barely 100 yards off shore, moving only fast enough to keep their nets open, which is normal for trawlers while shrimping. What seemed surprising was the hometown port lettered on their transoms below the winches and cranes on the afterdeck: Edisto Beach. 


This rare, serene, Southern sea island town of about 500 permanent residents still has a small fleet of shrimp trawlers captained and crewed by locals. The marinas, yachts and golf courses of resort and retirement developments have yet to price these shrimpers out of dock space along Big Bay Creek, as they have in so many other coastal communities. 


It is one of the many rewards of being in between Charleston and Hilton Head Island on South Carolina's Atlantic coast. Much of the outside world passes by. 


Just across saltwater marshes and tidal creeks from the beach town, Edisto Island, about 9 miles wide by 9 miles long, is still home to family descendants living on the same Colonial and antebellum plantations and attending the historic churches their ancestors founded. The old Sea Island cotton fields now yield large crops of vegetables and melons, fresh produce sold daily at roadside stands usually set in the shade of the twisted, gnarled limbs of a live oak canopy. At the outbreak of the Civil War, there were nearly 10,000 slaves on Edisto Island's plantations. 


Today's African-American community on the island numbers about 1,300, and the white population about 300. Most residents commute daily to jobs in Charleston. They live in small homes down shady dirt lanes, surrounded by Edisto's vistas of marshes, water and open horizons. 


The new McKinley Washington Jr. bridge, inaugurated last year, across the Dawhoo River and the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway from the mainland to Edisto Island, is named for the state senator who is the first black senator elected from the local district. Still, there is not a hotel or motel in the beach town or on the big island. The very nature of accommodations for visitors suggests that tourism is of little interest in Edisto. 


At Edisto Beach, for example, the lodgings include several dozen beach houses rented by the week through local real estate agents. They are one-story, single-family, fully furnished, unpretentious (although most have sun decks) examples of the barrier island and beach houses built before Federal flood insurance programs in the 1970's fueled a boom of large, luxury homes built within yards of the ocean on other South Carolina sea islands. 


Edisto Beach seems to have been built with an acceptance of the probability that nature will come along some day and blow it all away. That happened in 1893 when a hurricane washed away the entire beach village of Edingsville, which shared the island where Edisto Beach is situated, and it never was rebuilt. Four more hurricanes grazed Edisto Beach between 1940 and 1979, none as fierce as the Edingsville storm, but each one enough to remind the realists living here of the other side to the natural beauty surrounding their island. 


Edisto Beach's residents have consistently rejected development into a major resort, enforcing ordinances that limited building heights and acreage density and held development to one low-rise condominium complex and one mid-island golf course and townhouse project. Both offer weekend and weekly rentals, and the golf course is open to the public. 


There are several casual seafood restaurants, such as Sunset Grille at the marina, all serving what the local trawlers just brought in, and a new favorite, the Plantation Grille, at the Wyndham resort. Seafood markets and those roadside fresh vegetable stands offer inducements for epicureans to try their own skills in their vacation kitchen. 


For day trips, Edisto Beach is an hour's drive from the historic district of Charleston and the Middleton Place and Magnolia Gardens along the Ashley River north of the old port city. Canoeists who want to paddle the Edisto River, a blackwater river before it reaches the sea islands, can rent boats about a two-hour drive away, across from Colleton State Park near Canadys. 


Most visitors to Edisto, however, rarely leave the beach town, the big island and the nearby waters. A web of rivers, tidal creeks and marshes surrounds and infiltrates Edisto, and there are small outboard boats to rent for roaming or fishing. There also are guided nature tours by small boat through those waters. More adventurous fishing is available through Edisto Beach's small fleet of charter boats, which prowl the Gulf Stream waters 50 miles off shore. 


The beach, running the length of Edisto Island, is shallow, with a gradual drop, allowing for the vagaries of nature. The south end is particularly uncrowded. 


At Edisto Beach and Walterboro, the temperature starts hitting highs in the 70's by April, which also is the month the azaleas and dogwoods are in full bloom along the Edisto River and in the plantation and church gardens of Edisto Island. Huge loggerhead sea turtles, which are endangered, wade ashore at Edisto Beach to dig nests and lay eggs almost nightly from late spring to midsummer. It is a rite of nature held in great esteem by Edisto's residents and regular visitors, who string off the nests and watch over them once the turtle returns to sea. Rangers at Edisto Beach State Park have organized a program of nightly walks on the beach to see the nests and, often, the turtles or the hatchlings. 


The 1,500-acre park, built during the 1930's by the Civilian Conservation Corps, is a remarkable combination of beach, dunes, marsh, tidal creeks and maritime forest stretching from Edisto Beach into Edisto Island. Scott Creek meanders through the park, and five fully furnished, air-conditioned cottages with screen porch, rockers, picnic tables and outdoor grills overlook the creek and the wide marsh behind Edisto Beach. The cabins are rented by the night, weekend or week. There also are more than 100 campsites on and just behind the dune line at the park, with RV and electrical hookups, showers and restrooms. 


Vacationers began coming to the Edisto beaches during the 1810's, when Edingsville was developed by one of Edisto Island's wealthy cotton planters, William Edings. By 1820, there were 60 large, summer cottages on beachfront lots leased by the Edings family. (They were not restored after the hurricane hit.) 


Guided tours of the plantations and churches, established on Edisto two centuries ago, reveal the wealth and luxury families such as the Edings enjoyed from a system based upon cotton and slavery. All the plantations have been spruced up in recent years, but many never really fell into disrepair. They are generally only open in the spring during informal house tours. 


The plantation system began making the planters rich during the 1790's, and by 1808, the island's population included 236 whites and 2,600 African slaves. On the eve of the Civil War, in 1860, the fervor to secede from the Union was so intense on the island that one of its planters, Col. Joseph E. Jenkins, told a secessionist meeting, "Gentlemen, if South Carolina does not secede from the Union, Edisto Island will." 


Among the plantation mansions on Edisto Island, all of them on the National Register of Historic Places, is the privately owned William Seabrook House, built in 1810 by the first Edisto planter to make a fortune on cotton. Seabrook pioneered the use of marsh mud as fertilizer. His mansion is on Steamboat Creek, overlooking the North Edisto River. 


Seabrook's son, William, built a mansion a mile downriver at Oak Island in 1830, and in 1851, at the World's Fair in London where McCormick won a medal for the reaper, Colt for his revolving pistol and Goodyear for Indian rubber, William Seabrook won one for his Sea Island cotton. Another of these plantation mansions, Cassina Point, built in 1847 just south of Oak Island on a tidal creek overlooking the confluence of the North Edisto River with the ocean, has been restored and is an elegant bed-and-breakfast inn today. The interior was so well preserved only one coat of paint has been applied since the original. 


The new bridge, replacing an old swing bridge that often stuck in the open position, blocking road traffic, is expected to change Edisto Island in coming years. Parts of the island, including a few old plantations and the site of old Edingsville, have been bought by developers who hope to entice an affluent clientele of Charleston commuters and retirees. Still, even those developments are limited by ordinances requiring single-family homes on large lots. 


Big Bay Creek, Fishing Creek and other tidal creeks flow by those new projects, and Edisto's active environmental community watches closely to see that no pollution reaches these waterways and the marshes they flood and irrigate daily. It is in those creeks, nourished in return by nutrients from the marsh grass, where one of Edisto's most enduring traditions continues: catching your own shrimp and crab. Generations of parents have taught their children these simple skills at Edisto, and in the process instilled a regard and wonder for sea island life. 


For shrimp, buy an inexpensive, small cast net from any local bait shop, and spend an hour or so practicing in the surf or a tidal creek. The net is round, with weights on the circumference that sink the net when cast. Then, a draw string is pulled, trapping whatever is inside the net. 


Take along a bucket of saltwater to keep the shrimp fresh until cooking. Cast from a causeway bridge that is low over a creek, or from a rented outboard at anchor. 


For crabbing, get four to six feet of string (depending on your height), a one-ounce weight and a dip net (also at bait shops) and chicken parts. Let the parts ripen to a high aroma, find a low bridge, or a tidal creek shallow enough to wade, and go out at low tide. 


Tie the weight and a small chicken piece to one end of the twine and slowly lower it into the water. Let the chicken almost, but not quite, drag the bottom, and slowly walk forward. When you feel a tug on the line, slowly pull it up. The crab will hold on as long as it's in the water -- sometimes longer -- so you can dip the hand net under it when you see it. 


The gooiest way to go crabbing is wading in a tidal creek, with the bottom mud oozing between your toes. Some may prefer wearing an old pair of sneakers while wading, and for those who do, it is wise to remember to leave the sneakers behind when you leave Edisto. 


While prowling the tidal creeks for shrimp or crab, remember, it's called fishing, not catching; in any case, goal-oriented activity misses the point of Edisto. GUIDE TO THE ISLAND AND TOWN Getting There 


Edisto Beach is about 50 miles south of Charleston, where the area's major airport and Amtrak station are. Drive south from the city on U.S. 17 about 25 miles to the community of Osborn, then turn right on S.C. 174. Edisto erects no highway billboards announcing itself, so watch carefully for the turn. S.C. 174, a two-lane road, is one of the most scenic drives along the coast. It winds through small, picturesque communities, under canopies of giant live oaks draped in gray tendrils of Spanish moss, over rivers and tidal creeks, and through horizonwide marshes before reaching the Atlantic Ocean.

  Edisto Chamber of Commerce
42 Station Court
P.O. Box 206
Edisto Island, SC 29438
843-869-3867
888-333-2781
chamber@edistochamber.com

 

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