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4/25/1993 Washington Post: Carolina Coasting and South Carolina's Mystical Edisto Island
By Richard Moore
There is no welcome sign, but welcome to Edisto anyway, a mystical and remote place long turned away from the world. Urban and suburban clutter - motels, traffic lights, shopping malls - cannot be found; the rewards are wide, white beaches and thousands of acres of marsh and farmland, pecan groves and live oaks. This is a place you come to get away from it all.
What you discover is not only a wilderness refuge, a portfolio of stunning low-country panoramas, but also one of the nation's most important historical and architectural non-urban areas. Surely no morning is better spent than to relax on a floating dock and watch bottlenose dolphins splash in an unspoiled tidal creek. Or to rent a johnboat and let "Shell Man" take you shell hunting through the island's back channels. And no afternoon can beat exploring Edisto's plantation homes and eccentric history, with its alternating echoes of racial harmony and tragedy.
To thoroughly enjoy a stay here, one must first grasp the interconnections between Edisto's remarkable history and its mysterious terrain. It's been said that the white community is centered in antebellum plantation estates, the black community in slave-built churches, but it's truer still that both are anchored in Edisto's ghostlike marshes and salty backwaters: The island has retained its rural character for more than 250 years. If British diaries are to be believed, the 54-square-mile Edisto looks very much today like it did in the mid-1600s.
All this translates into a fluid unity of past and present, as visible in the wispy Spanish moss as in the ways of the people. Islanders like to talk about "Edisto time," a reference to an indefinable clock whose hours and minutes move slower than anywhere else. Edisto, they say, is not so much a place as a time, and a time, preservationists add, that - unlike nearby islands - has resisted change. Travelers sense this eerie intermingling of history, heritage and landscape when they pass over the Dawhoo drawbridge. Even the air looks mossy.
From the first Spanish incursion upon the Edistow Indians in the 1500s to English colonization in the 1600s to 20th-century development, every cultural invasion of the island has been permeated by this love of its lush nature. In 1666 British explorer Robert Sanford wrote of "fields of Maiz greenly flourishing." "Maiz" wasn't all that flourished. The steamy subtropical climate gave rise to rice and indigo plantations bearing names connected to the land - Point of Pines, Prospect Hill. The fertile soil fueled prosperity.
In the 1720s, Brick House, with walls two feet thick to fend off Spanish pirates, became one of the first manor houses built in the colonies, another sign of growing agricultural wealth. The island's land-based economy thrived throughout the 1700s. Then, with the introduction of cotton in 1790, it exploded. By 1825 sea-island cotton was world-renowned.
Plantation wealth derived, of course, not only from the land but from slave labor. Edisto was a major entry point into America for slaves, and local landowners secured the most educated among them. Because many hailed from African aristocracy, and because Edisto's reclusive isolation turned everyone inward, race relations were unconventional here, even within the confines of slavery. For example, slaves rescued and raised young Hephzibah Jenkins after her mother died and her father was imprisoned in the Revolution. Later, she separated from her husband - the island's largest landowner - when he opposed her attempts to establish a Baptist church for her slaves, "her people." In 1810, the fiery Edistonian began baking bread in a tabby bakery (tabby is a cement made of lime, sand or gravel and oyster shells) to finance the first church in America founded by a woman.
Edisto has experienced tragedy and economic depression too - thousands of black sharecroppers were expelled after the Civil War, and many starved - but the historical fluctuations flowed primarily from nature, not war: Volcanic-like fissures erupted after an 1886 earthquake; in 1914 a boll weevil infestation destroyed the remaining crop base; hurricanes hammered the island in 1865, 1893 and 1940, washing away entire communities. It's even been suggested that the island's rural preservation has been driven less by vision than by poverty. Whatever the reason, there has evolved an indigenous culture - a diverse mixture of aristocratic, low-country and mystical influences - gleaned from the earth and wedded to it. Today the riches of its history sit in untouched landscapes.
This history is easily mined. During my first days on the island I toured, among other sites, the tabby ruins of Hephzibah Jenkins's bakery and Cassina Point Plantation, known for its fireplaces and screened piazzas. Occupied by federal troops during the Civil War, Cassina Point's basement walls were autographed by the northern regiments. Today the plantation is a bed-and-breakfast, and the scribblings can still be viewed.
Other interesting historic locations include the Old Post Office, built in 1825 (now a gourmet restaurant), the old First Baptist Church established in 1818, and Steamboat Landing, where steamships once departed to carry passengers to Charleston. The local museum also contains excellent artifacts, manuscripts and oral histories from slaves and landowners alike.
After exploring the more accessible historic treasures, I set out on a self-guided driving tour. Many Edisto back roads are called collector roads, not only because of their historic value - many significant sites are visible - but because they showcase outstanding low-country vistas. There is Wescott Road, cleared in 1725, still unpaved under its original canopy of oaks. I also enjoyed Raccoon Island Road and its view of an 1850 gin house. And Pine Landing Road, cleared in 1730, served up a striking view of the South Edisto River.
My favorite, though, was Point of Pines. A circling, surreal dirt road, it scooted past farm fields and wetlands that evaporated into the sea beyond. Blue herons ambled side by side with cows, lingering in the fields. I lingered a long time myself under a squat oak with moss hanging close to the ground. The tree was quintessential Edisto: pinched, spooky, otherworldly. A coven of six buzzards roosted in it, and their black bowling-pin bodies and gurgling croaks cloaked the oak in an evil, mean intention: It was exactly the kind of tree in which you'd expect to find roosting buzzards.
Later, at Edisto Island State Park, I hiked four miles along a well-worn trail to an ancient Indian mound. This path offered intimate glimpses of sea island plant and wildlife: live oaks, sea oats, dune grass, snowy egrets, deer and pluff mud - a mostly gaseous mixture of dead plants, decayed animals and topsoil mud. It's harmless if you step into the brown muck, but (to your horror) you'll sink several feet in the quicksandish bog.
Finally it was time for the beach. Edisto has seven miles of public sandy beach, perfect for surf fishing, swimming and sunning. Edisto Beach itself forms a narrow corridor at the island's south end, lined with summer homes, but it is by no means a resort. It's still slightly seedy, much the same as two decades ago when I ate steamed seafood and played pinball in the old Pavilion Arcade. You can join the locals for shrimp and draft beer in the weathered Schooner Restaurant before heading to the beach.
The coastline is a shell-and-fossil-collector's dream, with sand dollars, conches and starfish to be found, as well as the fossil remains of camels, mastodons, saber-toothed tigers and Mesohippus, a three-toed horse. (Nearby Botany Island is home to an even richer, more untapped source of shells and fossils - interested collectors should inquire at Mead's Boat Landing about renting a private boat.)
Finally, Edisto is a fishers' paradise. There are three ways to fish here: surf fishing on the beach; from creek banks; or from a johnboat. Because the island's waters are unpolluted - the oily, black humps of oyster mounds along creek banks are as clean as the water - fishermen can enjoy almost any body of water. Many locals simply cast their lines at points where main Highway 174 crosses a creek or inlet.
But beware the old Gullah saying, "Most hook fish don' hep dry hominy." In simple English, that means, "The fish you almost hooked doesn't do anything for a plate of grits."
Edisto does possess modern vacation amenities - a golf course, a miniature golf course, deep-sea fishing and gift shops. But to me these are diversions and exist only as sideshows to the main attractions of exploration and relaxation.
Near the end of my stay, I took a one-mile walk from the Edisto Beach pavilion to Jeremy Inlet. Made of crushed quartz and seashell, the sand was pink and packed tightly. I passed stands of palmetto trees, enclosed coves and tempting paths into the sporadic jungle. Then the forest gave way to a sandy stretch and to a long low marsh that ran behind the beach, past the nesting grounds of loggerhead turtles, to the inlet.
The view from Jeremy Inlet north to Edingsville Beach was spectacular. High tide had reduced the beach to shell drifts. Out toward the ocean a grainy coarse grayness trickled through the sky. The wind blew hard. The waves pitched up, then shattered into splinters against the shore, each sliver of water inching into a triangular point before recessing again into the ocean. This pattern continued as far as I could see. In the distance the horizon soaked out around me, a blotter absorbing the sky, the marsh, the ocean, the shore, even the distance. Standing on those shells, looking out upon the aguish waves, then back toward spindly palmettos and sinking bottomland, I felt absolutely shorn of dimension.
I stood now on Edisto time, at an intersection of past and present, where watching the horizon becomes a consuming task. Or, as plantation owner I. Jenkins Mikell once defined the true essence of Edisto time, "Life then and there was one long dream. There the art of being busy and doing nothing was brought to a fine point."
The art of being busy and doing nothing - that's what a trip to the time that is Edisto is all about.