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9/1/2008 Sandlapper: Edisto Magic
By Aida Rogers
For Edisto to cast its spell, you must do your part. That means doing nothing. Turn off your radio when driving down soft sandy roads cathedraled by sheltering live oaks. Sit on a screened porch and listen to the wind in the trees. Play a mindless game of bingo with giggling teens in a crowded cinderblock building staffed by affable Lions Club members. Las Vegas this ain't.
Edisto is old-fashioned. No hotels. No waterslide. No traffic light. Just ocean, creek, marsh and seafood. You can buy great watermelon and corn at weather-worn produce stands, and watch dogs hanging out with their masters at work. They don't call it "Edislow" for nothing.
"It's something that happens when you come across the bridge," reflects Charlotte Geraty Main, a realtor who grew up on nearby Yonges Island and lived in various cities before moving to Edisto permanently in 1998. "You just divorce yourself from what was on the other side. You become one with the land and the Lord."
That sort of reverence is common among Edistonians. Whether they live on Edisto Beach, an incorporated town in Colleton County, or Edisto Island, part of Charleston County, they share an abiding devotion to this seemingly isolated world of big trees and endless water. They like that it's seasonal, and don't mind working two or three jobs in the summer to make ends meet in the winter.
But come on. Just one hotel? "No!" The answer erupts immediately from a group of colleagues at Prudential Kapp/Lyons Realty. They're aboard Tom Kapp's 22- foot Marshall Cat sailboat, enjoying what they call a "cocktail cruise," and they like the view of Edisto Beach as it is. "It looks the same as it did 25 years ago," says Kapp, a Columbia native who’s been here since 1981. "There's development pressure here, but we want to preserve the island's rural integrity."
Later, on Sonny Carson's 27-foot Triton, you wonder if he misses his native Greenwood, from where he uprooted himself and his wife. The housing market's not great anywhere. Regrets? "Not one," he responds before the question leaves your lips. "I like the seclusion of Edisto. I like that we do have to drive to get supplies. It's quaint to me. Sometimes it's a little pain, but that's what keeps Edisto like we are."
Spend a couple hours playing bingo at the Lions Club hut, and you'll find perfectly tanned teenagers enthusiastically describing Edisto's "really relaxed" and "not commercial" atmosphere. Cousins Kahlan and Brittany Shull from Lexington have been coming to Edisto every summer since they were three. Do they plan to come back with their children one day? "Yes, yes!" They're clamoring, excited someone realizes what they've probably talked about for years.
Don't look here for the neon noise of Myrtle Beach or sculpted sophistication of Hilton Head. "Someone here coined the phrase 'Mayberry by the Sea,' and that's basically what it is," says Jimmy King of The Edisto News. King, 54, spends his time working and going to church. As for his job title, it's "editor-publisher-janitor-delivery boy." Like many, he does multiple things to be able to stay.
"This is a different place," he muses, "and I don't know you would ever find anything as unique. Though people come from different directions, everybody pulls for what's best for Edisto. Nobody is ever going to do anything to hurt it, because everybody loves the place."
Still, King is walking proof about Edisto in 2008: it's growing. His newspaper, established in 2005, began as a one-page black-and-white advertising vehicle. Today it's 32 color pages of news, features and ads. "It should be 40," King says, adding that he'd like to expand his editorial coverage into Meggett and Hollywood. But like others here, he's a one-man show. There's only so much you can do.
"If you're good at what you do, you can find work on Edisto," affirms Larry Main, owner of the popular Main's Market, where head cook Etta Drayton serves her famous tomatoe pie with an assortment of other Gullah specialties. Main, a retired Gulf Oil employee in Charleston, has been on the island since 1996. Besides cooking and serving barbeque, he does landscaping, irrigation, Shellsand driveway and road installation, and backhoe work. "I got ten hats," he says, not unseriously. Evidence: At Main's Market: You can buy wine, entertaining accessories, gardening products and homemade eight-layer cakes.
Main's Market is in the old Grant's Store, where beach-goers once bought "Pepsis and Nabs," recalls Dan Carter, executive director of the Edisto Chamber of Commerce. Carter grew up in Walterboro, and Edisto Beach was where he came for fun. After 23 years working mostly in Atlanta, he's happy to be in a relaxed environment. But he's fast to say you can be as busy as you want.
"A common question you get from folks who don't live here and understand it is, 'What the heck do you do?' And it's infinite," says Carter, an elder at The Presbyterian Church on Edisto Island and a member of the Lions Club, which has sponsored summer bingo since 1959. In the past four years, the club has donated more than $50,000 to local eye-related projects. "There are enough volunteer and social opportunities that being bored is not a problem."
Ask Lula Grant, 71. She "retired" to Edisto 10 years ago and is consumed with the Edisto Island Outreach Center. The nonprofit organization has been improving islanders' lives since 2003, repairing homes and providing a summer camp. Grant directs an EIOC respite center for Alzheimer's sufferers and caregivers and chairs the Eye on the Future Scholarship Committee. Since the scholarship began in 2006, 18 local students have received $11,500 collectively for college. Alzheimer's patients can get scholarships to attend the EIOC's thrice-weekly Tender Loving Care Club.
While the EIOC focuses on helping people in need, the Edisto Island Community Association preserves the island's cultural and rural character. Founded in 1985, the group has about 500 members, says Pat Neumann, recording secretary. Inappropriate development is one of its main concerns, but it focuses on education, too. Like the EIOC, the EICA gives scholarships to deserving Edisto students. It's awarded 19 scholarships totaling $207,550 since 1985. (High school students go to Walterboro or Charleston; there is no high school on Edisto.)
Meanwhile, a more casual group, The Ten Dollar - or "Dollah" - Club, has been meeeting monthly for fun and fellowship for almost a year. Members -- women only -- bring hors d'oeuvres, wine and $10 each to support a local cause. So far, the "sistahs" have raised $1,300 for local student Bubba Wright to go to Bermuda to learn how to protect sea turtle nests. While Bubba considers a career in marine biology, his 50-some benefactresses continue their mission of "making a positive impact on the world a few dollars at a time," says founder Suzi Elledge.
Sea turtles are cherished here. Besides the rangers and volunteers who save nests at Edisto Beach State Park, a citizens group, the Edisto Beach Loggerhead Turtle Project, has saved an average of 70 nests per season for more than 15 years. From 40 to 60 people actively volunteer, which is 10 percent of the population on Edisto Beach, says coordinator Jamie Gaabo. "Because Edisto is so small, you're involved." Even Edisto's lone grocery, Piggly Wiggly, does its part. Lights Out For Turtles May-October proclaims its modest marquee.
Edisto's spirit of caring seems impervious to its residents' varying income levels. The 15 churches are united by Edisto Ministerial Alliance, which managers a food bank and presents an Easter sunrise service well-attended by all Edistonians. Its second multi-night revival is scheduled for February. "I think it's going to be real neat," predicts Mary Asbill, owner of Island Tours & T'ings. "We've got a real good group on Edisto."
Besides giving tours, Asbill waits tables and with her husband is caretaker of a plantation whose owners live in Charleston. "I feel really lucky to live on Edisto," she tells a group of visitors from the driver's seat of her bright pink van. Though she grew up in Charleston, 45 minutes away, she says she can standly only half a day there. "Traffic."
You won't hear complaints about that on Edisto. But you will hear sounds of worry that development could dilute the island's culture and landscape. Already there are four gated communities, and several grand beach homes have been built alongside modest old ones. But zoning is in place to assure only one home can be built every 10 acres, and beach houses are restricted to 40 feet high by 3,800 square feet wide. "You don't eliminate development, you don't stop development, you control development," says Tom Kapp, broker-in-charge at Prudential Kapp/Lyons Realty. "Done in a proper way, man can co-exist in this environment."
Kapp's brother Woody, who commutes to his real estate job in Charleston, poses the fear that bit by bit some developers will encroach upon Edisto's serenity. "Little tract by little tract, degradation is happening -- just very modest forms, as opposed to all of a sudden you've got a high-rise. That kind of proliferation isn't happening yet, but it will. It's just a matter of time." Still, he's happy that both the North and South Edisto rivers have been protected from storm and sewer water. "Everything is based on water quality," Woody Kapp upholds. "If you can preserve the water quality, you can preserve the wildlife and the surrounding area."
Individuals and organizations share a philosophy that compared to other coastal areas, "this is the last chance to get it right," explains Carter, the chamber director. "We want to invite the people who think like we do, people who are environmentally conscious, who want to preserve the family-type atmosphere. So you market to those types of people hoping they'll move here, and help us sustain it." Unlike many chamber directors, Carter does not include attracting new businesses on his todo list. "My job is to help the businesses that are here grow and do well," he says, noting that tourism is Edisto's biggest industry, followed by agriculture.
Several environmental groups are working diligently to protect Edisto's natural spaces. Of the island's 41,000 acres, 1,722 have been preserved by the Edisto Island Open Land Trust, says its executive director Marian Brailsford. Edisto is the most heavily protected populated island in South Carolina, she points out, with approximately 16,000 total acres preserved by the EIOLT, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Charleston County Parks Recreation Commission, The Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, the Lowcountry Open Land Trust and Ducks Unlimited. The EIOLT hopes to have more than 50 percent of the island protected by 2010.
The population (625 on Edisto Beach, 2,640 on Edisto Island, according to the 2000 census) is too small to support big box stores, but it's hardly a backwater. Places of businesses multitask as much as the residents. The Edisto Bookstore offers wi-fi and The Wall Street Journal, nautical charts and topographical maps. Fancy coffees, salon treatments and arty boutiques vie for dollars alongside rentals for beach bikes, big-game fishing expeditions, boat rides to islands and historic plantation tours. The island's solitary golf course, The Plantation Course at Edisto, draws players from across the nation and some from overseas, says Leland Vaughan, general manager. Even during July's heat, 3,550 people played the course, Vaughan relays, adding that its "uniqueness" has captivated one London golfer who vacations here every year.
The Plantation Course is marked by giant live oaks and impressive magnolias. Typical for Edisto, it has proffered artifacts from the island's past. American Indians, Europeans, wealthy cotton planters, slaves and occupying Union troops during the Civil War have called Edisto home over the past six centuries. Locals will show you fossilized mastodon jaws, pieces of Indian pottery and china shards from the plantation families who summered on the now washed-away Edingsville Beach.
"I thought everybody else did that," says Jane Murray McCollum, of finding pottery and running barefoot in pluff mud as a child. At 84, Edisto’s unofficial grande dame is suitably unpretentious. Softspoken and given to thrift shop clothing, McCollum spent 28 years away from her beloved island and Jack Daw Hall plantation home. Her Edisto accent befuddled people in Greenville - "they thought I was from a foreign country" - and she admits she cried a lot. Back since 1986, McCollum, a retired nurse, spends her time reading to children at Jane B. Edwards School, painting watercolors and staying active with Trinity Episcopal Church, founded in 1774.
"Edisto gets into your heart and your soul, and it just can't get out," she defends. To her, a perfect day includes a swim, a painting session, and watching pelicans dive into the creek. While she wishes Edisto had a pharmacy, she's glad there are a bank, lawyer and dentist on the island. She thinks times are better now than then, because people have more money to take care of their homes and churches. And the influx of newcomers can't be all bad. "We were all from old families and we were probably all kin, so having new people, I think that helps." She points to Gretchen Smith, director of the Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society. A Conway native who moved here after 30 years in Columbia, Smith says Edisto's casual atmosphere "spoke to my soul." Besides managing the Edisto Museum, she's intent on seeing that local cemeteries and uildings, including structures on Botany Bay Plantation, are protected. Given to the state in 1977,the 4,630-acre preserve opened July 1. The property includes the remains of two plantations, Bleak Hall and Sea Cloud. It's a stretch of land that encompasses all that Edisto's famous for: ocean, trees, farms and history. It's the history you just can’t escape.
"Endlessly fascinating" is how Charles Spencer describes it. His Edisto Island, a two-volume history published in May, documents its past from 1663 to 1860 ("Wild Eden to Cotton Aristocracy") and 1861 to 2006 ("Ruin, Recovery and Rebirth"). The Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society sponsored the book, which took Spencer, a retired political science professor and foreign service officer in the U.S. Information Agency, seven years to write. "I'm so grateful to The History Press for the idea of splitting it into two books," Spencer says. If the publisher wanted to keep the island's enormous history contained in one volume, he'd "have to whack it by 50 percent."
An Arlington, Virginia, resident who spent childhood summers on Edisto, Spencer applauds the EIHPS's work sponsoring his book and organizing a fine museum. Like Smith, he worries that important historical structures are crumbling and need fast protection. The ruins of the 1725 Brick House, called "America's first manor house," is one example he cites. Another is the 1680s tabby ruins of the first Englishman's home on Edisto, Paul Grimball. Grants need to be found and plans designed to stabilize these treasures, Spencer believes. Historical markers are another need. They would allow "people moving around the island to be more constantly aware of the history they're walking on and driving on."
Ask Spencer how he'd describe Edisto, and he borrows a comment from And I'm Glad, a collection of black oral histories by Nick Lindsay, a local poet, teacher and master builder. "'This place is just enchanted. It's magic,'" Spencer quotes. "I know that's sentimental and I know it's romantic, but it expresses my feelings. There is a magic that I haven't found anywhere else and I have been around the world, from the pyramids to Machu Picchu. Nothing is like Edisto.