Hinshaw column: Edisto Island Adventure

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 3, 2011

By Wayne Hinshaw
For the Salisbury Post
Edisto Island, SC — The island has been called “blissful.” It has been called “a hidden treasure.” It has been called “the way the South Carolina coast looked 60 or 70 years ago before commercialization.” I would call it a quiet paradise, decked in simple natural beauty, with a very historical flavor stirred into the stewpot.
Looking at beautiful elements of nature like trees, bodies of water, plants, and animals sometimes don’t look their best if we single them out one by one. When we mix the natural elements together with their natural surroundings and show some of the setting, the parts become more interesting and beautiful. This is true of Edisto Island. As a visitor you need to absorb all the elements together.
Located about an hour south of Charleston, the Edistow Indians lived here first. The Spanish priests came in the 1500s followed by the English in the 1600s. The English cultivated the land with crops of rice and indigo. By the 1700s the crops had changed to sea-island cotton known for its fine silky texture. With the African slave laborers and their skills, the islanders became very wealthy while establishing fine plantations. When the islanders evacuated to Charleston during the Civil War, Union troops occupied the island and plantations. Returning after the war, John Townsend was able to restore the Bleak Hall and Sea Cloud plantations and grow sea-island cotton again. In the 1920s the boll weevil infestation wiped out the cotton for good.
Wealthy Birmingham, Ala. philanthropist, John E. Meyer, acquired the 4,687 acres of Bleak Hall and Sea Cloud plantations. He had acquired his wealth in the hotel industry. At his death in 1977, he willed the land to the state of S.C. with the understanding that his wife would have lifetime rights to the live on the property. In July, 2008 the new Botany Bay Plantation Wildlife Management Area and Heritage Preserve opened to the public.
Grouping the Botany Bay Plantation property, the Edisto Island State Park and beach, and the private property owners together creates a special place for this time in our history. No hotels or motels are allowed on the island. There are no amusement parks. There is one Piggy Wiggly grocery store and two or three restaurants and an ice cream shop. Many of the residences today, African-American and white, are decedents of the plantations owners and their slaves.
The brown and green sea marshes are everywhere. The roads are lined with live oaks, loblolly pines and the cabbage palmetto trees which provide an umbrella over some roads. Patches of sunlight dance on the ground under this heavy tree coverage. At Botany Bay Beach the sea shells are so deep on the beach you crunch them while walking. It is illegal to carry the shells away from the beach. There is a $450 fine for taking shells. Some shellers gathered wonderful shells and lined them on a log for the next sheller to admire. There is a volunteer who sits on the castaway to the beach to make sure you do not leave with any shells or driftwood. There is also a surveillance camera mounted high in a tree watching you leave the beach. So don’t take the shells.
The erosion on the beach has killed some of the trees as the ocean waves wash up among the trunks on the two miles of undeveloped beach. You can gather shells on Edisto Island State Park Beach, but on my visit, there were not many shells washing up.
In the marshes, a lone kayaker makes his way up the waterway. A Giant Egret, casting his shadow, carefully walks in the water searching for food. Big Brown pelicans drift overhead searching the waters then suddenly they drop like a bomb into the water for a fish snack. Small crabs run to hide in the black mud of the marsh when I approach. The cabbage palmetto trees, the state tree in South Carolina, are everywhere looking like giant palm fans casting spooky shadows on the trail paths. Waterfowl with long tall legs and some with short legs are in the marshes and the air overheard. Song birds sing in the tree tops or call out warnings that I am approaching. I can’t interpret “bird talk,” but I can hear them whistle and chatter.
The old Gothic Revival architecture of the Bleak Hall Plantation ice house is amazing. It looks like a tiny church. The gardener’s shed with tabby walls has ivy growing on the door. Most likely it is ivy left from the Bleak Hall Japanese garden that once was located behind the shed. These buildings were built by slave labor before the Civil War. The big plantation house was burned by Union General Sherman at the end of the war on his march to the sea. Another house was later rebuilt, but it also burned.
Up the road a piece is the “Presbyterian Church on Edison Island.” That is the name of the church. It was founded in 1685. The cemetery has live oaks with hanging Spanish moss providing shade for some of the graves. One grave of a Confederate soldier is there, along with a 20-foot tall marker for Robert Chisholm Seabrook. The Seabrook family built Sea Cloud Plantation. He used the “Sea” from his name and the “Cloud” from his wife’s McCloud name to come up with Sea Cloud.
As I look around the island, my brain tried to make order out of what I was seeing. As a photographer I had to make choices and compromises in my compositions in my photos. There are “rules of composition” but there are no absolutes in making decisions for my “personal vision” for photos. It is a blessing to photographers that the composition of pictures has defied automation. So far!