Sallie Ann Robinson is down in St. Petersburg, Florida, doing a presentation at the Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival. So instead of bumping along the sandy roads that cut through Daufuskie Island’s dense maritime forest on a history tour with her, I’m bumping along the island’s roads with Jenny Hersch. Hersch recently spent three years researching and co-writing a book with Sallie Ann on the history of Daufuskie, a sea island off the southern coast of South Carolina.
Hersch laughs when I ask if she’s a guide. “I’m a bass player with an interest in Daufuskie’s history,” she says, alternating between tales of island life and apologies. The latter are for the drive – patches of deep potholes send her electric golf cart dipping, bucking and bobbling – and for not being Sallie Ann. “She’s the real deal. I’m just visiting,” Hersch says. “I’m full of fun facts, but she’s lived it all.”
Sallie Ann is the sixth generation of her family to be born and live on Daufuskie, and, explaining her keynote presentation at the festival, an accomplished chef. On the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods” show, she cooked host Andrew Zimmern some barbecued raccoon – after she showed him how to skin and clean it.
Hersch has nothing to apologize for: Her facts go deeper than mere fun, and the wild and woolly drive only adds to Daufuskie’s charm and magic.
I’ve long been in love with the Lowcountry, a wild labyrinth of rivers, islands, maritime forests, wetlands, savannas and marshes that stretch south from Charleston to the Savannah River. The area is home to bald eagles, herons, wood storks, ibises and pelicans. There are orchids, cypresses, sycamores, magnolias and flowering dogwoods. Daufuskie – pronounced dah-FUS-key; the last two syllables rhyme with “husky” – is all this, and then several levels more.
Separated from Hilton Head’s southwest tip by less than a mile of water, Daufuskie couldn’t be more different from its densely populated neighbor. The only way to get to the island today is the same way Native Americans have since it separated from the South Carolina mainland about 4,500 years ago: by water. There are cars on Daufuskie, but it wasn’t until 1995 that they were required to be registered and drivers required to have a license. Because there’s no bridge to the island and because the island is only about 8 square miles, most people, whether residents or visitors, get around by golf cart or bicycle.
Daufuskie has no grocery store or doctor, much less a hospital, but about 400 people live there year-round. About one-quarter of these, including Sallie Ann, are Gullah, or Geechee – African-Americans descended from slaves who, even today, maintain a distinct culture and dialect. The latter is a combination of West and Central African languages and English.
Other evidence of Daufuskie’s charm? Every tree on this island weeps with thick, Albus Dumbledore beards of Spanish moss that are as straggly as they are abundant. Cyclists brake for armadillos crossing the road while tooling around the island. People ride horses on the beach. Twice as I paddleboard in Calibogue Sound (pronounced kal-uh-BOWG-ee), dolphins swim alongside and pelicans, the tips of their wings no more than a foot off the water, soar past.
At Lucy Bell’s Cafe, a lunch spot in a former honky tonk, fresh, local fried oysters and other items are served at wrought-iron tables shaded by a century-old live oak. Down the road is an art gallery whose owner-artist asks patrons to pay by the “honor system” and leave cash or a check in a box on the front porch.
Having read “The Water is Wide,” Pat Conroy’s 1972 memoir about his year teaching Daufuskie’s black students in the two-room Mary Fields School, I arrive on the island expecting it to be idiosyncratic and evocative, and to possess a moody magic. But, as extensive a picture as the book painted, it doesn’t do the reality of Daufuskie justice.
Of course, as charming as I find Daufuskie today, it wasn’t always this way. By the mid-1700s, European diseases and wars wiped out most of the Native American tribes that lived in the Lowcountry for about 9,000 years, including on Daufuskie.
Glass cases inside Strachan Mansion, a gathering spot inside the resort community of Haig Point, display Native American points and arrowheads and pieces of fiber-tempered pottery discovered as the property was being developed. Also inside these cases are Civil War bullets, hand-forged iron chains and glass slave beads.
From the 1770s through 1861, Daufuskie had 10 plantations; at any given time about 200 slaves lived on the island. On my tour with Hersch I learn that it was slaves who built, in 1805, the island’s main north-south road, which is still used today.
On Daufuskie, I stay at Haig Point’s 1873 lighthouse. Haig Point was once a plantation of the same name. Walking up to the lighthouse’s back door, I wonder at thick, right-angled oyster shell pathways surrounding the lighthouse. Inside, a section of kitchen floor that is clear plexiglass instead of wood perplexes me. Hersch tells me the “pathways” are all that’s left of the Haig Point mansion, its foundation. The plexiglass in the kitchen allows lighthouse guests to see the foundation’s depth.
About 200 feet north of the plantation house’s foundation are the carefully preserved remains of three former slave dwellings. The slave houses and the mansion are constructed of tabby, a type of concrete made with lime from burned oyster shells mixed with sand, water, ash and crushed oyster shells. The slave dwellings, which were originally 16-by-24 feet, are among the best-preserved in the area.
The most haunting place I find on the island is Melrose, another former plantation turned luxury golf community that is adjacent to Haig Point. Melrose went into bankruptcy in March 2017. Some families still live full-time in homes they own here, but many cottages are abandoned. The development’s roads and Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course are weedy and blanketed with fallen pine needles.
Driving my golf cart here at night – an independent restaurateur leases one of Melrose’s former restaurants; he fixed it up and reopened it as the Melrose Beach Club last October – I wonder how two streetlights still work. Having recently finished reading the dystopian novel “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel, I imagine Melrose is exactly what the world would look like if a super-flu wiped out 99 percent of the planet’s population.
My first visit to Melrose is on the back of Zeus, a calm and stately white gelding who looks as though he’s winking. (He isn’t; he has a minor infection in one eye.) Haig Point recently began renting Melrose’s stables, and the first 15 minutes of its 90-minute beach ride are through Melrose’s post-apocalyptic landscape.
Zeus brings me to the beach shortly after passing a catawampus gazebo with several collapsed pilings. As he self-assuredly walks several feet from waves gently lapping at the shore, my mind turns to a favorite book from my childhood, Walter Farley’s “The Black Stallion.” I think of Alec Ramsay riding bareback at a full gallop down the deserted beach where they’re shipwrecked. But while magic is everywhere on Daufuskie, I’m not so silly to think it has suddenly made me an accomplished enough equestrian to stay in the saddle of a galloping horse.
I’ll save my Alec Ramsay fantasy for my return trip. Even then, I’ll do it only after paddleboarding with dolphins a few more times. And eating another plate of fried oysters at Lucy Bell’s. And, of course, after touring the island with Sallie Ann.
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