Moonshine Memories

In the riverbed between Edgefield County, South Carolina, and Lincoln County, Georgia, a copper still sleeps in the ooze gluing two states together. That still, the last vestige of a moonshiner’s art, belonged to my grandfather. How it ended in the Savannah River is a tale of brotherly salvation.

Every family—some will admit it—shuns some relative from its past. Mine is no exception. Growing up, I heard shadowy references to my grandfather’s shady past. To me, he was a good man though not affectionate; he wasn’t the clichéd kindly old grandfather. We did few things together, save drive up cattle come lightning bug time, he calling them through cupped hands with a word I can only approximate as “quoey.” To this day he remains an enigma, the man who fathered my father but otherwise moved through my life largely unknown, a silhouette on a scrim. I wish I had known him better.

He had linguistic talent. He was the “finest cusser” in the county as one gray-headed field hand told me and he was known to have a wandering eye. My grandmother, having caught wind of his assignations, lowered a 12-gauge shotgun on him. He leaped the banister of a 15-foot porch, hit the ground running as a load of #8 birdshot flew over his head, and didn’t come back for four days.

In memories I best see him chopping hog meat with a hatchet on a thick oak table. Each chop cut slightly past and across the last yielding a fine crosshatched layer of BBQ. He wore overalls, a felt hat as men did in his day, and in winter a brown leather jacket. He had money but dressed like the blue-collar fellow he was. I don’t recall him ever buying a new car, not one. He owned a large farm with eleven fishponds that infused my boyhood with bream-bed joy. He raised a herd of 700 white-faced cattle and grew cotton, which was bound into 500-pound burlap bales, and light green watermelons run over with dark green, zigzagged stripes. In the summer he girdled oaks and in winter felled the dried-out trees and burnt yellow logs with red hearts in a black wood stove. The fragrant wood smelled sweet and sour at the same time. He would spit at the stove with its cherry-red stovepipe, each glob of phlegm landing with a hiss. When one landed atop the stove it rolled around sibilating like a ball bearing from Hell.

At its zenith, his farm sprawled across 5,000 acres along the Georgia side of the South Carolina border. That high point was before the US Army Corps of Engineers built Clark Hill Dam, penning up the mighty Savannah and inundating more red clay than it should. Shoddy engineering over-projected how high the waters would rise, giving bureaucrats control over massive amounts of acreages. In short, the government stole 1,000 acres of fully timbered land from my grandfather for $1 an acre. The Corps never gave it back. That was the federal government’s pound of flesh, its way of extracting revenge from Mr. Johnny, as grandfather was known for Mr. Johnny, you see, made white lightning.

 

 

Born in 1902, my grandfather was just eighteen when Prohibition arrived. He was thirty-one when Prohibition and its documented ills ended, proving that the road to hell is, indeed, paved with good intentions. Sometime during those parched years Mr. Johnny perfected the making of moonshine, “the best liquor in the county” as one farmhand told me years later. From what I can gather, he didn’t kill people or blind them by using radiators and lead solder. He made and sold quality hooch and found a ready market, parlaying the bounty from his corn liquor into land. That much I deduced. Otherwise, I know little about the man and his black market Prohibition days. One tale, however, made it through family censors: a raid by federal agents.

Granddad and his charismatic brother, Thomas Carey, “Carey,” who often sashayed around with two women on his arms, were working a still close by the Savannah River. Perhaps they stayed in one spot too long. Maybe some fellow jealous of Carey ratted them out. Perchance the revenuers saw smoke and got lucky. However they found his still, they raided it while Granddad alone was distilling shine. Granddad broke and ran. He ran through briars and brambles, through thorns and thickets, through woods and over barbed wire and when he could run no more and had lost every stitch of clothing, they caught him.

The agents escorted him home where my grandmother met them on the front porch. With an agent holding him by each elbow, Granddad spoke. “Thelma, I have to do some business for a few days in Augusta with these gentlemen. I’ll be back.”

While Granddad was detained in Augusta, the word got back to Carey. Carey, too, remains a bit of an enigma. Women loved him. Sister Nanny, said, “That Carey. He always had dolls. Carey partied a lot and after a night of revelry he got extremely ill. A doctor’s injection reacted with the alcohol … so the family believed and at the age of 37 he was no more. ” That much I know. I like to think that Carey loved my grandfather very much, and I will write here that he did. Carey, hearing of his older brother’s plight, gathered up some farmhands and took the still, barrels, and all and put them on a barge. They poled it to the middle of the Savannah and sunk it. When the revenuers returned to get their evidence there was none. They freed Granddad.

Moonshine memories live long down here. Down South moonshine put some jingle in pockets, food on the table, and in Granddad’s case land on the courthouse tax rolls. I’m not sure but I believe he ended his days of shine after his brush with the law and turned to full-time farming. Why not. His shine days had set him up handsomely and he adhered to a principle today’s undisciplined people are hard pressed to do: he lived within his means.

Were he alive today he’d be 113. Let’s just pretend that were he a younger man and alive today things would be different for dear old granddad. Thanks to recent micro-distillery laws it’s legal to distill liquor as an individual. You pay taxes on it, of course, and just across the Savannah River in Edgefield—where his mother’s people came from the Red Oak Grove community—Granddad could set up shop and make some shine with no worries about running naked through the woods. He’d have a plethora of regulations and requirements to meet but his experience with the government would serve him well. I like to think that he’d set up a fine moonshine establishment, all legal and proper. Perchance his brand would be Double Branches Moonshine for the community of Double Branches is where he made shine.

All these memories, thoughts, and speculations spiraled through my mind Saturday, December 20, as I drove back in time to the storied era of white lightning, moonshiners, and infernal revenuers, as Billy DeBeck’s bulbous-nosed Snuffy Smith called them. Departing Columbia and taking the interstate, I forsook I-20 for country roads whereupon I tunneled through fog. As the fog melted away, a soft gray sky teased the land with the promise of snow, though it was too warm. (Down here quilted winter skies always hint of snow.) The good folks at Carolina Moon Distillery had invited me to join them as the last of their “Booze And Books” authors for 2014, and driving to Edgefield felt like Christmas should feel. Real.

Edgefield needs no introduction. The home to ten governors, history here runs deep. It’s a quaint town with interesting shops and a beautiful presence. The square with its statue of Strom Thurmond is among the best. Go there and you, too, can drive back in time. At 116 Courthouse Square you’ll see a handsome red brick building with a large tan and green sign. “Whiskey.”

Mr. Johnny’s mission was to make money. Carolina Moon Distillery’s mission is a bit more principled: preserving the South’s tradition of fine corn whiskey. T. “Cal” Bowie and David F. Long, two Edgefield entrepreneurs, set their moonshine dreams in motion in 2012. Today, a still runs in the back of the old hardware store on the square. If you go, you can see the distillery process in action. What you won’t see are “infernal revenuers.”

I parked to the right of the distillery and getting out of my car, a surprise! Snowflakes and Christmas carols swirled through the air. In the square, a snow machine blew diminutive flakes into the air and Old Strom’s magnetism drew them his way. It was a strange amalgam … “O Holy Night” and snowflakes whirling around Strom’s bronze 800-pound statue, compete with an etching of a cockroach beneath his coattail. (It’s true, a story for another day.)

Inside Carolina Moon, the heady fragrance of liquor greeted me, as did Martha, the transplanted branding guru. When I guessed that she was from Pennsylvania and had lived in Massachusetts and Chicago it surprised her. Some accents prove easy to decipher.

During my time at the distillery shoppers were about, and they drifted into the gift shop filled with pottery, clothing, jewelry, and more. People came not just to buy moonshine, though many did. Some bought books. I was there to sign two new books, Classic Carolina Road Trips and Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II. All manner of people drifted in looking for gift ideas but most ignored my books and me. The door flew open and brandishing a jug Snuffy Smith would have loved, a fellow exclaimed, “This jug has a problem!”

It must leak I thought, but he cleared things up. “It keeps getting empty.”

One of the distillery’s attendants, said, “Hi Ike,” and that got my attention. Ike is not the most common name and I knew that Robert Clark and I had featured Ike Carpenter from Edgefield in our new book, Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II.

When a fellow behind the counter pointed to me and said, “Ike, this fellow is here signing books,” Ike wandered over. “I’m in this book. Page 61.”

On page 61, in “The Upcountry, Realm of Peaks, Vales, and Falls” section, you’ll see Ike hammering a chisel with a wooden mallet as he works a piece of oak at Walnut Grove Plantation near Spartanburg, more precisely Roe Buck. The first weekend in October, Walnut Grove Plantation hosts over 200 re-enactors, storytellers, and artisans who transform the 1765 homestead into a living colonial village. Ike does his part, having demonstrated old time woodworking at the festival for twenty years. As I wrote in Reflections II, Ike Carpenter is aptly named.

A Mrs. Willis wandered in, flipping through every page of Reflections II, lingering on a few pages in particular. Quiet, she seemed shy. She seemed sweet. “How much,” she asked softly. I told her and she paused … “Will you take a check?”

“Sure.”

“I have to go home to get my check book.”

Other people came in. Like most small towns everyone seemed to know one another and the conversation flowed, well, like moonshine. During quieter moments I enjoyed the view of Edgefield’s town square. (All small towns need a square; my hometown doesn’t have one thus people can’t convene as they should.) A family of five came in and the Mrs. coughed and sputtered after downing a shot of white lightning. Her children snickered as if they had caught mom doing a dastardly deed.

The clock kept ticking and my time in Edgefield grew short. No Mrs. Willis. As my allotted time approached its end I doubted Mrs. Willis would return. I began to pack up books, dawdling a bit. Just then a young man with a Georgia Bulldog cap came in and we at once began to talk Georgia football. Finally, it was time to go. I had one more book signing that afternoon in Columbia at the State Museum at 5 p.m. Just as I was leaving, Mrs. Willis came in and bought her copy of Reflections II. I’ve watched multitudes of people flip through books. She was different … The book seemed to mean something to her and I wondered if she had seen someone or something special between its covers. Whatever the pull, I’ll never know.

Several things made this signing memorable. Granddad’s past. (Today he’d be considered a craft distiller and go from villain to vogue.) Another thing was the unique venue. A moonshine distillery was a first. Yet another was my past. Growing up in the shadow of a small town puts an indelible stamp on you. You see things differently and big cities seem artificial. Life in a small town is genuine if slow but the pace picks up during the holidays, and I have always loved the way small towns come to life at Christmas. Big cities get choked with traffic, strangers, and commercialism but small town people get a Christmas spirit hard to beat. Edgefield basked in the spirit that day.

As for Granddad, I’d have loved to have seen the look on his face if he could have walked into Carolina Moon Distillery. Suffering chest pains, he died July 23, 1972, sitting in his car. Thelma had driven him to the clinic attached to the home of my hometown doctor, a legend, where an indolent doctor was substituting for the county’s much-loved vacationing physician. “Yeah, you’re having a heart attack,” said the substitute, a quack. “Get to a hospital,” and with that he went back inside. There was no hospital.

Granddad died on the spot, done in by years of homegrown steaks, eggs, and bacon. That night I tried to comfort my grandmother who gruffly retorted, “Go on. I’ll be all right.”

At Granddad’s funeral it surfaced that he had long donated a lot of money to his church, though he never attended it. Field hands, however, did attend his service, the first time to my knowledge the little Baptist church down by a branch was integrated. And forty-three days after Granddad passed, my daughter, Beth, came into this world in the clinic, a mere 30 feet from where Granddad sought help in vain. The Russians have a proverb, “One wedge knocks out another.”

All of this dying and birthing was forty-three years ago. All the moonshining was longer than that and still does that copper still sleep in the Savannah River. How I’d love to salvage it. As for granddad, well, my mother never cared for him. I’ve never heard her say one good thing about him. To this day, given an opening, she will insult him. She berated Granddad for being a bootlegger but the moonshine money that bought the land Dad inherited and sold nonetheless sustains her. No complaints about that.

I too inherited something valuable from the man in the felt hat and coveralls—advice that would change my life. “If you can make money for the man, you can make it for yourself.” Thanks to his advice I’ve quit four jobs, saving my sanity and pride in four fell swoops.

Days like December 20 will stay with me a long time. It revived a past the likes of which I will never see again. It was far from ordinary and it prompts me to make a suggestion. Go to Edgefield. Step back in time as you cross Carolina Moon’s threshold. For $3 you can sample the various flavors of shine … basic white corn liquor, strawberry, cherry, and scuppernong. Just keep the sipping under control, and if your family admits to having a black sheep bootlegger in it, well, may the day resurrect memories for you too.

My Atomic Paradise Sequel

Home Was Where The Heart Was

During my recent trip to Savannah River Site I toured the ghost town of Ellenton. Since I wrote “Atomic Paradise” last week Ellenton, an apparition, haunts me. An entire town … moved. In researching “Atomic Paradise” I examined the unexpected exodus of Ellenton’s residents and two things caught my attention. One involves nature; the other human nature.

Nature first. The afternoon I saw Ellenton brushy undergrowth grew where homes had sat. Where people once slept vines hung from trees. Curbs still looked solid. Not so the cracking sidewalks, which lay beneath grass. The school’s playground looks remarkably unchanged for it has long resisted nature’s efforts to reclaim what is hers. Years of small feet running and jumping, playing ball, Red Rover Red Rover sending folks over, and tag had packed the soil into an impermeable surface. Amazing to me.

Bonner Smith Created This Sign December 1950

Bonner Smith Created This Sign December 1950

Human nature next. As I probed Ellenton’s history I learned that Ellenton’s residents found out just a few days before Thanksgiving that their homes would be no more. Overnight farmers had no land. They had to find farmland right away or lose a year’s income. This shock, this sudden departure from life as usual, would extract a severe price in years to come as an excerpt reveals.

“Of those fifty or older who relocated to New Ellenton, over half died within a decade. Expatriates forbidden to visit their old homes, their will to live withered.”

Over half of those 50 and older who relocated died within ten years. That says a lot about human nature and the differences between the young and the old. The young just pick up and move. Not so the older set. When you’ve got a good many years under your belt, your heart is where home is, where you spent your life or a significant time, where you yearn to be. In Ellenton’s case residents’ heart remained back where they had lived.

And that brings me to small towns. To me at least it seems fewer people move in and out of towns compared to cities. Lots of hustle and bustle in cities. Lots of people whose career keeps them on the move. I know a lot of people here in Columbia but few grew up here. Some, like me, became transplants but most are transients. Such people make ours a nation on the move. But! They decide when and where to move. With Ellenton’s people being picked up and replanted like a gardenia bush, I thought of my moves over the years.

I’ve lived in three places: Lincolnton, Georgia; Athens, Georgia, and Columbia. My moves went like this: from high school to Athens. From Athens to Lincolnton to teach for a year. Back to Athens for a Master’s and then on to Columbia for a six-month teaching assignment. So far that six-month assignment has lasted forty years. Why? Well I don’t like moving. It’s disruptive. It’s unsettling. I don’t like starting over and over though God knows I have done that too.

Let’s talk about dwellings now. In my first four years in Athens I moved four times from a dorm to apartments, and a mobile home, aka, a wobbly box. What was behind all these moves? An itch to live in a newer place and economics. Then I moved back to Lincolnton where I first rented a house and then a mobile home. And then I went back to Athens where a tornado forced a move and I lived in a series of places post-tornado. And then that temporary teaching assignment brought me to Columbia where I’ve moved eight times … rental houses, a house, a garage apartment, a big adult only apartment complex, a condominium, and finally the house I’ve owned for twenty-three years. In all, my migrations have included three places and sixteen residences.

If you’ve never moved or not moved much it may leave you breathless, all my moves. Well I assure you it is nothing like people in the military endure. I’ve written before about a friend here. Her dad, a Marine fighter pilot (an ace), fought at Guadalcanal. She moved so much as a child she didn’t try to make friends. “There was no point. We moved all the time, and if we didn’t move, my friends did. Growing up, I always envied people who lived in one place.” I could hear loneliness in her voice, a lingering presence from childhood.

God knows there are other things that force moves or the loss of a home: a big lake backs up and covers your home, divorce (war of another type) forces one to flee, and fires, floods, and hurricanes do their part to uproot people, and so does the loss of a loved one where memories bleed the joy out of life. I know a woman here who is selling her home because she just can’t cope with her husband’s death. “It’s been over a year and things are still depressing. I see too many reminders of happier times,” she laments. Up went the For Sale sign.

Divorce evicts many from their home. Some 34 years ago I started over with nothing but a broken car, a broken heart, a dog, a sleeper sofa, and a television Dad won in a sales contest. And a few home goods of course. Led Zeppelin was right about women with no soul.

Divorce is a personal way to lose a home. But the people of Ellenton endured heartache en masse. Imagine if all of you were gathered into a community center and told you have one month to find a new place to live. Perhaps you were born in the house you must now abandon. Out back are all your pets, buried with loving care. The pear tree grandpa planted out back. You’ll never taste a pear from it again. Everything must be left behind. Oh you can take your memories and that may well be the worst thing of all. You’ll keep longing for your irreplaceable home. That adage, “home is where the heart is,” rings true. Emotions don’t move.

I see a lot of lessons in Ellenton. I am no fan of taking old people out of their home and putting them in an assisted living center. Used to be that just didn’t happen. What’s happened to this world? I swear the more sophisticated and “caring” we become the sorrier we get. The last place an older, frail person wants to be is some place that isn’t home. I realize that older people fall, forget to turn the oven off, don’t remember to take their medicines, and create all manner of worries but isn’t it therapeutic to keep them in the home they love?

In one of the worst years of my life I almost moved to Atlanta. Had my house on the market and was looking for jobs in Atlanta. After a few months passed with no progress I came home dejected and unsure what my future would be. That’s when I found a voice message on my phone. Dad had called. “Son, take your home off the market. Columbia is your home.” He was right God bless him. No telling how much misery he saved me. It would have been a miserable, lonely transition, picking up and moving solo, starting over yet again with hair whiter than ever.

They say misery loves company. The day the people packed up and left Ellenton there was misery aplenty, but nobody loved it. Within ten years families buried a good portion of the heartache created by an unexpected exodus. And the younger set? Well they scattered like a covey of quail.

My Atomic Paradise Sequel: Home Was Where The Heart Was

During my recent trip to Savannah River Site I toured the ghost town of Ellenton. Since I wrote “Atomic Paradise” last week Ellenton, an apparition, haunts me. An entire town … moved. In researching “Atomic Paradise” I examined the unexpected exodus of Ellenton’s residents and two things caught my attention. One involves nature; the other human nature.

Nature first. The afternoon I saw Ellenton brushy undergrowth grew where homes had sat. Where people once slept vines hung from trees. Curbs still looked solid. Not so the cracking sidewalks, which lay beneath grass. The school’s playground looks remarkably unchanged for it has long resisted nature’s efforts to reclaim what is hers. Years of small feet running and jumping, playing ball, Red Rover Red Rover sending folks over, and tag had packed the soil into an impermeable surface. Amazing to me.

Sign Robert Bonner Made December 1950

Sign Robert Bonner Made December 1950

Human nature next. As I probed Ellenton’s history I learned that Ellenton’s residents found out just a few days before Thanksgiving that their homes would be no more. Overnight farmers had no land. They had to find farmland right away or lose a year’s income. This shock, this sudden departure from life as usual, would extract a severe price in years to come as an excerpt reveals.

“Of those fifty or older who relocated to New Ellenton, over half died within a decade. Expatriates forbidden to visit their old homes, their will to live withered.”

Over half of those 50 and older who relocated died within ten years. That says a lot about human nature and the differences between the young and the old. The young just pick up and move. Not so the older set. When you’ve got a good many years under your belt, your heart is where home is, where you spent your life or a significant time, where you yearn to be. In Ellenton’s case residents’ heart remained back where they had lived.

And that brings me to small towns. To me at least it seems fewer people move in and out of towns compared to cities. Lots of hustle and bustle in cities. Lots of people whose career keeps them on the move. I know a lot of people here in Columbia but few grew up here. Some, like me, became transplants but most are transients. Such people make ours a nation on the move. But! They decide when and where to move. With Ellenton’s people being picked up and replanted like a gardenia bush, I thought of my moves over the years.

I’ve lived in three places: Lincolnton, Georgia; Athens, Georgia, and Columbia. My moves went like this: from high school to Athens. From Athens to Lincolnton to teach for a year. Back to Athens for a Master’s and then on to Columbia for a six-month teaching assignment. So far that six-month assignment has lasted forty years. Why? Well I don’t like moving. It’s disruptive. It’s unsettling. I don’t like starting over and over though God knows I have done that too.

Let’s talk about dwellings now. In my first four years in Athens I moved four times from a dorm to apartments, and a mobile home, aka, a wobbly box. What was behind all these moves? An itch to live in a newer place and economics. Then I moved back to Lincolnton where I first rented a house and then a mobile home. And then I went back to Athens where a tornado forced a move and I lived in a series of places post-tornado. And then that temporary teaching assignment brought me to Columbia where I’ve moved eight times … rental houses, a house, a garage apartment, a big adult only apartment complex, a condominium, and finally the house I’ve owned for twenty-three years. In all, my migrations have included three places and sixteen residences.

If you’ve never moved or not moved much it may leave you breathless, all my moves. Well I assure you it is nothing like people in the military endure. I’ve written before about a friend here. Her dad, a Marine fighter pilot (an ace), fought at Guadalcanal. She moved so much as a child she didn’t try to make friends. “There was no point. We moved all the time, and if we didn’t move, my friends did. Growing up, I always envied people who lived in one place.” I could hear loneliness in her voice, a lingering presence from childhood.

God knows there are other things that force moves or the loss of a home: a big lake backs up and covers your home, divorce (war of another type) forces one to flee, and fires, floods, and hurricanes do their part to uproot people, and so does the loss of a loved one where memories bleed the joy out of life. I know a woman here who is selling her home because she just can’t cope with her husband’s death. “It’s been over a year and things are still depressing. I see too many reminders of happier times,” she laments. Up went the For Sale sign.

Divorce evicts many from their home. Some 34 years ago I started over with nothing but a broken car, a broken heart, a dog, a sleeper sofa, and a television Dad won in a sales contest. And a few home goods of course. Led Zeppelin was right about women with no soul.

Divorce is a personal way to lose a home. But the people of Ellenton endured heartache en masse. Imagine if all of you were gathered into a community center and told you have one month to find a new place to live. Perhaps you were born in the house you must now abandon. Out back are all your pets, buried with loving care. The pear tree grandpa planted out back. You’ll never taste a pear from it again. Everything must be left behind. Oh you can take your memories and that may well be the worst thing of all. You’ll keep longing for your irreplaceable home. That adage, “home is where the heart is,” rings true. Emotions don’t move.

I see a lot of lessons in Ellenton. I am no fan of taking old people out of their home and putting them in an assisted living center. Used to be that just didn’t happen. What’s happened to this world? I swear the more sophisticated and “caring” we become the sorrier we get. The last place an older, frail person wants to be is some place that isn’t home. I realize that older people fall, forget to turn the oven off, don’t remember to take their medicines, and create all manner of worries but isn’t it therapeutic to keep them in the home they love?

In one of the worst years of my life I almost moved to Atlanta. Had my house on the market and was looking for jobs in Atlanta. After a few months passed with no progress I came home dejected and unsure what my future would be. That’s when I found a voice message on my phone. Dad had called. “Son, take your home off the market. Columbia is your home.” He was right God bless him. No telling how much misery he saved me. It would have been a miserable, lonely transition, picking up and moving solo, starting over yet again with hair whiter than ever.

They say misery loves company. The day the people packed up and left Ellenton there was misery aplenty, but nobody loved it. Within ten years families buried a good portion of the heartache created by an unexpected exodus. And the younger set? Well they scattered like a covey of quail.

Home Is Where The Heart Was

During my recent trip to Savannah River Site I toured the ghost town of Ellenton. Since I wrote “Atomic Paradise” last week Ellenton, an apparition, haunts me. An entire town … moved. In researching “Atomic Paradise” I examined the unexpected exodus of Ellenton’s residents and two things caught my attention. One involves nature; the other human nature.

Nature first. The afternoon I saw Ellenton brushy undergrowth grew where homes had sat. Where people once slept vines hung from trees. Curbs still looked solid. Not so the cracking sidewalks, which lay beneath grass. The school’s playground looks remarkably unchanged for it has long resisted nature’s efforts to reclaim what is hers. Years of small feet running and jumping, playing ball, Red Rover Red Rover sending folks over, and tag had packed the soil into an impermeable surface. Amazing to me.

Sign Robert Bonner Made December 1950

Sign Robert Bonner Made December 1950

Human nature next. As I probed Ellenton’s history I learned that Ellenton’s residents found out just a few days before Thanksgiving that their homes would be no more. Overnight farmers had no land. They had to find farmland right away or lose a year’s income. This shock, this sudden departure from life as usual, would extract a severe price in years to come as an excerpt reveals.

“Of those fifty or older who relocated to New Ellenton, over half died within a decade. Expatriates forbidden to visit their old homes, their will to live withered.”

Over half of those 50 and older who relocated died within ten years. That says a lot about human nature and the differences between the young and the old. The young just pick up and move. Not so the older set. When you’ve got a good many years under your belt, your heart is where home is, where you spent your life or a significant time, where you yearn to be. In Ellenton’s case residents’ heart remained back where they had lived.

And that brings me to small towns. To me at least it seems fewer people move in and out of towns compared to cities. Lots of hustle and bustle in cities. Lots of people whose career keeps them on the move. I know a lot of people here in Columbia but few grew up here. Some, like me, became transplants but most are transients. Such people make ours a nation on the move. But! They decide when and where to move. With Ellenton’s people being picked up and replanted like a gardenia bush, I thought of my moves over the years.

I’ve lived in three places: Lincolnton, Georgia; Athens, Georgia, and Columbia. My moves went like this: from high school to Athens. From Athens to Lincolnton to teach for a year. Back to Athens for a Master’s and then on to Columbia for a six-month teaching assignment. So far that six-month assignment has lasted forty years. Why? Well I don’t like moving. It’s disruptive. It’s unsettling. I don’t like starting over and over though God knows I have done that too.

Let’s talk about dwellings now. In my first four years in Athens I moved four times from a dorm to apartments, and a mobile home, aka, a wobbly box. What was behind all these moves? An itch to live in a newer place and economics. Then I moved back to Lincolnton where I first rented a house and then a mobile home. And then I went back to Athens where a tornado forced a move and I lived in a series of places post-tornado. And then that temporary teaching assignment brought me to Columbia where I’ve moved eight times … rental houses, a house, a garage apartment, a big adult only apartment complex, a condominium, and finally the house I’ve owned for twenty-three years. In all, my migrations have included three places and sixteen residences.

If you’ve never moved or not moved much it may leave you breathless, all my moves. Well I assure you it is nothing like people in the military endure. I’ve written before about a friend here. Her dad, a Marine fighter pilot (an ace), fought at Guadalcanal. She moved so much as a child she didn’t try to make friends. “There was no point. We moved all the time, and if we didn’t move, my friends did. Growing up, I always envied people who lived in one place.” I could hear loneliness in her voice, a lingering presence from childhood.

God knows there are other things that force moves or the loss of a home: a big lake backs up and covers your home, divorce (war of another type) forces one to flee, and fires, floods, and hurricanes do their part to uproot people, and so does the loss of a loved one where memories bleed the joy out of life. I know a woman here who is selling her home because she just can’t cope with her husband’s death. “It’s been over a year and things are still depressing. I see too many reminders of happier times,” she laments. Up went the For Sale sign.

Divorce evicts many from their home. Some 34 years ago I started over with nothing but a broken car, a broken heart, a dog, a sleeper sofa, and a television Dad won in a sales contest. And a few home goods of course. Led Zeppelin was right about women with no soul.

Divorce is a personal way to lose a home. But the people of Ellenton endured heartache en masse. Imagine if all of you were gathered into a community center and told you have one month to find a new place to live. Perhaps you were born in the house you must now abandon. Out back are all your pets, buried with loving care. The pear tree grandpa planted out back. You’ll never taste a pear from it again. Everything must be left behind. Oh you can take your memories and that may well be the worst thing of all. You’ll keep longing for your irreplaceable home. That adage, “home is where the heart is,” rings true. Emotions don’t move.

I see a lot of lessons in Ellenton. I am no fan of taking old people out of their home and putting them in an assisted living center. Used to be that just didn’t happen. What’s happened to this world? I swear the more sophisticated and “caring” we become the sorrier we get. The last place an older, frail person wants to be is some place that isn’t home. I realize that older people fall, forget to turn the oven off, don’t remember to take their medicines, and create all manner of worries but isn’t it therapeutic to keep them in the home they love?

In one of the worst years of my life I almost moved to Atlanta. Had my house on the market and was looking for jobs in Atlanta. After a few months passed with no progress I came home dejected and unsure what my future would be. That’s when I found a voice message on my phone. Dad had called. “Son, take your home off the market. Columbia is your home.” He was right God bless him. No telling how much misery he saved me. It would have been a miserable, lonely transition, picking up and moving solo, starting over yet again with hair whiter than ever.

They say misery loves company. The day the people packed up and left Ellenton there was misery aplenty, but nobody loved it. Within ten years families buried a good portion of the heartache created by an unexpected exodus. And the younger set? Well they scattered like a covey of quail.

Sweet Tea

A Southern Classic

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Fourth of July brings picnics and lake outings aplenty, and it means fried chicken, all the fixings, and gallons of iced tea, a southern tradition. Before we proceed with this exposition on tea let’s take care of a slightly irritating matter. I hear this great beverage referred to as “ice tea” and “iced tea.” Which is correct?

I prefer “iced tea.” After all it’s the ice clinking in the glass that chills tea, giving it the cool, refreshing taste we love so much on a summer day. “Ice tea” sounds like a drink relying on ice for its flavor, like grape Kool-Aid. The New Oxford American Dictionary gives “iced tea” as its preference and that’s good enough for me.

Southerners swear by their sweet iced tea. In the South, iced tea is not just a summertime drink; it’s served year round with most meals. Nothing, however, ruins a meal faster than ordering sweet tea only to receive unsweetened tea. There ought to be a law against that. Well, it turns out there almost was.

Back in 2003, Representative John Noel (D-Atlanta) and four co-sponsors introduced HB 819 making it a misdemeanor to serve unsweetened tea only in Georgia. Here’s some of the legislation’s legalese: “As used in this Code section, the term ‘sweet tea’ means iced tea, which is sweetened with sugar at the time that it is brewed.
(b) Any food service establishment, which serves iced tea must serve sweet tea. Such an establishment may serve unsweetened tea but in such case must also serve sweet tea.
(c) Any person who violates this Code section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature.”

The bill never went to vote and was called an April Fool’s joke by some but its heart was in the right place. It ought to be against the law sure enough. Unsweetened tea grates on the taste buds almost as much as that non-word “anyways” grates on the ears. I think you know what I mean, but if not let this scenario enlighten you.

Somewhere down South a northerner who looks much like Rodney Dangerfield has ordered lunch and some tea.

Northern visitor: “Hey, whadayamean! This tea is sweet. Bring me unsweetened tea!”

Polite southern girl: “Sir, we don’t serve unsweetened tea here.”

Northern visitor: “Already or what! You’re telling me you don’t serve black tea?”

Polite southern girl: “No sir we don’t.”

Northern visitor craning his neck, eyes bulging: “Anyways … bring me some pop.”

I suppose he likes his tea black. Some folks refer to tea served without sugar, like coffee, as black tea. If only they knew their tea history, they might change their preference. Sweet tea, you see, occupies a position of great esteem in our culture. In the early 1900s people sipping sweet tea were viewed as persons of wealth. Sugar had to be shipped from afar and ice, the most expensive ingredient, wasn’t so easy to come by. Back then you didn’t come by a glass of iced tea so cheaply.

Over a century later, I don’t care what it costs. I’ve loved iced tea since I first raised a glass of my mom’s tea to my lips. I find that most tea elsewhere doesn’t measure up to hers. Her tea is one of the things I love about this land I call Georgialina, a word that fits nicely on this page. It took South Carolina to grow it and it took Georgia to tell us how best to brew it. First there was a bit of duplicity. Read on …

The British colonists in South Carolina went to China to buy tea plants, and the Chinese fooled them, selling them camellias instead. The Brits persevered and eventually got their beloved tea plants. For that we owe them a tip of the hat.

Now a good many historians disagree. They maintain that the first tea plant arrived here in the late 1700s when French explorer and botanist, Andre Michaux, imported it as well as sublime camellias, gardenias, and azaleas to suit the aesthetic tastes of Charleston planters. He planted tea near Charleston at Middleton Barony, now known as Middleton Place Gardens, and that plant in time would suit our taste buds.

South Carolina’s connection with tea is strong. It’s the first place in the United States where tea was grown and it’s the only state to produce tea commercially. Do you like American Classic Tea? If so, go see where it’s grown. Head down to the country’s only tea plantation 20 miles west of Charleston. On Wadmalaw Island you’ll find the Charleston Tea Plantation, home of American Classic Tea.

Wadmalaw (just saying that name is a pleasure) provides the perfect environment for propagating tea. With its sandy soils, sub-tropical climate, and average rainfall of 52 inches per year, Wadmalaw provides idyllic conditions for the Camellia Sinensis plant. This plant produces both black and green teas and over 320 varieties grow on the 127-acre grounds of the plantation, which bills itself as America’s Only Tea Garden. I’m planning to see this lovely tea plantation, tour its grounds, and check out its gift shop.

South Carolina gave us tea and a Georgia lady told us how to brew it. A tried-and-true recipe for making sweet iced tea came to us courtesy of the Home Economics editor for the Atlanta Journal back in 1928. In Southern Cooking, Henrietta Stanley Dull provided the recipe that remained standard in the South for decades. Here’s her recipe with a decree at the end. Note, too, how she distinguishes iced tea from hot tea and what to do when adding ice.

“TEA: Freshly brewed tea, after three to five minutes’ infusion, is essential if a good quality is desired. The water, as for coffee, should be freshly boiled and poured over the tea for this short time. The tea leaves may be removed when the desired strength is obtained. Tea, when it is to be iced, should be made much stronger, to allow for the ice used in chilling. A medium strength tea is usually liked. A good blend and grade of black tea is most popular for iced tea, while green and black are used for hot. To sweeten tea for an iced drink, less sugar is required if put in while tea is hot, but often too much is made and sweetened, so in the end there is more often a waste than saving. Iced tea should be served with or without lemon, with a sprig of mint, a strawberry, a cherry, a slice of orange or pineapple. This may be fresh or canned fruit. Milk is not used in iced tea.”

Besides being good, tea is good for you. All teas from the camellia tea plant abound in polyphenols, an antioxidant. These nutrients seek out cell-damaging free radicals and detoxify them. Read the tea leaves, it’s good for your future.

One more thing about iced tea. Consider it a beautiful glass of climate control. Add a slice of lemon or a green sprig of mint and the Southerner’s drink of choice brings loveliness and chill to a hot summer day. Just watching rivulets of condensation trickle down the glass drops the temperature ten degrees.

Seems our temperate days are about over. It’s hitting 102 here in two days. Should be a hot Fourth. Be smart. Be southern. Keep a pitcher of this southern classic chilled and ready all summer long. It’s a healthy southern tradition whether you drink it from a glass, a cup, or a Mason jar, and it’s especially good for you when those evil free radicals cause you to mindlessly repeat “anyways” when pausing to think.

A Horse For All Seasons

The steadfast Carolina marsh tacky holds a unique place in our state’s heritage and in the hearts of the riders who value them as the perfect hunting partners.

There’s nothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse.
—Ronald Reagan

December In The Lowcountry
It’s a cold, blustery December morning. Three horsemen lean into a biting wind at renowned Oaklawn Plantation. With hollowed horns used to signal the other members of the hunting party strapped across their backs, they ride through widely-spaced stands of fire-blackened longleaf pine, the horses beneath them near invisible in the thick underbrush and tall grass that has sprung up since the last time these woods burned. Their quest? Heritage and deer. Trailing a pack of eager dogs, the trio periodically drops out of the view of the standers placed strategically along the edges of the block of woods, only to emerge further downrange. Quietly weaving in and out of the thick underbrush, their movements take on an almost dreamlike quality.

Then suddenly, a whitetail breaks from cover. Whoops, hollers, and cracking whips shatter the morning’s calm. A cinematic blur of movement swirls through the trees. The horsemen rally the dogs to drive the deer toward standers and soon a salvo of shots reaps a deer.

A second drive gains three more deer, but one wounded buck flees, running hard towards a flooded cornfield managed for waterfowl, with the dogs in close pursuit. Two blows on the horn light a fire under the horsemen. Brothers Ed and Rawlins Lowndes and David Grant ride after the hounds in pursuit.

Rawlins Lowndes, commanding the hounds, rides Grant’s marsh tacky, “Sage,” and Grant rides “DP.” Ed Lowndes rides his tacky, “Laboka,” captured from a wild herd on Hilton Head Island. They have the right horse for the task at hand. For a solid week before the hunt, heavy rains have drenched the Lowcountry. The land surrounding the cornfield this morning is a muddy, obstacle-filled morass. Saplings, low-hanging limbs, tangled vines, armadillo holes, bushhog amputees—small-tree stubble—and thick, tall grass make the going rough for any horse. The marsh tacky, though, is not any horse.

The deer plunges into the flooded field with hounds in hot pursuit, and Rawlins Lowndes, carrying a shotgun borrowed from one of the standers, pounds around the edge of the dike surrounding the field, zigzagging between small trees and dodging low-hanging limbs. He urges Sage up the embankment, and up he goes— ten maybe fifteen feet straight up—through thick grass studded with perilous holes.

Lowndes and Sage reach the far bank just ahead of the deer. Is a clean shot possible? On top, the dike is a narrow sliver, and it’s a long way down to the bone-chilling water. Lowndes weighs his options as the deer turns back, narrowly flanking the dogs. By this time, David Grant and DP have caught up, and Rawlins hands off the shotgun to Grant, who gallops off, trying once again to cut off the deer’s escape route.

Back home in the Pee Dee, Grant loves “ripping” — using the horses to flush deer and shooting them from the saddle. But not just any horse will do. It takes a very special horse like DP, one not easily spooked and calm enough to let his rider fire with accuracy. As the deer catapults up the dike, Grant closes in. BAM!
DP doesn’t even flinch.

A Horse for A Kingdom
Lowcountry hunting on horseback resonates with tradition, and that agile breed, the Carolina marsh tacky, boasts an enduring legacy as well. “Tacky” comes from an English word meaning “common” or “cheap.” Hogwash. A small band of men (and women), among them David Grant and Ed and Rawlins Lowndes, knows the horse is worth a king’s ransom. They hunt deer and wild hogs as men before them did—from horseback, and they fully intend to keep hunting atop the marsh tacky a South Carolina tradition.

The Lowndes family has hunted on horseback for five generations. Grant owns and operates Carolina Marsh Tacky Outfitters near Darlington and breeds tackies. He brought three of his horses to the December hunt at Oaklawn, meaning something like 147 marsh tackies were elsewhere that day. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy estimates that fewer than 150 pure marsh tackies exist, though breeders and advocates for the horse like Grant are trying to change that.

Somewhere over the airwaves, an anthem plays for the marsh tacky, Procul Harum’s “Conquistador.” The song fits. As early as the 1500s, Spanish ships anchored along South Carolina’s coast. Their cargo included measles, small pox and chicken pox, but it also included fine-boned horses, a measure of absolution. The Spaniard’s colonies failed, and the would-be colonists left their horses to fend for themselves near Myrtle Beach and Port Royal. “Conquistador your stallion stands in need of company,” goes the song. Company it found.

In the 1600s, stunned English explorers, mouths agape, beheld Cherokee and Chickasaw Indians riding small, rugged horses. Feral marsh tackies sought refuge in Lowcountry marshes, where they were captured and domesticated, first by native people, then by European settlers and African slaves. The even-tempered horse made a good ride for children. The Gullah tilled their fields and gardens using tacky power. During World War II, beach patrols seeking Nazi U-boats rode marsh tackies. Had spies slipped ashore, men upon marsh tackies would have been the first line of defense. No surprise there. The horse had already ridden into the history books courtesy of an earlier war.

It’s believed that the legendary Swamp Fox, Francis Marion, led his irregulars into guerrilla-like forays on the sturdy-yet-nimble horses. Marsh Tackies would have easily outflanked the British Army’s larger European breeds in the woods and swamps of the South Carolina “backcountry.” Today the horses are used to pursue a quarry that’s a bit of a guerrilla fighter itself—wild Pee Dee hogs.

August In The Pee Dee
It’s a Saturday in the middle of August, and today’s band of equestrians and hunters includes the Lowndes brothers, Grant, Richard Perdue, Bryan Stanton, Moultrie Helms, and guide Troy Byrd. Other participants in the hunt include tacky devotee Wylie Bell, a writer/designer for the Florence Morning News, and equine photographer Dwain Snyder.

A day that began in heavy fog has turned hot enough to melt pig iron in Roblyn’s Neck, a 14,000-acre tract along the Great Pee Dee River. By now, wild hogs with any sense have retired to the most unpleasant pieces of real estate possible, deep in the shade of thick scrub and briar thickets. The sun rains down, and thundering down a lane scraped from the ancient sea bottom, the horses kick up contrails that hang in the air. Time suspends as well—it looks like a scene from the wild, wild West.

“No hog rippin’ today,” says Grant, “Ripping” was coined from the sound an old buck makes when you jump him out of the bed. “Rippin’ deer,” Grant adds, is a “Lowcountry art.

“In the Lowcountry you can find tracts that haven’t been turned into one big cut-down and you can get close to the deer. In my area I still ride cut-downs. I have chaps I made for my horses to keep the briars from cutting too bad.”

According to Grant, marsh tackies are the best horses he’s found for rippin’. “They take the gunfire, briars, and blood better than most,” he says. “I will ride a cutdown with the wind coming to me and pick my way from spot to spot where I think a deer will be bedded. When he rips up, you better be quick and you better have a good horse.”

But today is about hogs, and as the day heat ups, so does the action. The land echoes with yelps, yowls, and yaps of Pee Dee curs, a dog Grant describes as the “noble Pee Dee game dog.”

“When you hunt hogs,” says Grant, “you need dogs that can think – ‘Plenty of signs, but no hogs. Where are they?’ You need a dog that can work an area and find a hog bedded down in a blowdown or more often in the middle of a hellhole cutdown. It’s tough!”

The music dog hunters love sounds out—a howling bay that signals the dogs have cornered their quarry. That epic do-or-die last stand unfolds. Somewhere afar a banshee-like squeal makes the hair stand on the back of your neck. Riding point, Grant and company gallop off, puffs of smoke bursting from unshod hooves. “Most of the time,” said Grant, “I ride point. I get the honor of being the first to bust up briars, jump a ditch, cross or swim a slough, or dodge snakes.” A good point horse, he adds, “will go to the bay on its own when it hears the dogs.”

Closer to the dogs, bedlam—pig squeals and chaotic dog vocals. Grant plunges through head-high brambles, briars, and undergrowth clawing his way to the action. There’s Bill, diminutive leader of the curs, nipping at a 200-pound sow.
Grant’s adamant about protecting his dogs. He hunts with a GPS tracking system that gets him to the bay quicker than the old days. “I often ride right into a fight if my dogs are getting cut-up from a bad hog.” Grant says he has a “pact” with his Pee Dee curs. “If they have the grit to hunt all day, fight everything a Pee Dee river bottom can throw at them, run a hog through Hell and back, and fight to the death if need be, I will do whatever it takes to get to them.” And for that task, there is no equal to the marsh tacky.

Little Bulldozers
Wylie Bell first learned about the marsh tacky when she interviewed Grant about the Hilton Head Marsh Tacky Beach Run. She ended up riding one of Grant’s tackies at Hilton Head. “The first thing I noticed,” she said, “was how easily tackies adapt to new situations. Here were these five-year-old horses thrown into a thousand people, racing horses next to a rolling ocean. And they handled it amazingly well. People were crowding around them all day, and no one got kicked or bitten or run over by a spooked horse.”

Later, Bell discovered the marsh tacky’s hardy character. “My first hog hunt opened my eyes to how tough a breed the marsh tacky is. I’m always careful to watch for fallen limbs, holes, uneven terrain, muddy spots—anything that could cause a horse to trip. On a hog hunt, you run full speed through mud and muck and cutdowns with stumps, holes, logs, and briars. The horses never miss a beat. They don’t panic when they get wrapped up in briars or when they’re mired in a bog up to their chest. Like little bulldozers, they push through whatever you ask them too.”

Grant tells his hunting partners, “Let’s hunt back to the truck.” It’s an inside joke. Too many times they’ve hunted all day with no luck. But sometimes when he says, “Let’s hunt back to the truck,” that’s when they catch hogs. But no such luck today. It’s hot and the curs pant heavily, winded. The hunt ends. It’s time to load up the tackies, those noble survivors.

Pursuing deer in December, wild hogs in August, tilling gardens come spring, racing at Hilton Head, defeating the British, patrolling for German submarines and proving to be an anchor for tradition, the marsh tacky does it all. What else can be said about this horse for all seasons as a horse pure and simple? Bell hits the nail on the head.

“The marsh tacky is simply better put together to handle riding in the woods and swamps. They’re smaller and more agile, their hide is thicker, and they have good, solid hooves. Marsh tackies are not big horses, but they ride big. They have huge hearts and sharp minds, and for people who own them, they’ll be that horse of a lifetime.”

The Eyes Of Laboka
Ed Lowndes on Lowcountry Deer Hunting
I ride into the woods along deer trails looking for a deer’s hiding places. My tacky, Laboka, will usually see deer lying in hiding. When Laboka sees one, he stops and stares into its eyes. I focus my eyes into the thicket, fallen tree, or cane patch and spot the deer. If the deer is suitable to pursue, I “jump” it, and the chase unfolds. The deer will run its course through old-growth hardwoods into Carolina Bays. The deer knows it can escape into the water and thick marsh grass where hounds can’t follow. The deer’s speed and wits usually let it escape through the standers. I ride Laboka to the perimeter to stop the hounds’ pursuit. While on my horse, I loudly crack my whip to simulate a gunshot and the hounds believe the deer has been harvested. I blow my cow horn to regroup the hounds behind Laboka who leads them into woods to look for another deer. This old style of hunting brings “fair chase” into our vocabulary. My horse’s name, Laboka, means “the mouth” in Spanish. He’s very inquisitive and nuzzles objects he finds interesting.

Forbidden Islands

They’re Exotic & Closer Than You Think

My fascination with islands began with Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. The Scotchman’s novel took form when his stepson painted an imaginary island with watercolors on a cold, rainy summer day. Stevenson, looking on, began to imagine his tale. And so, from a boy’s map came Stevenson’s Treasure Island and the villainous Long John Silver who gave us the model of a pirate forevermore: a peg-leg Pete with a parrot perched on his shoulder.
Such is the power of islands. They fire up the imagination, leading us to wonder what mysteries might lie on those distant self-contained worlds.
All that mystery isn’t lost on Hollywood. Islands have long provided Hollywood and television raw material. Here are but a few: The Island of Doctor Moreau, “Fantasy Island,” “Gilligan’s Island,” and Papillon (Devil’s Island). And then there’s “Lost,” the recent TV series about the survivors of a commercial jet crash on a mysterious tropical island somewhere in the South Pacific.
We expect islands to be strange, exotic, and dangerous. In Lincoln County we are no strangers to islands. More than 100 islands dot the lake, freckles of land that seem ordinary. They don’t, for instance, nurture strange beasts or post signs warning you to keep away. Beyond the lake mystic islands are out there though, and they’re closer than you think.
Stallings Island
As the Savannah River courses toward Augusta you’ll find Stallings Island in Columbia County. The island takes its name from the Stallings culture, a Late Archaic era of hunter-gatherers. The island sits eight miles upstream from Augusta in the Middle Savannah River. The Native Americans who lived here have been referred to as “the people of the shoals.” Known best for their innovations in pottery, these people “fibered” their pottery, that is they mixed Spanish moss and shredded palmetto leaves into the clay for strength.
North America’s oldest pottery lies here, preserved by time and off limits to intruders. The island is considered the birthplace of pottery in North America. The pottery dates back some 4,500 years ago, predating farming in Georgia. The Shoals People long lived off freshwater mussels, piling up mounds of shells known as middens, well before any fields or orchards were conceived.
Archeologists discovered a massive pile of shells 12 feet tall, 500 feet wide, and 1,500 feet long on the island. Artifacts found include stone axes, shell beads, flaked “arrow points,” and “cooking stones” made from soapstones. Don’t think you can go there looking for artifacts, however. The island is protected.
This island, once known as Indian Island, contains numerous human skeletons. So many, in fact, it led explorer Charles C. Jones Jr. to refer to it as “The Island of the Dead” in 1861.
People no longer live on the island but donkeys do. The Archaeological Conservancy purchased Stallings Island and put goats and donkeys on the island to control vegetation. The Conservancy fenced off the large mound to protect it from looters.
Paddle by and you may well hear braying donkeys and bleating goats, placed there to control the island’s vegetation. “The Island of the Dead” … it sounds forbidden and it is but it’s nowhere as dangerous as …
Monkey Island
This island sounds like an urban legend. Many people refuse to believe it exists. Even people that live near this island find it hard to believe that approximately 3,500 wild monkeys live there, free ranging, no cages, no pens.
A reporter from the Charleston Post and Courier described what sounds like a scene out of Africa. “The monkeys emerge from a primeval Eden of live oaks, families grappling down the branches, ‘troops’ strutting in the underbrush like little lions, mothers carrying yearlings on their backs.
“In the mist and rain, eerie as ghosts, they surround a human visitor. They whistle like birds and screech and hiss with a sharp intake of breath. Their eyes stare with intelligence and curiosity.”
I can’t tell you where the island is because it’s federally protected. No trespassing. At all. Besides, finding it is near impossible. It’s taken some reporters years to find it. Let’s just say that south of Augusta in the South Carolina Lowcountry, monkeys thrive on a small island somewhere in the vicinity of Beaufort.
Some reports say the species there include rhesus, African green, macaque, common marmoset, Capuchin monkey, and squirrel monkeys. Other reports, and these are more consistent, say only Rhesus monkeys live there. Eyewitnesses indicate that the Rhesus monkeys, native to India, consider the island theirs. No humans dare live there. To go there is to risk being torn apart, especially if you go there during the breeding season. (Nothing worse than a jealous Rhesus monkey.)
The monkeys were first brought to the island in 1979 for the Food and Drug Administration’s Polio Certification program. Their original purpose was to test the effectiveness of polio vaccines. They were left to their own devices, namely to live and breed. Each year adds another 750 newborn monkeys to the island. The new monkeys are tagged or tattooed.
Each year 500 monkeys are taken to labs yearly. The island, according to published reports, is a containment area for the primates that Alpha Genesis Inc. uses for biomedical research. The original colony came from the Caribbean Primate Research Center of La Parguera, Puerto Rico.
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources owns the island today and leases it to Charles River Labs out of Massachusetts through funding by the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAD). NIAD says the monkeys are used to test antibodies for things ranging from HIV AIDS to anti-bio terrorism medications.
Now if all this monkey business sounds captivating and you’re thinking you want to go down Lowcountry way and see the monkeys, be forewarned: you may be endangering your life. According to the CDC, incidents of the B virus existed in free-ranging macaques in Puerto Rico’s Caribbean Primate Research Center, which were moved eventually to South Carolina. Once transmitted to a human, B virus has a fatality rate close to 80 percent. I’m not sure those species inhabit the island, however. Reports conflict.
Another reason not to go is the fact that poachers have sneaked onto the island to hunt monkeys and the monkeys have learned to be aggressive.
I saw a report where some curious teenage boys went to the island for some hunting. Hearing a thunderous, screeching noise they looked up to see hundreds of monkeys swinging down from trees. The boys vamoosed to their boat pelted all the way with the freshest monkey manure imaginable. So, there’s yet another reason to steer clear of Monkey Island.
So, we have Stallings and Monkey Island. Chances are you never heard of either. Exotic islands are closer than we think aren’t they. We don’t need to hop an airplane and fly to other countries. We may not be able to go onto some of them but just knowing they are there makes life more interesting.
A few years back I wrote a little story about a forbidden island and it provided me an escape in my mind as good as going to Africa. Based on some experiences I had in the 1980s, it was a journey like none other.
Are there other exotic islands out there just under our nose? There are. There’s Goat Island where a man and his wife lived alone for 32 years subsisting on the land and what the sea drifted in, living outside man’s laws and conventions. And this island, too, is closer than you think, but it’s a story with a sad ending, a story for another day.