Lost…But Not Forgotten
By Donna York-Gilbert
(The author’s feature on Edingsville Beach appeared in Charleston Magazines 2002 July/August issue under the title “Gone with the Wind”)
If there is ever a way to go back in time, the Old Edingsville Beach Road can get you there. The road itself is seductive, mysterious, and hauntingly quiet, yet this road holds the secrets to the past. The gnarled limbs of the old live oaks are dripping in Spanish Moss and leaning in as though they long to tell the stories of the past: the past that was filled with wealth, slavery, extravagance and tragedy; the past that resurrects itself with the ebb and flow of the tides washing up treasures along the shores of our own Jeremy Cay.
By the end of the 18th century, slavery and Sea Island cotton turned farmers into aristocrats in the backwoods of Edisto Island. The salinity of the Edisto Island marshes made rice planting difficult. The British stopped importing our Indigo following the American Revolution, so the planters relied on the slaves to show them a West Indian way of growing another crop, cotton. And this was no ordinary cotton. Edisto’s Sea Island cotton became the finest in world rivaling even Egyptian cotton. This King of Cotton was so fine, it was pre-sold at a premium years before the seed was planted. It is even said the Pope of Rome had his robes made from this silky, protestant-born, slave-harvested delicacy. This unique cotton and the high demand from around the world made the Edisto Island planters among the wealthiest planters around. And wealthy planters became the South’s aristocracy.
This newfound royalty of Edisto plantation families married one another and ultimately connected the planters through blood and marriage. This unprecedented wealth allowed these families to own town-homes in Charleston and pursue other places of luxury and recreation…anything to escape the burdensome heat of those balmy Edisto summers.
Stifling heat, no breeze and abundant mosquitoes tarnished the charm of plantation life. Mosquitoes thrived in the farm-like environment of fields and stagnant ponds, and so did the fatal disease, malaria. It didn’t take long before the Edisto gentry discovered a healthy retreat nearby called Edingsville Beach. The ocean breezes had a medicinal quality to them and no one was dying of the dreaded diseases that plagued them inland on the plantations. Little did they know, but the breezy salt air kept the mosquitoes, and their deadly malaria at bay.
Word spread rapidly about this tiny barrier island called Edingsville Beach. The Mikell family owned Edingsville Beach in the early 1800’s. At one point, the Edings family owned the area and leased vacation lots to the planters as a summer respite. The plantation families built gracious, two-story, brick houses with sweeping verandas and fireplaces flanking both sides of each home. Elegant parties, regattas, horse races and elaborate banquets were the norm at this seaside resort for the Edisto principality.
Each May, the Edisto planters would load their horse-drawn carts with the plantation furnishings and retreat to Edingsville Beach until the first frost of autumn. The men would return to the plantations each day to make sure all was in order, but would surely be back at the beach for the 3 o’clock dinner. Sounds of ladies laughing and splashing, men serenading their lovers, and echoes of sheer delight could be heard throughout the 19th century at Edingsville Beach.
In its heyday, there were at least 60 dwellings at Edingsville Beach. Among the summer homes was a schoolhouse for the boys to keep up their studies. There was an Episcopalian and a Presbyterian church. And you can be sure there was a billiard saloon serving libations to all the God-fearing congregants along the shore. The Atlantic Hotel was built by the Edings family in 1852 and was advertised in the Charleston Courier as a “salubrious Atlantic watering place.” Carriages, Buggies, and saddle horses were available for the hotel guests. “Seaside Surry” and “Riviera of the Low Country” were other terms of endearments used to describe this playground for the rich. These were heady times for vacationers on the famed Edingsville Beach.
But like a page ripped from a great southern novel, the grandeur vanished and was literally gone with the wind. The War Between the States did little damage to Edingsville Beach but it took a financial toll on the planters. It was a series of storms and hurricanes from 1881 to the turn of the century that extinguished Edingsville Beach.
At the time, it sure seemed as though God was punishing the South and using nature’s resources to wash away any evidence of her wealth and sins. There was no evidence left of Edingsville’s golden era existence except for a tabby brick fireplace, broken trinkets, and mere memories of a magical time and place.
Like the legendary Atlantis, the 19th century Edingsville is a mere memory of a once flourishing society buried at sea less than a mile from the shore of Jeremy Cay. And like Atlantis, this glorious village, with all its grandeur and extravagance, rests quietly, waiting to tell her stories to anyone who will listen.
Today, if you are standing on the shores of Jeremy Cay you may see remnants from those days roll up with the breaking of the waves. From china, to slave tools, or bricks from the old mansions, Edingsville Beach sends whatever she can to remind us of her beauty and glory from another era.
The developers of Jeremy Cay have created a paradise from a slice of history. The lagoons, the pristine shells, the ancient fossils, and the abundant wildlife are rivaled only by the panoramic views and the brilliant rise and descent of the sun. The moon itself must favor Jeremy Cay, for it hovers so closely and luminously that even in the darkest hours, breathtaking sites are in full view. So, as you gaze out at the whispering marsh grass or reflect on the sea’s horizon, be ever so quiet and let the many ghosts of Edingsville bring her history back to the glistening shores of Jeremy Cay.
Sidebar; Some of Edingsville Beach’s inhabitants included the families of Mikell, Townsend, Middleton, Wescoat, Reverend Wilson, Johnson, Hopkinson, Becket, Hanahan, Street, Lagare, Mitchell, Murray, Jenkins, Pope, Seabrook, Bailey, Whaley, LaRoache, Whilkonson, Baynard, Edings and Swinton.