Baroness of Hobcaw
"The Only Real Place on Earth"
by Mary E. Miller
Though only in his midthirties, Bernard Baruch was a multimillionaire who had always believed that a man needed periods of quiet contemplation. After a major endeavor, he liked to isolate himself and reflect on events to determine what led to their success or failure. He searched for a getaway.
Baruch had always maintained his southern ties, and in 1904, the year his daughter Renee was born, he was invited to visit Sidney and Harold Donaldson at Friendfield Plantation on the Waccamaw Neck in Georgetown County, South Carolina. Baruch was an avid hunter, and the shooting at Friendfield was unparalleled in his experience. He was fascinated with the stories of the original barony and dreamed of recreating the original land grant.
Hobcaw, as the Indians called the area, means “between the waters.” The barony was bounded on the east by the Atlantic Ocean, on the west by the Waccamaw River, and on the south by Winyah Bay, wherein empty the waters of the Sampit, Black, Waccamaw and Great and Little Pee Dee Rivers. The Indians used it as their hunting and fishing grounds. Some historians believe that Hobcaw may be the site of the first ill-fated Spanish settlement in 1526. Until the eighteenth century, the Indians maintained dominion. Then came the English. John Locke’s famous “Grand Model” divided the Carolina colony among the eight lords proprietors in deference to their service to the crown. In 1718 King George I of England granted a barony to John, Lord Carteret, later Earl of Granville. The original property of over twelve thousand acres consisted of maritime and upland forests, cypress swamps, freshwater ponds, oceanfront and five thousand acres of salt marsh.
Looking at a map of his holdings, Lord Carteret was not impressed, thinking that too much of the land was under water and not tillable. Unaware of the possibilities of rice culture, he sold the barony to John Roberts in 1730. Subsequently, the property was divided, subdivided, sold and resold several times until eventually rice plantations were established under fourteen different names.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, little but memories remained of the days when the rice culture reigned in the Lowcountry.
Between 1785 and 1900 the plantations of Hobcaw Barony shared in the era of the great “Rice Princes,” when the rice produced in Georgetown County supplied much of Europe and the new colonies of America. For over one hundred years the rice plantations flourished, and Georgetown County was one of the wealthiest regions in America.
Then came the Civil War and Reconstruction, plus competition from other newly settled states where rice could be grown without the expensive and labor-intensive system of floodgates and canals required in South Carolina’s Lowcountry. Hard times fell on the people of the Waccamaw Neck, and by the beginning of the twentieth century, little but memories remained of the days when the rice culture reigned in the Lowcountry.
Enter Bernard Baruch, who shocked his hosts with an offer to buy Friendfield.
After some consideration, the Donaldsons agreed to accept Baruch’s offer. Baruch was part of what southerners referred to as the “second northern invasion.” He and other wealthy Yankees bought extensive properties, mostly for winter hunting and fishing lodges. The advent of the northerners was greeted with ambivalence by native Carolinians. The Yankees provided much-needed jobs and a stronger tax base, but it was difficult to see old and historic properties fall into northern hands. In time, however, Yankee money and civic generosity ensured that many of the vast properties were preserved as private estates or set aside as nature preserves, state parks, recreational areas and so forth.
Baruch used Hobcaw Barony primarily as a winter hunting retreat, although some farming was done for his personal use and that of resident staff. Friendfield House, affectionately dubbed the “Old Relick,” was opened in November around Thanksgiving and usually closed in late April. It was a simple Victorian wood house with a big fireplace in the living room and another in the sunroom that burned logs up to eight feet in length, rag rugs on the floors, red wicker furniture with cushions and pillows gaily printed with flowers and birds, and organdy curtains at the windows. There were Ping-Pong and card tables for after-dinner entertainment. The upstairs bedrooms were spacious and bright with papered walls, ruffled curtains, rag rugs, white painted furniture and iron beds. There were hot blast stoves in each room and big potbellied stoves warmed the up- and downstairs hallways. Like the surrounding plantations, the front of the house faced the water, overlooking Winyah Bay. In the days when the plantation homes were first built, there were few passable roads; the rivers were the “roads” for the people of the Waccamaw Neck, and the docks served as the reception area for visitors. The stables housed a dozen horses, a mule named By Damn that the children loved to ride, and a goat that pulled a little cart.
Those privileged to shoot at Hobcaw would say that the sky turned black as the ducks took to the air, “blotting out the sun.”
To [his daughter] young Belle it was paradise. The thousands of acres contained treasures and wildlife to exceed even her wildest imaginings. With ever-growing enchantment, her child’s eyes saw, in their natural setting, white-tailed deer, feral hogs, bobcats, panthers, cougars, raccoons, opossums, squirrels, fearsome alligators, bears and foxes. There were fascinating, fearsome reptiles: black water moccasins, rattlesnakes and deadly copperheads.
The trees and swamps housed an endless variety of birds: bald eagles, ospreys, hawks, songbirds, rare species of woodpecker, turkeys, jacksnipe, quail, exotic egrets, ibis, heron and, of course, the ducks that made Hobcaw one of the most famous hunting retreats in the world. Those privileged to shoot at Hobcaw would say that the sky turned black as the ducks took to the air, “blotting out the sun.” Thousands upon thousands took wing and “hundred-duck days” were common, there being no bag limits in those days.
“Captain Jim” Powell, a tall, lanky, tobacco-chewing Carolinian who liked to start the day with a glass of whiskey “to clear the catarrh” before breakfast, was hired by Baruch to help superintend Hobcaw Barony. Though he lacked formal education, he was wise in the ways of men and the land. The Baruch children were like his own to the Lowcountry woodsman, and he taught them to shoot and ride, took them fishing and crabbing and introduced them to the incomparable flavor of shrimp, clams and oysters fresh from the inlets. A special bond between Belle and the woodsman developed that would remain throughout their lives. She called him “Uncle Sadie,” but no one remembers why.
Each day brought new wonders—a spotted fawn crossing the road, turkeys roosting in the trees at dusk, mischievous raccoons hunting for handouts, a mother opossum with babies clinging to her tail. It was Belle who loved the land the most, calling the forests of Hobcaw “the friendliest woods in the world.” Hobcaw for Belle was a magical place, a time out of time. Nothing could have contrasted more sharply with her sophisticated life in New York and along the bustling shores of Long Island and New Jersey where she spent her summers. The streets of New York seemed gray and bare compared to the woods of Hobcaw, with its flowering yellow jessamine, brilliant azaleas, daffodils, water lilies, magnolias, rhododendron and wondrous array of wildflowers.
Just getting there was a great adventure. The Baruchs traveled by train in their private car from New York to Lanes, South Carolina, where Belle and Junior tussled to see who would be first off the train. Then they jockeyed for position to see who got to sit up front with the driver as they went by horse and carriage nearly twenty miles to Georgetown, where they took a boat to the docks of Hobcaw Barony. There were no telephones at Hobcaw until the mid-1950s. Baruch wanted complete peace and quiet with nothing to disturb the tranquility of the barony. Telegrams and mail were delivered twice a day by boat from Georgetown. If he wanted to call New York or Washington, Baruch went to Georgetown by boat to use a public telephone. Since he was hard-of-hearing, he spoke loudly, and locals recall that people would hang around eavesdropping, hoping to pick up a stock tip or two.
The grounds of Hobcaw were a living history lesson for the eager Baruch children to explore. They traveled the roads of Hobcaw on horseback, buckboard, sulky, carriage or wagon. Belle could not decide which mode she liked best. The historic King’s Highway passed through the heart of the barony. Georgetown was the second oldest settlement in South Carolina, and it was at nearby North Island that Lafayette first stepped ashore in America. Right on the plantation were the remnants of great houses and battlefields. With childish awe Belle poked among the ruins of what was thought to be a British fort. She gazed solemnly at headstones that were rumored to mark the graves of British soldiers killed in Revolutionary War battles with the great Francis Marion, the legendary Swamp Fox. Later, historians identified the site as Confederate earthworks, an unfinished battery from the Civil War era.
The winds across the marshes whispered ancient secrets and implanted the seeds of a passion for this “land between the waters.”
At Hobcaw, Belle awoke each day to birdsong. Enchanted, she would lie in her bed listening. Then, needing to act immediately on her thoughts, Belle would dash to the window to gaze out among the trees, curious brown eyes seeking the song makers. She learned to identify the melodies of the thrush, warblers and marvelous mockingbirds, to know the “peep” of the redbirds and the harsh cries of the quarrelsome blue jays as they squabbled among themselves or with their neighbors. She heard the thrum of the woodpeckers as they signaled their territories and delighted in the tiny Carolina wrens with their yellow breasts. Hummingbirds were everywhere in seemingly perpetual motion. Jim Powell, for all his responsibilities on the vast estate with its many workers, always found time for Belle’s eager questions. Belle would tuck her slender fingers into the big Carolinian’s rough, callused hand and listen to the lore of this marvelous land of Hobcaw.
She learned that yellow flies seldom flew before mid morning because they had to wait for the sun to dry the heavy dew from their fragile wings. Hunkering down beside the inquisitive child, Powell would point out the tracks of the deer and the feral hogs, explaining how the hogs always toed in. He could read the fascinating patterns in the sand and dirt, indicating where a rattlesnake had undulated across the sandy road, identifying the sounds that constantly emanated from the woods and swamps, until the symphony of Hobcaw became dear and familiar.
As the years passed, Belle would record her feelings about Hobcaw in the guest book: “Home again!” “The only real place on earth for me...a more egoistic feeling than altruistic.” Hobcaw was never far from her mind, no matter where she was. The winds across the marshes whispered ancient secrets and implanted the seeds of a passion for this “land between the waters.”
Inextricably tied to her dreams of Hobcaw was Jim Powell, who had time and undemanding affection for the tall, gangling girl, something no other adult male in her life offered. Powell taught Belle patience. She learned that if she wanted to see the more elusive, rare birds, she must sit quietly and wait for them to come to her. The woodsman would take Belle into the silent Reserve Swamp where the water was black and deep and the cypress towered overhead, their myriad knobby “knees” breaking the surface to draw oxygen and nourishment. In the spring the swamp glowed with butterweed and blue iris and the magnificent waterbirds that peopled its branches. Ibis, blue and white heron, egrets and scores of other exotic birds fed in the dark waters and nested in the cypress trees. Water moccasins glided over its still surface, and alligators splashed from the banks into the quiet waters as the adventurers poled their boat through the water. The swamp was silent and mysterious and almost unbearably beautiful.
In bright contrast were the acres and acres of abandoned rice fields, divided by ditches thirty feet wide and twelve to fifteen feet deep, all hand-dug by field slaves in the days of the rice plantations. Belle marveled at the brilliant blue of the indigo buntings as they darted over the fields. The song of the red-winged blackbirds echoed joyously, and she learned that the melody changed with the seasons and that they almost always flew in a fixed triangle with their nests at its center.
Powell would point out the green swards in the midst of the tan fields, explaining that the feral hogs had been rooting there and would have created small pools of water where “puddle ducks” like mallards and pintails would land. “You’d never know as they were there, hidden in the reeds like that, unless you heard them calling,” he said. Canvasbacks, on the other hand, liked the open water and hundreds, sometimes thousands, would dot the wide waters of Winyah Bay, feeding on the nearby rice fields. Puddle ducks, Powell opined, were the “best eatin.’”
Belle shuddered in awe at the huge alligator nests set along the shores of the marsh. The ’gators would thrash their huge tails back and forth until they had built a nest of reeds and brush four to six feet high. Then, in its center, they would burrow a deep depression and lay their eggs. The mother didn’t lie on the nest but rather beside it, poised to frighten away intruders and predators until the eggs hatched under the warm Carolina sun. Unable to crawl out of the deep nest, the hatchlings would issue frantic little cries, urging the mother to enter the mound and release them into the marsh. Once, a mother ’gator charged from the reeds into the marsh as Belle and Powell passed in their boat. It nearly frightened Belle to death, but Powell laughed and reassured her. “She’s just tryin’ to scare you off. She won’t hurt you none.”
Belle would giggle at the antics of the anhinga, or snakebird, a species of waterfowl that swam below the water to hunt for its food. Locals had so named them, seeing only their snakelike black heads darting through the water’s surface as they emerged from a hunting dive.
The best fishermen and aerialists, Belle decided, were the ospreys who would drift on the currents of air above Winyah Bay, suddenly folding their wings in a plummeting dive, talons extended to snare their prey. Spreading their powerful wings like a parachute just before hitting the surface, they would rise into the sky, a helpless fish secure in their talons, and fly off to their nests harbored in the tall cypress trees or atop the channel markers in the rivers and bays.
The children loved to go to Clambank, where the oysters and clams were abundant. Asked why they called it Clambank, the old hands would say, “’Cuz it’s always been called that” or “’Cuz thas where the clams grow,” but others say it’s because that was the spot where the fresh oysters, clams, shrimp and other seafood were stored or “banked” until the folks at the “big house” wanted them. Sometimes the Baruchs would take the horse and buggy and go up to the main road and cut down the side of Arcadia (owned by the Vanderbilts) to reach North Inlet, Baruch’s seafront property. Huge white dunes stretched for miles and were divided from the rest of Hobcaw Barony by the great North Inlet marsh. Here the birds were different—gulls, sandpipers, terns and comical brown pelicans. There were shells to hunt and sand dollars banked in the sand. Sea oats swayed in the ocean breeze. The children would swim and wade and, when they were hungry, tuck into the great hampers of food packed by the kitchen help. If they were very lucky, they might spot dolphins frolicking off- shore in the wintertime.
Belle learned the names and sounds of all the birds—the oystercatchers, skimmers, plovers, curlews, marsh hens—an endless variety. She knew which ducks stayed all year and which migrated. If she came late in the spring, she would see the Canada geese, cranes and storks winging their way back north. To Belle, all of nature was a delight—the little fox squirrels scampering amid the trees, anoles inflating their scarlet throats. Powell would laugh and say that the tiny lizards were “showing their money.”
Baruch built an elaborate playhouse with a living room, dining room, pantry and kitchen where the children played and even helped prepare meals and entertain guests. Furnished in Victorian style, it was the site of many happy gatherings. Christmas Eve was often celebrated there, with the children helping to cook and serve dinner for the Hobcaw guests.
As Belle grew older, her explorations broadened until she knew every acre of Hobcaw. She was fascinated by the ruins of the old plantation homes with romantic names like Armourdale, Strawberry and, especially, Bellefield, whose empty rooms were said to be haunted by the ghost of a young planter and populated with evil spirits and plat-eyes, terrifying creatures who could transform themselves before your very eyes. The more superstitious residents of Georgetown County called Bellefield the White Owl House because, they said, the chief, resident plat-eye most often appeared in the guise of a huge white owl with fiery red eyes. Scorning the ghost stories, Belle was endlessly intrigued by the partially built structure and delighted in climbing about, balancing precariously on the rafters.
It was easy to believe in ghosts at Hobcaw with its silent cemeteries, soughing pine forests, mysterious black swamps, and the ghostly, spreading arms of the huge live oaks garbed in swaying Spanish moss. The roar of bull alligators and shrill cries of exotic birds blended in the night with the gentle murmur of cicadas and the strange croaking of frogs and other swamp creatures. The warning buzz of the huge timber rattlers, the soundless glide of deadly water moccasins, and the slither of unknown reptiles added a thrill of danger.