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Inside Hobcaw: The Baruch Foundation turns 50

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Fifty years have passed since Belle Baruch placed the 16,000 acres of her beloved Hobcaw Barony into the hands of a foundation to be preserved for scientific research and education.

Perhaps that’s why this southwestern tip of the Waccamaw Neck has remained a mystery to many a passerby. It’s no run-of-the-mill tourist attraction, open to the public to drive its dirt roads and roam through historic houses. Belle didn’t allow trespassing. It’s still private, not government, property, despite the 4-to-1 ratio of university research to foundation staff. However, with the renovation of a new Discovery Center and an increasing number of opportunities to tour the property, Hobcaw is becoming more of a place to visit rather than wonder about.

“In 1964, at the time of her death,” senior interpreter Lee Brockington told a group hiking the property last week, “her will included a plan unknown anywhere else in the U.S. to create an outdoor laboratory that was self-supporting for the benefit of researchers of environmental science in colleges and universities.”

Belle did not leave the foundation much leeway in interpreting her wishes. It must raise half its budget through grants and donations annually to maintain the 37 historic structures on the property that include her father Bernard Baruch’s Hobcaw House and her own house, Bellefield, in addition to stables, slave villages, superintendents’ houses and an airplane hangar.

Remnants of Belle’s influence are ubiquitous, even after half a century. The stable where her champion jumping horse Souriant was kept remains as she left it. The landing strip she used for her single engine Stinson plane is visible, though pines were planted on it 30 years ago. Bellefield itself is due for a refurbishing that will help keep her memory alive.

An organized hike to Hobcaw’s Barnyard Village last week allowed a small group of visitors to see the land that Bernard Baruch called his “Shangri-La” when he found it for sale in 1905. Eliza and Robert James Donaldson had tried growing rice on the old plantation property since 1875. Unfortunate weather — a terrible hurricane, drought and heavy rains — ruined any slim chance they had of profit. Baruch bought the property for pennies on the dollar for a hunting ground and escape from New York City. Baruch’s arrival at Hobcaw — and his decision to sell it to his daughter — led to the preservation of the land much as it appeared a century ago.

Of course, the property had already been changed so drastically in order to grow rice it would never fully recover. “Man so altered the topography,” Brockington said, “that cypress trees haven’t returned to the rice fields in over a century.” That suited Baruch to a tee. The old rice fields attracted wild ducks, so many the sky was said to be black on occasion. Hunters killed them by the thousands, reducing their numbers so drastically the federal government established daily limits in 1918 in fear they wouldn’t survive.

Belle Baruch rode through the same woods last week’s hikers walked. She would have mounted a horse near Bellefield and galloped through the sandy pine forest and up a tiny elevation change that provides habitat for live oaks, water oaks and holly. Spanish moss hangs from tree limbs, proclaiming the air free of pollutants. Alec Tuten, a volunteer tour guide on last week’s hike, confirmed Brockington’s story that International Paper officials would gather Spanish moss from the woods and hang it from the trees near the mill when inspectors were due. Spanish moss takes is sustenance from air particles, so IP inspectors would surmise that Georgetown’s plant emissions must be clean and move on. Brockington said Spanish moss is neither Spanish nor moss. Kingstree has an abundance, but Lake City has none. A few inches in elevation is the reason, she said.

There’s a small cemetery hidden by the woods near the start of the hiking trail. Strawberry Hill Cemetery is one of five on the property. Friendfield Plantation overseer John Thompson is buried here with his wife, Sara, and a newborn. Brockington said Thompson’s brother, William, arrived at the plantation with nothing but the clothes on his back and a horse around 1832. Within a year, his brother and sister-in-law were dead and he was overseer. Allegations of cattle theft against William Thompson can be found in the papers of Gov. Robert F. W. Alston, who inherited a neighboring plantation in 1840.

Also buried at Strawberry Hill Cemetery are Eliza and Robert James Donaldson, who attempted to grow rice after buying the lower half of Hobcaw Barony in 1875 and hiring the former slaves who remained on the property in four villages.

Those people and their descendants were there when Bernard Baruch bought out the Donaldsons and rejoined the 14 plantations of Hobcaw Barony in 1905.

Like the graves at Strawberry Hill, an old brick rice mill stands as a tribute to the past. Three brick walls remain with only a line shaft to hint at the modernized process of packaging rice for sale. Before mechanization, slaves did the work by hand of cutting the rice stalks, beating the kernels loose, breaking the husk from the rice and tossing it in the wind with winnowing baskets to separate the chaff. Progress came slowly. Winnowing houses — the last existing one in the county is at Mansfield Plantation on the Black River — were tall structures with a hole in the top floor so rice could drop below into sacks as the chaff was blown aside. The early rice mills mechanized the steps using water power, according to Tuten. Without waterfalls, mill operators lowered the mill’s water wheel to catch the rising and falling tides. The mill at Hobcaw was run on steam power, Tuten thinks. The turning line shaft operated a series of devices. A mechanical arm flailed the kernels off the stalks. Another pounded the husk off. A third dropped the rice in front of a fan to blow away the chaff before it fell into barrels.

“Instead of having 75 to 100 people to produce clean rice,” Tuten said, “a mill might not have but 10. The last person put it into a 280-pound hogshead and shipped it to Georgetown or Charleston.”

The Donaldsons used the mill at Hobcaw until it burned in 1903. For them, it was the last straw.

Baruch’s purchase two years later saved Hobcaw’s forests from the sawmill, as lumber became Georgetown’s prime export. He established a nature retreat suitable for celebrities. Winston Churchill came to visit and rode by car with Baruch to Miami and back. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spent time here during World War II to rest and recuperate. To provide suitable comforts, Baruch retained the 100 or so black residents and the dozen white supervisors for roadwork, horse training, cleaning stalls, digging ditches, maintaining fences, cooking, cleaning and feeding dogs. “You had to cook for dogs,” Brockington said. “There was no commercial dog food until 1950.”

Like Baruch, wealthy Northerners bought many of the large properties in Georgetown County. “They paid property tax, bought local equipment, brought guests on their yachts, but they also brought employment,” Brockington said. “Bernard Baruch needed that inexpensive labor force. In his autobiography, he writes that his mother said by purchasing Hobcaw you have the opportunity to do something for the Negro.”

Baruch added kitchens with wood stoves and front porches to slave cabins where his employees lived. He built new houses to keep them on the property in the 1930s, but they never had electricity like Hobcaw House, Bellefield and his children’s doll house — or indoor plumbing. “He did a lot,” Brockington said, “but he could have done so much more.”

Baruch even became disenchanted enough after a fire destroyed Hobcaw House and the wildlife began to grow scarce that he offered the Barony to Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington for their sculpture garden and retreat in 1930, according to letters in the Syracuse University archives. The Huntingtons declined, explaining they were too far along with their deal at Brookgreen. Baruch changed his mind about selling and rebuilt the house.

“I personally think the reason Bernard Baruch decided to rebuild and keep Hobcaw was that he felt responsible to the people on his payroll,” Brockington said. “It would have been easy to sell out to people who might have attempted timber harvesting or divide the property. They would not have needed residential employees.”

Life at Hobcaw remained primitive for the black employees. Joshua Shubrick, a descendant of slaves and a volunteer for the foundation today, tells a story from his childhood that illustrates how precarious life could be for these poor people. Shubrick and his twin cousins were fishing on a causeway as the incoming tide brought all sorts of fish in with it. As they sat on the bank with their cane poles, an alligator snatched one of the twins into the water and disappeared. Joshua describes the incident in a recording at the Discovery Center. “The hardest part,” Brockington said, “was telling the boy’s parents.”

Once Highway 17 and a bridge to Georgetown were built in 1935, fewer employees were willing to live in the spartan conditions at Hobcaw. By 1952, the last black employees had moved away though their descendants continued working until they retired in the 1990s. Francina McCants moved to Georgetown with her husband and five children but got so homesick she asked Belle for her cooking job back. Belle arranged for transportation every day to bring her to work and take her home. After Belle died in 1964, the foundation continued to provide transportation for McCants and laborer Princey Jenkins.

Though the slave villages were abandoned, their significance was never lost on Belle. They remained intact, and the foundation attempts to conserve them today by keeping the roofs in good shape and mowing to minimize the threat of fire. “What we’ve tried to do is set a priority list and apply for grants,” Brockington said. “Belle’s trust only allows us to maintain the property for the benefit of researchers, keeping the roads open — we have 90 miles of dirt roads — and maintaining the houses utilized as offices. Half our operating budget comes from outside sources. We try to conserve as opposed to restore.”

Already an outstanding sailor and equestrian, Belle took up flying in 1939 and bought a single-engine Stinson and a twin-engine Beechcraft. She bought a hangar at a small airport off Merriman Road in Georgetown from Walker P. Inman. Just as she was spreading her wings, World War II grounded her. The U.S. Army Air Corps confiscated both planes. A letter in the Baruch archives at Princeton University reveals that Belle didn’t want to hand them over. “Be gracious,” Bernard Baruch advised his daughter.

Belle spent her time watching the coast for German submarines and trying to pick up Morse code messages to relay to the FBI. When the Army didn’t use the planes and left the hangar’s door unlocked, Belle reclaimed them. She dismantled the hangar and moved it to the end of a landing strip she had cut through the woods at Hobcaw. She enjoyed flying to the point that her horse trainer felt neglected.

At the end of a flight, she would circle the hangar to signal employees to tamp down the hog ruts on the runway so she could land. It was young Mose Jenkins’ first paying job at Hobcaw.

The planes were sold upon Belle’s death, and the runway was planted in pine trees in the 1980s when drug trafficking became so prevalent that private air strips were watched with suspicion. To avoid providing federal drug agents access to the property, foundation trustees voted to document the runway’s location and eliminate it. Those mature pines they planted are ready for selective harvesting today, and the hangar serves as a maintenance shed.

And in keeping with Belle’s vision, Clemson University will dedicate a new research facility at Hobcaw in April.

George Chastain, executive director of the foundation, told trustees this week that Hobcaw must continue opening its doors to the public and sharing the Baruch legacy.

“We try to remain true to Belle’s vision for the property,” he said. “She was a woman who saw conservation of the property as the most important part of what she did in creating the trust. We still try to adhere to her vision of conserving the property and using it for research with colleges and universities. Our partnership with the schools, the environmental research that goes on here, is much more than Belle envisioned. That’s still the driving force as to what we do.”

Tours open doors to historic property

Hobcaw Barony will host a variety of events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Belle Baruch Foundation. Highlights include:

Bellefield Plantation: Feb. 20, March 8, and April 2, 1 to 3 p.m., $20 per person. Belle Baruch, daughter of Wall Street financier Bernard Baruch, didn’t leave long-term instructions for her 1937 home at Hobcaw Barony, which is owned by the Belle W. Baruch Foundation. A trust created by Belle in 1964 preserved the 16,000 acre property for research and education in perpetuity, but her home has been vacant since 2003, awaiting restoration. Participants will tour the house, the grounds, view the pond and see what Belle called “the friendliest woods in the world.”

Behind The Scenes Tour: Feb. 13, 26, March 12, 26, April 1, 18, 30, and May 17, 1 to 4 p.m., $30 per person. A three-hour expanded tour of the property offers an opportunity to experience more than what is seen on an introductory tour. The bus will stop to allow participants to take short walks and for photography. Participants are asked to come prepared with proper shoes and clothing for the elements. Featured stops include North Inlet salt marsh, grounds of Bellefield Plantation, Friendfield Village, and the main floor of Hobcaw House, left. Reservations are required. Call 546-4623.

Women’s History Cruise: March 18, 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. $50 per person. Riders will travel from the Hobcaw pier upriver past Bellefield Plantation and others on the Waccamaw and Pee Dee rivers. The five-hour trip onboard a pontoon boat, operated by Cap’n Rod’s Lowcountry Plantation Tours in Georgetown, features new research by tour leader and narrator Lee G. Brockington. Reservations are required by calling 546-4623.

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