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On the Road: Santee Coastal Reserve echoes with history and nature

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Michael Walker could hear the century-old wood and brick of the Santee Gun Club whispering to him after he began the job of restoring it for the state of South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

“You had to spend some time here, walk through and listen to the house speak,” said Walker, a partner in Tych and Walker Architects of Murrells Inlet. “It definitely had its voices telling you what it’s all about.”

The Santee Gun Club serves as offices and meeting space for state employees in charge of the wildlife management areas of the Santee Delta, the Santee Coastal Reserve and Samworth on the Pee Dee River. The gun club building and the 24,000 surrounding acres of the Santee Coastal Reserve have belonged to the state of South Carolina since 1974 but retained only a hint of its former glory when America’s rich and powerful left their offices in Boston, New York and Philadelphia for a month of duck hunting at their private playground south of Georgetown.

The house was never a mansion, Walker told visitors who were touring the reserve as part of Hobcaw Barony’s Plantation Sportsmen Series. It was intended to be rustic, a retreat from the hubbub of big city life. It was a lodge built of wood cut from the nearby virgin forest. Seven brick fireplaces supplied heat in the winter when the members were there for duck season. The mosquitoes alone make the place practically uninhabitable in the summer.

That the state of South Carolina had the foresight and the money to restore this gem of the Santee is remarkable in itself considering the present state of the legislature. Walker said DNR had managed to save money on a number of other restorations and devoted its windfall to the club.

Broken windows had allowed rain to soak the upstairs for years, he said. Exterior wood was mostly rotten, and Sheetrock had been nailed over the cedar wood of the interior ceilings in an attempt to refurbish the house on the cheap. The foundation was crumbling, and the house was too heavy with its massive fireplaces to jack up. In short, Walker said, it was a mess. He found a picture of the house in snow in 1912 and put it on his office wall as he tried to understand the building.

There were clues about the past glory. Members’ lockers were intact. Dozens of small closets with screen doors to let in fresh air remained as owners had left them. “Some of the smells on their clothing were not going to work in Ohio,” Walker said. “They left their stuff here, including the shotguns.”

Walker found gas lamps from Tiffany’s that had been used for lighting stored upstairs. A felt-topped card table was right where the members had left it when they finished playing poker for the last time. “I felt like they decided who was going to be president at that table,” Walker said.

Walker doesn’t call the gun club a restoration, but a renewal. Parts of the half-rotten exterior cedar siding and sheathing were used to make cabinets in the kitchen and butler’s pantry. The incredible grain in the wood is nothing like what’s available today, he said. A dozen layers of paint were removed from the front door, and it was salvaged. Bricks from the crumbling foundation were used on steps, walkways and a ramp for the handicapped in back.

There were compromises, Walker said. The state insisted on Hardieplank for the exterior. Fire suppression and air conditioning ducts had to be incorporated into the ceilings. Energy efficient windows were a must. The iconic cypress tree front porch support beams couldn’t be duplicated either. Walker settled for wooden columns. The mounted head of the last bull on Murphy Island is over the fireplace in the conference room.

The lodge is just a hint of what it was like more than 100 years ago when the first duck hunters came from Boston. “You came here for a month,” Walker said. “Time slowed down.”

Santee Gun Club was formed in 1898 by Capt. Hugh R. Garden, a former Confederate officer in the Civil War. He rented land for hunting but had lost access to Murphy Island by 1900 because he fell behind in his payments. Membership dues of $125 a year and daily shooting charges were not enough to keep the club solvent and in 1900 it seemed to be on its last legs.

That summer, E.D. Jordan of Boston met a member of the hunt club — his name is unknown — on a European steamer. His description of the hunting was so enthusiastic that Jordan accepted an invitation to become a member and to bring four other Bostonians for a week’s shoot the following December. Jordan told his friends he knew very little about the club but thought tuxedos would not be required at dinner.

The party arrived in Georgetown by train, expecting a servant dressed in livery to meet them and escort them to C.L. Ford’s wharf and a waiting boat. They found the boat, but there was no captain or crew, and no steam up. Ford located the captain at his house, and he explained to Jordan and his party that northern hunters were seldom on time and he waited until they actually arrived before firing the boiler and rounding up the crew.

The Gardenia, the club boat, was a paddle-wheel river steamboat capable of 5 miles per hour in favorable conditions. Once stocked with provisions, the hunting party got under way and arrived at their destination, the house at Fairfield Plantation on the South Santee, by 6 p.m. They found the house covered in dust. Broken windows and leaky ceilings had let in water that had caused plaster to fall from the ceilings onto the beds. With the house uninhabitable, the party went back to the boat, a comfortable old trap with good staterooms and comfortable beds.

Charles Mills, head guide of the club, showed up and advised dropping anchor seven miles down the river so they would to be near the shooting grounds on Cedar Island in the morning. The shooting was extremely poor, and Jordan was disconsolate. He felt even worse after another poor day’s shooting at Little Murphy Island. Mills, who was stone deaf, spoke up and said there were ducks in the vicinity, on Big Murphy Island, but as the rent of the island had not been paid for two years, no Santee Club man was allowed to shoot there.

He thought they might be interested in just seeing the ducks. The party was met by an armed guard named Pepper, who ordered them off. Mills explained the situation and said the gentlemen had seen no ducks and did not believe there were any in the country. Pepper agreed they could see them but to make no noise to disturb them. The men crawled to the crest of the beach and were amazed to see creeks black with ducks. Mills suddenly let his paddle slip from his hand and the ducks in Black Point Marsh — several hundred thousand — took wing. None of the hunters had ever seen such a sight.

The hunters sent word to find the owner of the island and paid the $800 in back rent. They killed between 150 and 200 mallards the next day.

That began the golden age of the Santee Gun Club, according to Jim Lee, a 34-year employee of the state Department of Natural Resources. President Grover Cleveland became an honorary member and also hunted at South Island with Tom Yawkey. He didn’t stay at the Santee Gun Club, but aboard the U.S. Coast Survey boat Water Lily. He also had a special wide skiff to take his 265 pounds up the canals to the ponds. Rumor had it that the crew and Marines aboard the Water Lily were sent ashore to neighboring ponds with rifles to keep the ducks stirring.

The lodge was built by 1904. New members added plumbing, lighting and comforts to the house or bought more land. “It was constantly growing during the early years,” Lee said. “The last portion, the Eldorado tract, was purchased in the 1950s.”

Among those early members was pharmacist Isaac Emerson of Baltimore, MD. He became so enamored with the area that he bought Arcadia Plantation and several others near Georgetown.

The lodge and grounds became increasingly expensive to maintain. Dues were $45,000 a year plus $100 a day for hunts by the time members were ready to sell it to The Nature Conservancy in 1974. The conservancy gave the property to S.C. Wildlife, and the state began conducting duck hunts for the public. “Anybody who’s been to a duck hunt on Murphy Island,” Lee said, “would consider it one of the great pleasures and memories of their life.”

The Santee Coastal Reserve is open to the public every day of the year.

Habitat that once spanned the coast, now just a fragment

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Within the past century, 96 percent of America’s longleaf pine forests have been cut in the name of progress. “There used to be 94 million acres of longleaf pine in the Southeast,” said Jim Lee, an employee of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. “Think of it this way: A squirrel climbs a longleaf pine in Virginia and can go treetop to treetop all the way to Texas before he puts his feet back on the ground. We’ve got 3.5 to 4 percent of that in the Southeast now. It went from a dominant ecosystem to just a remnant.”

The disappearance of the longleaf pine parallels that of the red-cockaded woodpecker. In the early 1900s, John James Audubon reported the bird was found “abundantly” in the pine forests. The birds’ population has fallen to about 1 percent of its original number: from more than 1.5 million to 15,000.

The red-cockaded woodpecker, Lee said, provides insight into the history and health of a whole ecosystem. “That’s pretty special,” he said, “and at least one good reason to keep the red-cockaded woodpecker around.”

The Santee Coastal Reserve, 24,000 acres that was once the private hunting grounds of the Santee Gun Club, is home to 18 nesting groups of the birds. DNR officers study them, trying to encourage the birds to expand their territory and eventually leave the reserve.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is about the size of a bluebird and not nearly so majestic as other woodpeckers. It is the only species that nests in a live tree, though it prefers a mature pine with red heart disease, according to Richard Camlin of Hobcaw Barony. It takes 50 years for a pine to develop red heart disease, he said. The birds can sense its presence by pecking on the exterior.

A red-cockaded woodpecker nest is an engineering marvel, Lee said. “We see lots of starts in the forest that are unfinished.” It can take five or six years for a nest to be carved in a tree, he said. It’s a generational effort because the birds only live about four years. The birds peck out an angled tunnel into the tree that leads to a perfectly round cylinder. “The angle presents a baffle to rain and snow,” Lee said. “Because of the angle, it’s always nice and clean and dry. It’s pretty well engineered to keep out the elements.”

The nests are built to thwart predators too. Eggs are just out of reach for a raccoon. “If he can hang on that tree all day and scratch away,” Lee said, “he’s not going to have much success because this is a living tree. This isn’t an old dead snag where he can get all that fluffy stuff out of the way. It would be a real chore to try and get in there. He’s pretty well thwarted just by the way the birds engineer this cavity.”

Snakes are another worry for the birds. A snake can climb a pine tree by hanging on the bark. Red-cockaded woodpeckers remove a pine’s bark below and above the nest cavity. The slick tree trunk discourages snakes, and the running pine sap wards off another predator, the flying squirrel.

Lee said an incubating mother folds her wings out and covers the eggs. “It’s a really neat thing to look in there,” he said. “She will turn and look at you, like, ‘What?’ We just pull the camera out and let her do her business.”

Lee said he doesn’t need to disturb the birds to do his research. “I hoot and holler and knock on the tree to let the female know I’m here. If I hear the young, I don’t put the camera in there. I already know what’s going on. I can come back later and find out how many.”

The cavity is just the right size for eggs, but young birds quickly run out of elbow room. “It’s small enough to encourage birds to come on out,” Lee said. “What happens next is why some think these birds are endangered. Any females born in this colony are kicked out as soon as they are old enough to fly, feed and fend for themselves. It happens in every colony.”

That quirk in bird behavior is how the red-cockaded woodpecker keeps from in-breeding. “There are females in this colony,” Lee said, “but none that were born in this colony. The birds have figured out how to protect their genetic viability and variability. It forces these females to start going out in the neighborhood and looking for a new home and finding a group that will accept them. It’s marvelous the way they do that.”

A female bird will shop around for a nest cavity and a mate. “Males are starting new cavities all the time,” Lee said. “Only until the female decides this is the cavity and the mate for her does the family begin. It’s in the female’s hands whether the colony will make it.”

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