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The Delta: A once-in-a-lifetime experience with 25 shells

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

It’s 4 a.m., cold and misting rain, weather only fit for ducks — and duck hunters.

Eleven men, dressed in waterproof camouflage, arrive at the Santee Gun Club to hunt at a place formerly reserved for the wealthy and their guests. It’s a rare opportunity, says Joe Shisko of Charleston, who has waited three years for his name to be drawn. Hunters happily pay $20 a year to be in the lottery. Shisko says this is “a thousand-dollar-a-day experience,” made available to the public by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. The state’s Upper Coastal Waterfowl Project provides public access to Samworth Plantation, Delta East, Delta West and Santee Coastal Reserve, which includes Murphy Island, Cedar Island and The Cape. The hunters will be on Murphy Island this day. Gun club history says the sky over Murphy Island was black with ducks a century ago.

Jay Burton of Atlanta has enjoyed Santee hunts from both perspectives: as a guest of a gun club member and through the public lottery. “I was blessed to be a close friend of one of the members, Bill Jones, president of the Sea Island Company,” he said. Burton came to Santee Gun Club once a year for 12 or 15 years. Daily hunts were limited to 10 members and guests, rotating between fields. After drawing for the next day’s blinds and guides, hunters retired to the club’s 10 bedrooms. They were awakened early for breakfast by the staff and informed of the weather conditions while their shotguns were being cleaned. “It was real old-school, the lap of luxury for the hunter,” Burton said. “I’ve duck hunted for 40 years and never experienced anything quite as extravagant as that.”

The Santee Delta, once honeycombed with more than 50 rice fields, had become a quiet and desolate place in the decades after the Civil War. Capt. Hugh R. Garden, a former Confederate officer, started Santee Gun Club in 1898. He rented land for hunting but had lost access to Murphy Island because he fell behind on 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 on a European steamer. His description of the hunting was so enthusiastic that Jordan accepted an invitation to become a member and bring four friends for a week’s shoot the following December. Jordan told them he knew very little about the club but thought tuxedos would not be required at dinner.

After two poor days of hunting, Charles Mills, the club’s head guide, said there were ducks on Big Murphy Island, but Santee Club men were not allowed to shoot there because the rent had not been paid. He thought they might be interested in just seeing the ducks. The party was met by an armed guard named Pepper, who ordered them to leave. Mills explained the situation and said the gentlemen had seen no ducks. Pepper agreed they could look but were not to disturb them. The men crawled to the crest of a hill and were amazed to see miles of canals black with ducks. Mills let a boat 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.

They 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 DNR employee for more than 30 years. President Grover Cleveland became an honorary member. He had a special wide skiff to take his 265 pounds up the canals to the blinds. Rumor had it that the crew and Marines aboard his ship, USS Water Lily, were sent ashore 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. 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 managing the property and conducting duck hunts for the public.

Achi Treptow, the Upper Coastal Wildlife Management Area project leader, checks hunters in as they arrive for the morning hunt. They must present a photo ID and all the appropriate hunting licenses and stamps. Hunters are limited to 25 shotgun shells for the day, and guns can hold no more than three at a time. Bag limit is six ducks, with a maximum of four mallards. Alcohol and drugs are forbidden. Anyone caught breaking the rules will be sent home before the hunt, Treptow says. There’s a story about a hunter caught with a few extra shotgun shells in the pocket of his jacket. Game wardens believed it was an honest mistake and let him hunt — after giving him a $100 ticket. There would be no problems on this day. These are serious hunters, and the weather is promising: windy, cold and cloudy. “They seem to fly dumber in this kind of weather,” said DNR employee Hayes Williams, who grew up at Waverly and graduated from Waccamaw High School. He expects a good hunt after scouts found a ton of ducks the previous day.

The hunters are in good spirits as they draw for blinds. Hyde Abbott of Conway says he’s not above shooting a coot. That’s duck hunt humor. Coots are rails, not ducks, and their meat is said to be tough and greasy. Abbott offered a coot recipe: Put the bird on a board, season, bake for an hour, eat the board. There are thousands of coots on Murphy Island. Nobody wastes a shell on one.

Reaching the blinds is difficult, even now. The trek begins with a powerboat ride down the South Santee River in the dark. Hunters disembark with their shotguns, decoys and other gear, cross a dike and get on smaller boats for the trip to the blinds. They use 60-horsepower motorboats these days, but Burton remembers the guides polling small, slim boats out to the blinds in the dark. Those were the days when guides stayed with their hunters, calling in the ducks and retrieving those that were shot. Today’s hunters are on their own once the DNR crews drop them at the blinds in twos and threes. They are serious about killing ducks. One hunter has “Meat Stick” painted on the barrel of his shotgun.

Treptow and his crew have the hunters in their blinds by 5 a.m. At daylight, the ducks begin flying. “To get out there in the dark and see the sun come up, that’s the special thing about loving to duck hunt,” Burton said, “the beauty of God’s creation. That marsh and all those birds come to life. Ibis, cranes and pelicans are just beautiful. It’s one of the reasons I love it so much. Murphy Island is a very special place. You are blessed to get a chance to hunt there.”

Hurricane Matthew left a breach in the dike, and the fields on Murphy Island are standing in water. Hunters have small rowboats to retrieve their ducks and move around. One hunter warns about “floating your hat” with a misstep into a hole. “With so much water, you can’t corner the ducks,” Burton said. “They land where they want to.” Under normal conditions, wildlife managers can control the amount of water in the fields, and the blinds are stationed at the edges of small ponds. Ducks come closer and are easier to kill. This day requires more marksmanship. “That’s why it’s such a fun sport,” Burton said. “The skill is the way you put the decoys out and call. There may be water everywhere, and if you are a good enough hunter you call them.”

Despite there being clouds of birds in the air, only a couple hunters bag their limits. The 11 of them bring back 40 birds and talk about the ones that got away. Treptow hopes tomorrow’s hunters are better shots. The numbers of harvested ducks reflect on the work he and his crew have done.

Coastal areas with similar past have a different present

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Mike Prevost says he can see for 10 miles on a clear day from the lookout tower at Rochelle Plantation on the Santee Delta in southern Georgetown County.

It appears to be a natural landscape of marshland — but it’s not. What was once an old-growth gum and cedar swamp was altered centuries ago to grow rice and make plantation owners rich. Pierre Manigault, owner of Rochelle Plantation, chairman of Evening Post Publishing and Prevost’s boss, equates the scale of the Santee Delta’s transformation to building the pyramids. An 80-acre rice field required 12 miles of canals and drains, 2.25 miles of dikes and banks and the excavation of an estimated 117,000 wheelbarrow loads of mud. All the work was done by enslaved Africans and their descendants with shovels, axes and oxen over centuries. There were 54 rice plantations on the Santee rivers, the second largest river delta on the Eastern Seaboard and second largest watershed east of the Mississippi River.

The story of the transformation of the Santee Delta from primal forest swamp to rice plantations to duck hunting paradise parallels American history: slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crowe, the Great Depression, World War II and, of course, the influence of money. Prevost, a wildlife ecologist with White Oak Properties and the manager of Rochelle Plantation, estimates there are 60,000 acres of property in the delta that will never be developed further. The land has been transferred to state or federal game agencies or placed in conservation easements. Prevost said the delta’s protected land compares favorably with the Rockefellers’ donation of the 45,000-acre Acadia National Forest at Bar Harbor, Maine. The Santee-Waccamaw story is more complex with more players over a longer time frame. Beginning at North Island and including the oceanfront land to the south all the way to Bulls Bay and Capers Island, there are about 60 miles of protected coastline in Georgetown and Charleston counties. The region is an international bioreserve, and the delta has its own focus area.

Plantations on the Waccamaw Neck were every bit as productive as those of the Santee Delta. But today the Neck is just as well known for golf courses and gated communities. Little remains in its “natural” state, with the exception of the southern tip where Hobcaw Barony and Arcadia Plantation hold fast against modern development.

Phil Wilkinson of Georgetown, a retired biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources at Tom Yawkey’s South Island, says the history of the Santee Delta and the Waccamaw Neck are similar, but the delta had a “last line of defense,” as Southerners say. Bugs on the delta are some of the most noxious in the world. There are 54 varieties of mosquitoes, but they take a back seat to the biting flies. Wilkinson said one of the first pieces of advice he got about bugs was “don’t pay ’em no mind, and they won’t worry you.” It was easier said than done.

The Waccamaw region’s big draw was the beaches, Wilkinson said during a presentation about “Voices of the Santee Delta,” oral histories collected by the South Carolina Historical Society in partnership with McClellanville’s Village Museum. The Waccamaw Neck changed in a different way, he said. The Santee Delta remained in large tracts that eventually went into conservation easements if not outright state ownership. The donations of land exceed anything in South Carolina, including the ACE Basin, Wilkinson said. “The Santee Coastal Reserve was donated by gun club members. It became the people’s land,” he said. “Mr. Yawkey did the same thing when he died. The two places put together are nearly 50,000 acres.”

Wilkinson said Thomas Samworth preceded those two with the donation of Dirleton Plantation on the Pee Dee River near Plantersville. “What’s unusual about him,” Wilkinson said, “was he did it while he was still alive. He gave it with an agreement he could live on the property and sit and watch what happens.”

Wilkinson knows the Santee Delta like few other men. His family moved from a farm near Maryville, south of Georgetown, to Hopsewee Plantation when he was a child, and he began a practical education at the knees of poet laureate Archibald Rutledge and the greatest woodsman he’s ever known, Daddy Ben Simmons. “Ben was 80 when I was 11,” Wilkinson said. “He was born the year Lincoln was assassinated. That’s how he dated himself. He knew the woods like no man I’ve ever known. He and Perry Wilson, they took me under their wing, taught me to hunt, fish, trap and woodscraft. That’s how they lived.” Wilkinson said Simmons’ wife, Pinky, cooked over a fireplace, and that was the only heat in their cabin. They had an outdoor privy. “They were living a very primitive style,” Wilkinson said, “and this was the 1940s, a long, long time after he had been born out of slavery. He used oxen to plow. That era was the last of that situation where people lived that way. It’s unbelievable that it took that long for things to change. People in town had electricity and running water and indoor bathrooms by that time at the end of World War II. They had more amenities on Guadalcanal than they did around here.”

Bud Hill, director of the Village Museum in McClellanville, has been an observer of the delta’s residents all his life. He has the standing to speak of them. His great-great-grandmother Eliza Henriette Bacon married Dr. William Thomas Wilkins Baker before they arrived on the delta in 1850. Dr. Baker was physician to planters as well as slaves and remained at McClellanville after the Civil War when the slaves were freed.

“Freedom was a word. It wasn’t an actuality,” Hill said. “You were free to go anywhere you wanted, but you had no way to go. You had no money, no transportation, owned no land, nothing. Some people took off up North. Some went away with the Union army and navy when they came into the area. Some even signed up to fight in the war as a way to get out of there. At Sandy Island, people were gathered up from plantations here and taken there and quarantined for awhile before they were taken somewhere else. People were free — free to go somewhere else — but had nothing. I think that’s a horrible situation.”

Communities of Germantown, Tibwin and Buck Hall were established by freed slaves, Hill said. “They stayed close to those plantations where they had worked,” he said. “They got land by stashing a little money along.” That’s how the McClellanville area developed. Town leaders like R.T. Morrison and A.J. McClellan wanted to keep their workforce, so they gave them some land outside town. “Today,” Hill said, “if you look at a tax map, that chunk of land has been chopped up a thousand times and passed on to members of the family. I go to Germantown and there are Blakes and Simmonses and Greens and Blacks. They were enslaved at places like Hampton and Fairfield, and they are still in place, part of the preservation of the Santee Delta and its region.” A picture of a rice barge at Hampton Plantation in 1925 helps make his case that time practically stood still on the delta.

Those descendants of slaves became the subject of the book “God’s Children” by Archibald Rutledge. Hill said some readers can sense the racism of the time, but there was true affection between the blacks who worked at the gun clubs and the rich, white owners who came to shoot ducks. “The man who owned a plantation could not manage his property without their help,” Hill said. “They knew how to plant things and build things. They chopped trees and gathered firewood, could go hunting and bring you something to eat. If you had to loan them a little money and get them to a doctor, you looked after one another in those days. Blacks on these properties were the linchpin to the whole operation. Their knowledge and expertise held it all together. Archibald Rutledge said he respected their wisdom and advice as good as any other man. He would go to them before going to anyone else to talk over a problem, and they would go to him. That was a situation that lasted until the gun club time. Those rich industrialists and railroad tycoons and heads of Bromo Seltzer and Campbell Soup and Sunoco had great respect for the ladies who cooked in the kitchen and men who took them duck hunting. They had never met anybody with the talents they had.”

Hill said generations wanted to get away from the Santee but couldn’t. “You stayed put,” he said. “It was a safe place.”

With the exception of Sandy Island, the Waccamaw and Pee Dee regions were not chopped into shares to keep black laborers nearby like at McClellanville. Prevost said the shooting club properties and those of Yawkey, the Baruchs and the Vanderbilts, heirs of Arcadia Plantation, were anchors that kept thousands of acres of land from development. Coupled with Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge and Francis Marion National Forest, those protected lands have served as a buffer against Mount Pleasant’s urban sprawl.

The pressure to develop land along the Waccamaw and Pee Dee was more intense, Prevost said, because of the presence of Myrtle Beach and its “Grand Strand” tentacles. “The development of the beach communities was a major factor that distinguishes the two,” he said.

Bill Mace, who spent 35 years with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources on the Santee Delta before retiring in 2010, said it has benefitted from being remote. “One of the most beautiful things is there are no rooftops,” he said. “Go up the Waccamaw, the Pee Dee and the Black rivers there are a lot of subdivisions. The unique thing about the Santee Delta is you’ve got to put in at the Pole Yard, the South Island ferry or McClellanville. It’s a very special place to all of us. I think it will stay that way.”

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