A Place Called Home

A memoir of Beaufort and St. Helena Island, South Carolina

by Elizabeth Bishop Later with O.R. (Sonny) Bishop, Jr.

Read an Excerpt

Table of Contents

Prologue  


     The Fullers                                

     Changing Times                       

     After the War                           

     Bishop's Best                             

     Datha Island                              

     Continuing the Legacy

     Gracie

     Life is Complicated Enough

     Moving Forward


Epilogue

Addendum: Beaufort, etc.

Notes

Maps

Book Excerpt: Prologue

On a warm, humid, late summer evening, with a gentle southerly sea breeze from Wallace Creek protecting us from the mosquitoes, my father takes me on a little tour of "home". Once the Robert Fuller Plantation, also called Fuller Place, and later called the Yard Farm (in Gullah - "de Ya'ad"), there is important history here that I want to capture.


Driving the golf cart that my children, in a moment of whimsy, have adorned with a pirate's skull and crossbones flag (causing my father's eyes to roll - "Oh Lord", he said when he first saw it), we slowly travel around the Yard Farm. We ride past the pond where the tomato greenhouses used to stand and we are quiet with our own thoughts as we look toward my grandparents' old house, which now stands empty. They are gone, but the memories remain. We travel past the big oak tree with the rope swing used by my brother and me and now used by our own children to create all kinds of screaming, dizzying, jumping out of the tree fun.


We cruise past the huge fig trees that have already started to emit their sweet, fermented, figgy smell and come to a point of decision. If we take a left we can travel down a dirt road that we have always called "the lane" but is, technically, Yard Farm Road. Its sandy, crushed oyster shell surface meanders away from us toward the old packing house and Highway 21. Its path travels under trees that create a canopy with their huge, protective, moss-draped limbs. One hundred sixty years ago the lane was a plantation avenue, lined not with oak trees as fits the standard Gone With the Wind picture in most people's minds, but bordered with large magnolia trees. Only a few of those trees remain, sentinels that were able to withstand the hurricanes of 1893 and 1940 and Hurricane Gracie in 1959.


We choose to go to the right, down another dirt lane (Fuller Plantation Drive) that temptingly disappears around a shrub thicket, past crepe myrtle trees, more oak, and large sago palm trees whose fronds have been sacrificed for years to provide little crosses for St. John's Lutheran Church members to wear on Palm Sunday. We round the thick shrubs and trees and emerge into a large, open area - what is left of the home and gin area of the 183-acre Yard Farm. We circle around the acreage. "Here's where the cotton gin stood", he says, pointing to empty space that demands my imagination to kick in. "I was born in the caretaker's house that stood here, and there is where the storage warehouse was." More imagination is required.


But there are some things left that help me envision it all. The old plantation house, which has stood for more than 150 years, still exists. It is an aging old lady, its porches removed and its shutters gone, and its possible removal is planned for the near future. I can hardly stand this but what to do about it? The house left our family years ago so I make myself feel better about it by focusing on the fact that she has lived a full and beautiful life, braved storms, sheltered laughing children, and perhaps its time to go. Actually, how the house has lasted this long is something of a testament to old construction. As children, my brother and I were forbidden by my mother to go anywhere near it for fear that "the termites would stop holding hands and the place would fall down". Somehow my father (presumably using great stealth and care) got safely in and out of the structure in the lat 1950s and acquired the Cuban mahogany newel post and stair railings for his home's staircase as well as enough of the hand-made bricks to create a hearth for his fireplace. I picture him holding his breath, just in case one of those termites sneezed.


The boiler that powered the 24 horsepower, one cylinder steam engine for the cotton gin still remains, as well as the small white store that has been turned into a little creek-side cottage. In the fading light of the evening I can close my eyes and almost hear the sailboats and steamboats that sailed up the creek to carry away the bagged cotton. I imagine that I can hear the whoosh-whoosh of the steam engine as it powered the giant pulleys in the gin. I believe I can hear the calls of the people saying goodbye to those hitching a ride on the boats with the cotton, bound for Beaufort or Savannah. 


It is a peaceful, lovely place whose visitors, admiring and appreciative, always seem sad when they have to leave it. It isn't envy, exactly; more like a sense of nostalgia and wistfulness that they know will fade when they return to the world of traffic and strip malls. One visitor described his brief time there as being "a step back in time and history to a fascinating time on St. Helena Island. The property is breathtaking. One gets a feeling of serenity and peace."


My father, until recently, ran a woodworking and antique refinishing business out of a small shop adjacent to his house. One afternoon a man came to drop off a piece of furniture and told my father that this was the most beautiful place he had ever seen. He was willing to buy it on the spot.


"Name the price", he said.


My father contemplated that for a moment and said, "OK, two million dollars".


The man scoffed. "This property isn't worth two million dollars!" he exclaimed.


"It is to me", my father said.


I have to admit that I was fairly amazed at my father since risky behavior was somewhat uncharacteristic for him. "What if he had said OK?" I asked. My father just smiled. He knew what he was doing.


Enhancing the tour are the stories. There are stories of Robert Fuller and the tragic loss of his childhood home during the Civil War. There are stories of those who came from the North to try their hands at replicating the cotton growing production of the Sea Island planters. And, of course, there are the stories of my great grandfather, Oscar Herbert Bishop, who bought "de Ya'ad" and created a truck farming enterprise, only to see it all lost when the occasionally fickle Sea Island weather and the economy didn't cooperate.


And so to fully appreciate the place we must go back to before the Civil War and walk our way forward. To understand the history, we must understand the people and their lives and trials. To understand today, we must look back to yesterday.