Dynamic mother-daughter duo Nelle and Ora Elliott Smith share the story of the making of Hilton Head in their family memoir.
Story by Bob Stavnitski
John F. Kennedy was in the White House when the Smith family arrived on Hilton Head in 1963. “Close your eyes.” Nelle Smith beckons with her Lowcountry drawl, “Take deeps breaths, use your imagination, and think peaceful thoughts. It was a quiet simpler time, almost all dirt roads, no traffic and definitely no traffic lights.” The words are from the forward of the memoir “Paradise: Memories of Hilton Head in the Early Days,” written by Nelle and her daughter, Ora. It’s about living with their larger-than-life family patriarch John Gettys Smith, who was recruited by Charles Fraser for the position of vice president of public relations in the early years of the development of Sea Pines.
“It’s paradise… If I get the job, we are moving. It’s the chance of a lifetime,” Smith beamed, after his first interview with Charles Fraser. To support their family of two young boys and a baby sister, the Smiths were working as teachers in his hometown of York, S.C. They also wrote for the Rock Hill newspaper and worked tirelessly as volunteers in historic preservation. The couple were among the first to bring attention to the dilapidated ruins of the nearby historic Brattonsville Plantation and several buildings that, in 1971, were recognized by the National Registry of Historic Places.
When Smith got his new job offer, Nelle packed up the family, armed with a copy of the “Hilton Head Good Dirt Roads” map and headed to the Lowcountry. “After we went over the bridge to Hilton Head, it seemed to take forever to get to the south end of the Island.” Nelle remembered. They arrived at the employee housing that Fraser had built outside the Ocean gate. These were modest cinderblock villas with kitchenettes that reminded Nelle of airline galleys. “Obviously planned by a bachelor,” she said. The buildings have stood the test of time, known today as the Cordillo Cabanas.
The William Hilton Inn on South Forest Beach was the biggest landmark on the island with its 80 oceanfront rooms. The lodging was Fraser’s first high-profile offering on the island. There was no Harbour Town lighthouse and nothing between Coligny Beach and Sea Pines Circle and all the way to little Palmetto Bay Marina. There was a nine-hole golf course and a few early homes in Port Royal Plantation.
The north end had a smattering of low-slung homes and cottages, many belonging to longtime Gullah families. Palmetto Dunes was wilderness used occasionally for shooting outings of the North Carolina Gun Club. The rest of the island was primarily wilderness.
The Smiths lived on a employee discount priced third-row ocean lot in Sea Pines, just a stone’s throw away from both the soon-to-be constructed Sea Pines Plantation Club and the Sea Pines Beach Club. Here, they built an airy comfortable beach home where they raised their children. The Smiths were one of only 12 families living in Sea Pines year-round. Their home, to no one’s surprise, eventually met the wrath of a wrecking ball and was replaced by a much larger and luxurious dwelling by subsequent homeowners.
Imagine Hilton Head as a “Field of Dreams.” Fraser built it, and Smith made them come. Highlights of Smith’s innovations for Sea Pines include networking through Jack Nicklaus to bring famed golf course designer Pete Dye in to create the Harbour Town Golf Links. John was a co-founder and chairman of the Heritage Classic Golf Tournament and the CBS Tournament of Champions, which brought tennis greats of the ’60s and early ’70s and a national television audience to the stadium court at Harbour Town.
The Smiths also started the Family Circle Cup, an exciting annual event on the women’s professional tennis circuit that was a great success at the Harbour Town Racquet Club before moving to Charleston.
In 1971, Smith approached his wife with another chance of a lifetime. “Guess what Nelle! I’ve just signed an option for the No. 1 one spot at Harbour Town for a shop for us,” he said. That was the unassuming beginnings of Nelle’s Harbour Shop, a business she originally did not want to start but continues today under new ownership. The oldest gift shop in continuous operation on the island has been run successfully and with great charm by Nelle and her daughter, Ora, for 25 years.