Inspired artwork and The story behind a Historic Lowcountry Estate.
Story by Carolyn Males + Art by Alexandra Sharma
Little did Billy Swain know that it would be the last time he’d drive his Packard convertible through the tall wooden gates, past the caretaker’s cottage, down the entranceway lined with oaks that his father, W. Moseley Swain, had planted two decades earlier. Billy would continue on, his roadster’s tires crunching along the winding shell road past a pasture and orchard to Belfair, the grand tabby home the elder Swain had designed and built on a bluff overlooking the Colleton River in 1929.
The Swains had been part of the “Yankee invasion,” rich Northern industrialists who’d bought up properties in the early 1900s on which they’d erected large houses and established hunt clubs. After W. Moseley died in 1940, Billy and his wife, Frieda, had taken up residence here among the tapestries and artwork.
Perhaps on that same day in December 1948 (or a day or so later), the 36-year-old newspaper heir caught his last glimpse of the river as he stood at Belfair’s front door, greeting a guest who’d climbed the curved stairway for an evening of alcohol-fueled camaraderie.
Sometime during the drinking bout, Frieda headed up to bed leaving Billy downstairs deep in conversation with his friend Victor Strojny. Then, according to Strojny, the night took a strange turn. He’d later tell the sheriff that he’d been about to leave when he’d heard a crash. Rushing in the direction of the sound, he found his friend’s body sprawled in a bloody puddle at the foot of a wooden staircase leading to the basement. Claiming he could not awaken Mrs. Swain, he drove out to the caretaker’s house to call an ambulance.
The coroner shook his head. The fracture and large jagged crack at the back of Billy’s skull were too serious an injury to have been solely the result of an accidental fall. Plus there was that odd perplexing detail. On the seventh step above where Swain lay sat an unbroken whiskey glass, as if he had rested it there to free up his hands to make a point, steady a wobbly balance or maybe (as some speculated) throw a punch.
Beaufort County Sheriff J.E. McTeer, he of hoodoo root doctor fame (a story in itself), brought in Victor Strojny for questioning. It turned out that Strojny, a Callawassie cattle rancher, owed Swain money. Had there been a heated argument that had gotten out of hand? Or was it an accident, the result of the host’s tipsy misstep? And why did Frieda post bond for Strojny? A lack of witnesses to Swain’s unfortunate tumble into the Great Beyond led to a collective shrug. And so, to this day, the death of Billy Swain remains a mystery.
So with the body carted off, the blood stains scrubbed away, and any whiskey left in the glass presumably collected, drained or drunk, Frieda packed up and left. As the years rolled by, the large house on its 2,600-acre estate now stood empty. Some locals would swear it was haunted by Swain’s ghost who roamed the halls. Meanwhile the tabby exterior –– constructed from a mixture of oyster shells, cement and brackish water fatally married to steel reinforcements –– began to erode and crumble. Tabby fell off in chunks, shutters came loose and hung askew, critters invaded, and wild growth edged in to reclaim the gardens. Only the elegant Corinthian columns, made from sturdier material, stood tall.
The Mingledorff family bought Belfair for $50,000 in the early 1950s, and in the estate’s newest incarnation as a ranch, its oak-lined drive bore witness to the arrival of a herd of Polled Hereford cows to be tended by Texas wranglers. The once grand house was transformed into a glorified barn filled with bags of animal feed and hay.
Conveyor belts moved the bales up three stories into the former bedrooms. But by the 1960s the cattle had all gone to market, and white turkeys took their place. Now the cowhands found themselves on horseback, rounding up the gobblers, shooing them to shelter during thunderstorms. When the poultry business soon proved untenable, W. Moseley Swain’s dream house once again stood empty, continuing down its path of decay.
In the mid-‘80s Belfair finally met its date with the wrecking ball. From here the history gets complicated. The Mingledorffs had sold the land to the Welton family, who had formed the Rose Hill Development Company. They, in turn, would later sell off Belfair’s acreage to the Belfair LLC in 1994. However, in a separate deal, a family had bought the Belfair house and a chunk of land surrounding it. The ruins were hauled away, but the sturdy Corinthian columns were salvaged and incorporated into a new home built on the same Colleton River peninsula.
Today the oaks Billy Swain once drove through arch majestically over the entrance to Belfair, now a private Bluffton golf community. However, despite their shared history, the house that replaced the Swains’ flawed tabby masterpiece sits outside its namesake gated community. Instead, the new home and its grounds are encompassed within the boundaries of (although it’s technically not part of) neighboring Rose Hill.
Meanwhile, no word on where Billy Swain’s ghost hangs out these days.