Camelot on the Carolina Coast

Charles Fraser and the wild, glory days of Sea Pines Company.

Story by Tommy Baysden

The statue of the iconic photograph that appeared in the March 3, 1962, edition of the Saturday Evening Post, showing Charles Fraser walking with an alligator on the Sea Pines Ocean Course. ©Arno Dimmling

A good bit has been written about the serendipitous series of circumstances leading to the birth and early growth of Sea Pines Company. Most are histories or business books, rich with facts and details about financial deals, land acquisitions and the comings and goings of executives over the years. But few, if any, have focused on the period of explosive growth between 1970 and 1976. And none, to my knowledge, have described the outrageous goings-on that resulted when scores of well-educated young people, many in their first jobs, poured into new communities that had been raw, scarcely populated boondocks only a couple of years before. Some of their adventures would have been at home in a Gilbert & Sullivan farce, some almost too hysterical to believe. (And some were just a little beyond innocent mischief.) But the things they were doing were so exciting and groundbreaking, the freedom they were given in doing these things so refreshing, and the places they were doing them so exquisitely beautiful, that they began to call it “Camelot.”

In 1973, a small development company on the coast of South Carolina hired the second largest number of Harvard MBAs of any corporation in America. The company, known as Sea Pines, also hired MBAs from Virginia, North Carolina, Wharton and Stanford. Sea Pines’ Founder and CEO Charles E. Fraser had a motive in all this recruiting: he reasoned that he could acquire this young talent, with all its energy and blazing ambition, for less than he would have to pay for experienced executives. And inexperience didn’t bother Fraser. He wasn’t interested in doing things as they had been done in the past. He wanted new perspective, new ideas.

The result was a double-edged sword: the company exploded with creativity and achievement, launching seven new communities in less than three years. But, as dozens of 20-somethings, (mostly without children and many of them single) streamed into the home office on Hilton Head Island and then to the new projects, a youth culture began to take hold that was, at times, as wild and uninhibited as it was energetic and productive. The explosive growth was coming at the expense of — for lack of a better term — “adult supervision.” For many of these young men and women, this was the headiest time of their lives. Fraser gave them all the responsibility and incentive they could handle, and they gave him back long hours, tireless travel and new ideas. They were helping to make him wealthy, and they were certain he was going to return the favor. But as the new staffers began moving into communities that had, in some cases, been wilderness tracts on remote barrier islands just three years earlier, an aura of barely controlled chaos began to emerge in which the bizarre became commonplace and outrageous adventures were the order of the day.

In 1973, Sea Pines hired the second largest number of Harvard MBAs of any corporation in America. Only Citicorp — both then and now, one of the largest financial institutions in the world — (now known as Citigroup) had more. ©The Sea Pines Resort

Beginnings

Charles himself was a force of nature. Although everyone acknowledged that he was stone-cold brilliant, he was prey to the eccentricities that often accompany genius. He would pull a chair over to your table at the Plantation Club and eat off your plate. He would visit your home and rip pages out of books and magazines that interested him. He would lie on his back on the floor of your den and make you explain the lyrics of rock songs streaming out of your speakers. In conversation, he would sometimes stop in mid-sentence and simply wander off alone, as though he was listening to instructions from above. He seemed to suck the oxygen out of any room he walked into, as Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill are said to have done.

But there was another side to Charles’ personality. As Sea Pines’ profile loomed larger in the business world and his reputation began to spread, it was rumored that he was so aggressively impatient and prone to bouts of rudeness, (despite his genteel Southern blood), that he was difficult to work for. But those who did work for Fraser, (including the author) found him to be a loyal and generous mentor, with a warm and compassionate heart, who cared about them and their families. He could embarrass you in the conference room one day and send you on a fact-finding mission to Spain the next. He was larger than life, and he stayed that way until his own was ended, far too soon.

Charles once said “I’m interested in making money, but I’m also interested in history, architecture, trees and birds.” This was to become a value system and a mantra that would change forever the upper strata of the community development world.

Sea Pines was pioneering in a dozen different disciplines: land planning, design, conservation, historic preservation — even mosquito control. But as the exciting facilities continued to grow, the craziness continued to grow, as well. It was nothing less than this: a cosmic collision of brilliance, motivation, hard work, youth and a boom in the U.S. economy – as those who experienced it will never forget.

It was stated earlier that many of the “Young Turks” of Sea Pines expected Charles to make them rich. And for many, he did exactly that, though not as expected. Instead of the huge salaries and obscene bonuses in favor today, he mentored them in his groundbreaking philosophy of responsible, human-scale development. Many of them went on to found and lead some of America’s premier recreational communities. They learned and honed their skills in places like Amelia Island, Kiawah and Palmas del Mar. Along the way, they had some amazing, madcap and surreal adventures, as you will soon see.

Fraser would eat off your plate, visit your home and rip pages out of books and magazines that interested him. It was rumored that he was difficult to work for, but those who did work for him found Fraser to be a loyal and generous mentor. ©The Sea Pines Resort

Taming the Jungle

In 1958, there existed a sprawling jungle island off the coast of South Carolina, where the deep Savannah River divides that state from neighboring Georgia. On it were 42 square miles of magnificent maritime forest: live oaks, palmettos and pines, rimmed with white sand beaches and thousands of acres of shimmering salt marsh; vast farm fields, most of them demised, but which once fed the world’s insatiable appetite for Sea Island Cotton; and a few secluded fishing villages with boats that harvested the succulent local shrimp. But there were very few people, indeed.

The island, after the English explorer who first raised its “headland” on the horizon in 1663, was named Hilton Head.

Even in the 1950s it was a primordial wilderness habitat, an absolute riot of the natural world. Tens of thousands of neotropical wading birds crowded the brackish ponds around the island’s edge: Egrets, ibis, wood storks, anhinga and greenback herons. The woods teemed with deer, wild turkeys and feral hogs — the descendents of those brought by DeSoto in 1540. There was even the occasional sighting of a cougar, known as “Carolina Panthers” at the time. Alligators flourished in the inland freshwater lagoons.

This amazing ecosystem was especially appreciated by young Charles from nearby Hinesville, Ga., who had grown up visiting the island with his father, one of its four owners. He was not drawn to sports, (though he loved sailing) but was fascinated with nature, and the island’s undisturbed flora and fauna were magical to him. He had matriculated at the University of Georgia and then Yale Law School, where he had taken courses on the then-new protocol of deed restrictions: covenants that bound landowners to certain restrictions, including architectural control. Fraser was to use those teachings to forever change the face of American community design.

Charles’ father retired as a Major General in the U.S. Army, and during Charlie’s youth was the commanding officer of Fort Stewart in Hinesville, Ga. He owned most of the island with three partners, primarily for the timber rights. To say that it was primitive at that time would not have done justice to the situation.

Electricity had only come in 1950. And the first bridge not until 1956 — the same year that Norris and Lois Richardson opened the Forest Beach Market (later to become the Red and White) a quarter mile from the beach, making decent groceries available for the first time. The roads were mostly old logging trails, swimming in mud and populated by rattlesnakes. When the partnership subdivided the island in 1956, General Fraser took the southernmost parcel. It was the smallest of the three tracts, and thus had less timber value. But it had something else — something that was not wasted on young Charles: those beaches were among the finest in America. And they were untouched! Charles had long dreamed about how to do something special on the island, and how to share it with people who would understand and appreciate its special gifts. When he bought the Sea Pines tract from the family, he put in place the moving parts that would lead to “Camelot.” But first, he had some homework to do.

Sleepy Hilton Head Island got electricity in 1950 and its first bridge in 1956. Harbour Town Yacht Basin was built in 1969 to attract boaters to the island. ©The Sea Pines Resort

He began networking among the developers of successful properties along the Atlantic Coast. Sitting in their offices, he grilled them (as only Charles could grill!) about what they thought they had done right and wrong, and what they would do differently if starting again. From condominium developers he heard about the complexities of regime fees. From resort operators he heard about the pitfalls of food and beverage service, from marina owners about the proper mix of slip sizes and pricing of services.

Charles was once asked how he went about creating the original Master Plan for Sea Pines. “Simple”, he said. “here’s the process: Read and travel, stock my brain. Talk to experienced people, stock my brain. Scan thousands of architectural photographs, stock my brain.” What he didn’t say is that it took a very special type of brain to “stock” all this detail.

He also called on all the prominent land planners he could get in to see. One of these was the firm of Sasaki, Dawson and DeMay in Boston. They had done celebrated projects all over the world, and had won numerous national and international awards. But what impressed Charles the most was the fresh perspective they brought to a bug-ridden semitropical island off the South Carolina coast.

Together, they set to work on a plan that included the first major elements of the community: an oceanfront inn with meeting space, an ocean-oriented golf course with its attendant club and restaurants, a marina village on the Intracoastal Waterway, and — most radical of all — a “Forest Preserve” of several hundred acres, where no development would be permitted to intrude, and few, if any, trees allowed to be cut. Along the way, they were creating groundbreaking concepts in land planning, such as as residential streets perpendicular to the beach, rather than alongside it, creating more “ownership” of the ocean by all. A community unlike any other was beginning to take shape.

Sasaki, Dawson & DeMay, with a design team that included landscape architect William “Bill” Johnson, was hired to design Sea Pines Plantation in 1956. Beachfront lots initially sold for $5,350. A similar lot today goes for $1.5 million and higher. ©The Sea Pines Resort

As Sea Pines Plantation continued to move forward in fits and starts, Charles had to face the realities of attracting people to a remote island and then trying to sell them land. The first of these posed the biggest challenge. The island’s beauty and its remarkable Master Plan would sell themselves, he reasoned, but getting people there over rural roads and a single-lane bridge would be no easy feat.

Enter the Hilton Head Inn. If Charles could establish the island as a top-flight destination resort, the seclusion would actually be to its advantage. But first, the word had to get out. And then, of course, somebody had to be there, practically full time, to present its mystical, otherworldly beauty to the public, and especially to the press. But people weren’t exactly lining up to come live and work on an essentially unpopulated island — one teeming with every kind of unpleasant vermin known to the tropics. So Charles did the only thing he could: he hired five bachelor friends to come and essentially camp on the island, to help him bring it to life.

But Sea Pines, and even Hilton Head, were far from household names, even in the Southeast. Publicity was what it had to have, since there was no money for major advertising. One of the five bachelors, David Pearson, had a friend on the staff of the Saturday Evening Post, then one of the country’s most popular magazines, with a circulation in excess of seven million readers – a week! After months of pleading and cajoling by Pearson about the fascinating story to be found on Hilton Head, the friend agreed to stop off, with a photographer, on the way to do a story in Miami. They were fascinated by the alligators. While viewing one on the newly finished Ocean Golf Course, Pearson, construction superintendent Donald O’Quinn and Hasell Heyward of Bluffton lured “Albert,” the 10- foot resident gator in the lagoon by the 18th green, into a loop and hauled him out.  After a few minutes on the ground, Albert started walking back toward the lagoon.

They somehow got a chain around his neck when up walked Charles, having arrived from a bank meeting in Savannah, still wearing a business suit. Something clicked in Pearson’s head. “Charles, come over here,” he shouted. Someone produced an umbrella, the photographer snapped off the shot, and the seeds of Camelot were sown.

There wasn’t much traffic back when Sea Pines Plantation installed the island’s first gate in 1967. The Hilton Head Airport opened later in the year. ©The Sea Pines Resort

Business Entertainment

The Hilton Head Inn, originally named the William Hilton Inn, opened its doors in 1959, and the Ocean Golf Course followed in 1962. The first Pro, Wallace Palmer, gave lessons and sold equipment out of his car. The Plantation Club was completed soon thereafter, and to operate its very fine, (and at that time in South Carolina, anyway) very ambitious dining room, Charles hired a young Swiss hotelier named Franz Meier, whom he had met when Meier was running the Swiss Pavilion at the 1968 New York World’s Fair. Charles rightly perceived that Meier had the savvy and experience to bring truly fine dining to the Carolina Lowcountry, where difficulties in procuring the best ingredients and trained staff were famously daunting. Meir’s new bride, Signe, was an accomplished pastry chef in her own right. Suddenly, in a region where a T-bone steak or a shrimp dinner were considered haute cuisine, diners were being served Tornados Rossini, Sweetbreads Grenoblaise and Crepes Suzette. To prepare and serve this elegant fare, Meier imported a small legion of European chefs and captains who soon created a colony of their own amidst the island’s exquisite terrain. A whole population of Uwes, Pierres, Klauses and Dieters sprang up among the “Lowcountry Bubbas” of Hilton Head.

The Plantation Club was a dazzling environment for the new employees. Company officers, even junior ones, were given what were essentially carte blanche expense accounts to dine and entertain at the club. To the left was a typical evening’s menu, (junior execs entertaining other junior execs, the company picking up the tab):

Crazy? Of course. But there was a mission in this seeming madness. It was mostly a show. The Club had to be kept humming, keeping the cooks and servers busy, putting on a grand display of epicurean drama there in the middle of nowhere. It was never expected to make a profit, at least not in its early years. It was there to make a statement instead, albeit a subtle one: this was part of life as lived here in Sea Pines Plantation. You can live in a tropical garden by the sea and not have to leave the perks of cosmopolitan life behind! The red ink thrown off by the Plantation Club was merely part of the marketing budget. And marketing was more valuable than money, at Sea Pines in 1971.

Lewis Aiken serving diners at the Plantation Club in the early 1970s. ©Heritage Library

Let There Be Light

In the mid-‘60s, working with the Sasaki firm, Charles began the planning of Harbour Town. The property occupied a spectacular site overlooking Calibogue Sound, which was and is part of the Intracoastal Waterway, a succession of navigable estuaries linked by man-made canals, which the Corps of Engineers had completed in 1912. Hundreds of yachts, some spectacular, passed right by it on their way to and from Florida in the Fall and Spring. There could be no better exposure to the demographic — and the lifestyle — Charles sought. And then he made the boldest, and possibly the riskiest, move of his career. He had the Sasaki designers create a candy-striped, 80-foot lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor. Had the Inn, the Plantation Club and the (then) two golf courses not existed to provide credibility for Charles’ marketing instincts and good taste, the lighthouse might have been laughed down as a corny, Disney-ish stab at pseudo-history, and a gimmick. Instead, it went on to become the enduring symbol of Sea Pines and one of the most recognizable corporate marks in the world.

On the half-acre of high ground between the lighthouse and the water, Charles had placed a Ship’s Store and a shower/sauna/changing room for transient boaters. Above this, he had envisioned a nautically themed bar with a stunning 230-degree view across the Sound to Daufuskie Island and its (authentic) historic lighthouse, which had been built by the famous polo player Pete Bostwick in the early 1930s.

Jim Light (left) and Jim Chaffin are shown outside The Quarterdeck bar. It was the only late night watering hole on the island and, along with the Inn and the Plantation Club, Palmetto Dunes and Port Royal, the only places serving alcohol. ©Heritage Library

Tapped to manage the development of the new facility was Jim Light, a young West Virginian who had been one of Fraser’s earliest Harvard hires. From earlier projects, Charles had learned that the only way to ensure on-time completion was to send invitations to a “Grand Opening” several weeks in advance.

So, he had invited about 100 “prominent” islanders (not an easy group to identify in those days!) to come for cocktails and food at 5 p.m. on a date that Light had assured him would be easy to meet. However, at 4 p.m. on the appointed day, Light and his crew were still installing carpet in the bar. Undaunted, Light had set up an amazing procedure for getting it done: as the carpet crew moved across the floor from the entrance to the exit door, a team of staff members followed behind them, placing tables on what had been concrete floor just minutes before. Behind them, a crew of waitresses followed, setting the tables as soon as they were placed down. As the first guests entered on the stroke of five, the carpet crew was moving out of the exit door. (This would become the default protocol for opening many Sea Pines facilities yet to come).

The Quarterdeck was a hit, right from the opening bell. It was the only late night watering hole on the island and, along with the Inn and the Plantation Club, Palmetto Dunes and Port Royal, the only places serving alcohol. (More on this momentarily). In addition to residents and guests on Hilton Head, the Quarterdeck was patronized by employees of the company, many in their mid-to-late twenties, and many of them female. The bar quickly became the only “singles scene” between Savannah and Charleston and single men (and some pretending to be) ate it up.

The sole waitress at the Quarterdeck was a fetching little dish named Suzie, who was married to one of the captains at the Plantation Club. She wore short skirts and low-cut blouses, and had doubtless been pinched and groped by a succession of naughty golfers. But she had learned to slap hands with a giggle and a smile, while her gratuities soared.

As mentioned earlier, Charles had included a sauna in the transient boaters “locker room” below the Quarterdeck. Since the room was almost never used, the sauna became the scene of more than a few midnight trysts. But its role as the clandestine liquor hiding place was where it performed its greatest service.

Fraser, shown with his wife Mary, encouraged his people to learn through travel, to stay fresh by playing tennis in the middle of the day and to have plenty of gatherings where networking and cross fertilization would take place. ©The Sea Pines Resort

To fully grasp the lunacy of this, you must first understand the approach to alcohol service in the state of South Carolina at that time:

1. The sale of alcohol, except from state-controlled stores, was against the law. If you went to a restaurant or club, you had to take your own. (Beer and wine had their own litany of laws, and they weren’t so generous either).

2. Then, as now, the state depended heavily on tourism to reach its annual budget.

3. In a classic act of pure hypocrisy, the state permitted the secret under-cover sale of liquor in a handful of specific establishments in the tourist areas of Myrtle Beach, Charleston, and the “new kid on the block,” Hilton Head.

4. It worked like this: clubs and dining areas throughout the state were subject to random searches without warning by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. But the “without warning” part was something of a slippery concept.

5. On the day of an inspection, (they quickly came to be called “raids”), someone from the ABC Board, or maybe the Sheriff’s Office, would call one of the handful of “special” venues — (The Ocean Forest Hotel in Myrtle Beach, Henry’s Restaurant and the Mills House Hotel in Charleston, the Hilton Head facilities and three or four others around the state were among the anointed few) and inform them that a visit was forthcoming. 

6. The establishment in question would scurry to hide its liquor, get a clean bill of health, then put it right back in place as soon as the inspector was gone. This is where the downstairs sauna at the Quarterdeck came in. It was the perfect place to stash the booze.

You will have to trust me (or ask anyone who was there) that this was how alcohol sales were regulated in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s in South Carolina. (Even 50 years later it still amazes!) Virtually everyone knew about it, and it is hard to understand how some of the operators not in “the club” didn’t protest more. Perhaps they had a deal of their own.

Harbour Town Golf Links

Fraser laughs with Jack Nicklaus, Pete Dye and Donald O’Quinn in 1969 at Harbour Town Golf Links. ©The Sea Pines Resort

Seeing the burgeoning popularity of the Ocean and Sea Marsh golf courses, Charles became convinced that Sea Pines still needed another golf experience – this one a truly world-class venue that would claim a place alongside Pine Valley, Pebble Beach, Pinehurst Number Two and the other handful of courses considered the “aristocracy” of American golf.

He had already identified the perfect piece of land. While planning the village and surrounding areas of Harbour Town, he had been struck by the magnificence of the Live Oak forests that lay within the land adjoining Calibogue Sound. He christened the routing a golf links, though – except for the two closing holes – it didn’t actually conform to the original Scottish meaning of the term; “a sandy stretch lying alongside water with few or no trees.”

Now that Charles had identified the canvas, he needed to find an exceptional artist to paint his dream. He put the patented Fraser Research Model (aka “Stock My Brain”) back to work. He quizzed scores of golfers, both amateur and professional, on the best designer to breathe life into that dream. The same name kept coming back at him: a 35-year-old, semi-retired insurance executive from Carmel, Indiana.

Charles was not a golfer himself, but even he thought that the man’s resume and experience were a bit short and, well, a bit strange. (His first course was a nine-hole track south of Indianapolis that crossed the same creek nineteen times!).

Arnold Palmer won the inaugural Heritage Classic in 1969 at Harbour Town Golf Links. Soon after, the Associated Press named Palmer “Athlete of the Decade.” ©Heritage Classic Foundation

His name was Pete Dye and he was already attracting attention for his innovative approach to course design, much of it based on his careful studies of Scottish links courses. He would go on to become one of the most celebrated course designers in the world. Charles had learned not to ask for advice unless he was willing to take it, and he invited Dye down to Hilton Head to have a look.

At this point, three mostly unconnected events converged to put the Harbour Town Links on the world’s golf map, where it remained for fifty years (and still counting). Dye brought Jack Nicklaus, whom he had met while working on a course in Ohio, onto the Harbour Town team.

Though Dye’s star was just starting its ascendancy, Nicklaus had already established himself as the best golfer in the country, if not the world. As he toured on the PGA circuit and extolled the remarkable course taking shape off the coast of South Carolina, the word eventually found its way to Sports Illustrated magazine. They dispatched noted writer Dan Jenkins and a photographer to the sleepily little island to see what all the fuss was about. What followed was a photo feature, crammed with exquisite shots of the photogenic course. The world took notice.

This enabled Charles and his PR director, John Gettys Smith, to lobby for, and get, the PGA Tour event that would bring the world to Hilton Head. “The Heritage Of Golf,” trumpeting all the Scottish connections Charles could find, debuted in November 1969.

But the uncanny luck kept coming. Arnold Palmer won the first Heritage.

Dozens of professional golfers win PGA tournaments every year. But this one was different. Palmer had not won a tournament in two years. Again, this was not unusual in itself. But Palmer had been atop the golf world since winning his first tour title in 1955 — the first of 93 to come. And while Nicklaus was establishing himself as the greatest golfer ever, Palmer’s good looks, his down-home accessibility and swashbuckling style were making him America’s favorite — a mantle he would wear until after his death at 87. And the publicity flowed again!

Fraser at Family Circle Cup with 1977 winner Chris Evert and runner-up Billie Jean King.

Tennis, the New Kid on the Block

The success of the Heritage demonstrated clearly how effective tournaments and other special events could be in jump starting awareness and publicity. So Charles and his marketers went looking for another one. Tennis had long taken a back seat to golf in popularity and recognition, at both the amateur and professional level. It was considered somewhat elitist – a country club sport favored mostly by women. But in the early ‘70s, things had started changing in a big way. The Davis Cup had been founded in 1900 as a tournament format for competition between countries. As with many things that far back in history, it was limited strictly to men. But by the early ‘70s, with television bringing sports into millions of homes across the country, tennis was ripe for promotion and growth.

Two Washington lawyers would harness that potential and take American tennis to the next level. Donald Dell and Frank Craighill had met in law school at the University of Virginia and went on to found ProServe, a white-shoe management firm representing professional athletes. Since Dell had played professionally and served as captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, the firm focused on tennis, at least in the beginning. Among its clients was a Who’s Who of American players: Jimmy Conners, Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Marty Riessen, and others. Soon, ProServ was organizing and promoting tournaments which included great international players, especially Australians.

Dell and Craighill were aware of Charles Fraser’s interest in making Sea Pines a major presence in the burgeoning tennis world, and soon they were feeding him ideas about how to maximize this exposure. Each of the major communities would have its own touring pro: Marty Riessen at Amelia, Charlie Pasarell at Palmas and (in one of the most fruitful matches in Human Resources history), Stan Smith at Sea Pines Plantation. (More than 40 years later, he is still here!) Within sight of the Harbour Town Clubhouse, the Sea Pines Racquet Club soon broke ground, with eight HarTru courts initially, and space for many more.

Charles Fraser with Tom Gardo after winning the SC Governor’s Cup for Outstanding Tourism in 1975.

Charles also had the foresight to leave a piece of land contiguous to the club for a small stadium, should one ever be needed. It didn’t take long. ProServ put together the CBS Tennis Classic with the network as sponsor, for a three-day, made-for-television tournament featuring all the top names in the sport world-wide. Soon, such legends as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Arthur Ashe were part-time residents of Harbour Town and came to consider it one of their favorite stops on the professional tour. Smith even made it his permanent home and has raised his family here.

So successful was the Classic that another stadium court was built at Palmas Del Mar, and the tourney moved to Puerto Rico for a time. Sea Pines became a tennis destination worldwide, just as it had with golf.

It was 1973. Sea Pines was hitting on all cylinders and the world was our oyster. But the hijinks had only just begun. However, as Michael Ende famously said, “That is another story and shall be told another time.”