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“The Sporting Life” flows through the Lowcountry’s history

“The northern “visitors” took note of all the wildlife and the superb climate during most of the year and promised themselves that they would return after the war.”

Story by Tommy Baysden + Illustration by Gary Palmer

Had Google Earth existed a couple of centuries ago you might have used it to zoom down onto a wild stretch of coastline between Charleston and Savannah, one that had all the earmarks of an antediluvian world: trackless white beaches, tidal salt marshes and sweetwater lagoons, teeming with fish and game. But you would have seen very few people, because almost nobody knew it was there. It took the Yankees 50 years later to discover it.

SPOILS OF WAR • Federal Troops fleeing the siege of Fort Sumter were among the first northerners to discover the Lowcountry’s amazing ecosystem.

When Fort Sumter fell to the Confederates in Charleston Harbor 50 miles to the north, the Federal armada steamed South into Port Royal Sound, offloading a handful of men onto Bay Point to slog through the marshes into an empty Beaufort, making it the first town occupied in the war.

More than 20,000 troops landed on Hilton Head Island, where they established a fort and a town for escaped slaves, later to be known as Mitchellville. It didn’t take the troops long to realize that they had been dropped into a sort of latter-day Garden of Eden. Deer were so abundant and trusting that they fed out in the open all day. Wild hogs, first brought there by the Spaniards centuries earlier, proliferated in the maritime forests. Countless thousands of waterfowl and wading birds migrated through in the spring and fall.

The northern “visitors” took note of all the wildlife and the superb climate during most of the year and promised themselves that they would return after the war. Many of them did.

What they found was a land in total upheaval. Reconstruction had brought the Lowcountry to its knees. Many of the plantations and other large landholdings had been seized for back taxes, then auctioned off for pennies on the dollar. Many of these properties were purchased by northern “sports,” who relished the outdoor recreational opportunities at their feet. Many built magnificent homes to replace those that Sherman had left in ashes, and they entertained lavishly in the fall and winter months.

The centerpiece of all this socializing and entertainment was the unsurpassed outdoor opportunities in the Lowcountry’s waters and woods. The freshwater wetlands along the Combahee River, as well as those in the Santee Delta and what is now the ACE Basin, became one of the most storied destinations on the Eastern Flyway: the name given to the age-old route of migrating ducks and geese.

TALKING TURKEY • South Carolina’s wild turkey population is estimated at 130,000.

Quail were abundant in the small food plots close to thick woods, which are needed by the birds for protection from predators. Both dogs and hunters were typically transported in mule-drawn wagons with the dog handlers working on horseback up ahead of the “Sports.” Lunch catered from the “Big House” was served al fresco in the field, complete with linen tablecloths and centerpieces. No expense was spared.

In the tidal creeks and among the islands and hummocks that lined the winding rivers, they caught speckled trout and redfish, (which they called spot-tail bass) as well as bluegill and largemouth bass in the same freshwater ponds that drew the ducks.

In the evenings around crackling fires attended by liveried servants, they feasted on the supernal fish and game harvested that very day and matched with Grand Cru wines brought from their cellars in Boston and New York. The shellfish — especially the crabs, shrimp and May River Oysters (already known worldwide) — far surpassed the menus at Keen’s, Delmonico’s and Bookbinder’s In Philadelphia. Soon, the word spread at the Knickerbocker Club and the Union League about a sportsman’s paradise along the South Carolina coast known as the “Lowcountry.” Before long, the old family landholdings were being bought by families with names like DuPont, Doubleday, Donnelly and Ford.

Old Sport • Pete Bostwick is shown on his polo horse, Canterbury.

Even polo had its day. Equestrian pursuits had always been popular in the region, especially among the ladies. Pete Bostwick, widely regarded as the best polo player in the world, bought Tomotly Plantation near Sheldon, and later Haig Point, and staged matches for his friends from the Northeast and even Argentina. The horses, like the “Sports” themselves, traveled by rail to Yemassee, then overland and by primitive ferry to the islands beyond.

Hunt clubs sprang up along the coast, enabling a handful of members to share the daunting cost of maintaining habitat for ducks and quail. Only a few such operations remain, such as Bray’s Island, Spring Island and the very private Okatie Club near Ridgeland. Eventually, the lure of golf and the beaches would create land values that superseded the economics of owning pristine, undeveloped land.

Today, hands-on access to the Lowcountry’s sporting bounty is largely limited to the wealthy. But the rich populations of fish and game, once threatened by sprawl, are returning to the forests and marshes they haunted for so long, buoyed by the conservation efforts of groups such as the Beaufort County Open Land Trust and the Rural and Critical Lands Program.

Conservancies such as the ACE Basin and the Donnelly Wildlife Management Preserve are creating awareness that these natural treasures that we have come to consider our birthright can be lost in the twinkling of an eye.

The days of opulent sporting clubs and the captains of industry who once frequented them are now mostly gone, but a passive fascination has emerged in their place.

After all, it costs nothing to watch the Ibis and herons pour into their roosts at dusk. Seeing a bald eagle or a swallowtail kite soaring above the tree line is free. Stopping to let a wild turkey hen and her chicks cross the road is an unforgettable experience. We have learned that we no longer have to kill these wonderful gifts to enjoy the memories they give us.

The pursuit of wild things – the “Sporting Life” – flows through the history of our Lowcountry home. And it is through this history that we, and our children, can enjoy it most.