March 29, 2014

Hobcaw Barony foundation celebrates 50 years of history, nature and imagination

Imagination, Mother Nature and history – of the Georgetown area, nation and world – have converged at Hobcaw Barony for decades.

Imagination, Mother Nature and history – of the Georgetown area, nation and world – have converged at Hobcaw Barony for decades.

On March 20, stopping the tour bus on a cool, sunny morning outside the red brick home Bernard M. Baruch – a Wall Street financier and an adviser for six U.S. presidents from Woodrow Wilson through Harry S. Truman – had built in 1930 and ‘31, Stu Slifkin led a group of 14 onto the dock along the Waccamaw River.

“Think of 1905,” he said, referring to Baruch’s $20,000 purchase of a 10,000-acre wilderness with its original home and having everyone look across the water. “Picture yourself as Mr. Baruch and his guests did.”

Slifkin said no U.S. 17 bridge spanned the Waccamaw, Black and Great Pee Dee rivers, and the International Paper and steel mills did not come until several years later.

At the start of the 20th century, Slifkin said, people from the Northeast bought estates in the Lowcountry “for hunting and relaxation,” and Baruch’s family lived there from November to April every winter.

In this 50th anniversary year of the Belle M. Baruch Foundation – which preserves an estate that Baruch, and later his daughter Belle, expanded to 16,000 acres – an introductory tour such as this trek led by Slifkin gives a taste of the barony and its nine coastal ecosystems. This two-hour trek could whet an appetite for many other programs that let the public get up close with the wild, on a former rice plantation, with a glimpse into an improved, yet still humble, life that descendants of emancipated slaves from the Civil War gained residing in the barony’s Friendfield Village until 1952.

Starting the 41/2-mile ride from the barony’s Discovery Center to Hobcaw House, Slifkin told the visitors from Mount Pleasant, Greenville and states of Connecticut and New Hampshire the American Indians meaning of the word Hobcaw, “land between the waters,” on the edge of Winyah Bay, into which five rivers drain.

He said how Belle Baruch harbored the barony from any future development after her death at age 65 in 1964, after a life that included world-class competitive sailing and global equestrian feats, flying in single- and double-propeller planes, and assisting the U.S. military with observations during World War II.

Through this foundation, “for research and education,” the University of South Carolina and Clemson University have set up a permanent presence on site, and that every college in the state has engaged in field projects there.

“You’re part of the education today,” Slifkin told the tour group on the drive that passed by the home and pasture where Belle Baruch brought her whole stable of horses after bringing home a slew of ribbons won in Europe.

Heading in for more history

Once at Hobcaw House, Slifkin handed the reins to his wife of 43 years, Karen Slifkin, for insight into the history Bernard Baruch made entertaining such guests as the Pulitzer family, Army Gen. Omar Bradley, and for one month in 1944, before his final re-election in what would be his last year alive, Franklin D. Roosevelt, deep in the trenches of both theaters of World War II. She said the 32nd president “fished here, watched the horses, and painted and sketched” for pastimes and that “he went back to Washington, a refreshed, stronger man.”

Before heading inside to this basement-equipped, three-floor “vacation house” filled with “simple furnishings from that period,” Karen Slifkin said at 25 feet above sea level, “we’re on high ground here.”

The living room, in which she spoke of a “cross-pollination” of energy, she pointed to a piano at which Irving Berlin played, and a corner chair where former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill reclined. Aston Knight watercolors of landscapes that Baruch had commissioned decorate walls in various rooms, even showing the clocktower and a church in downtown Georgetown.

On a tall, stately folding screen, a drawn map of South Carolina, made before Myrtle Beach came to existence 75 years ago, bears two small flaws: Sumter spelled with a P in the middle, and Rock Hill listed as Rockmill.

Karen Slifkin said Belle Baruch, still living in her own residence nearby, later used the home for special events. A hall around the corner from a sitting room with a wet bar used during Prohibition includes a case of more than 30 sailing trophies she won, and portraits of many her prized horses – including her favorite, with whom she made her biggest leaps, Souriant III, whose body is buried down the road – dot other walls, including the space over the coat rack in the gun and mud room.

Karen Slifkin also shared an easy way to spot Souriant III: Look for an Anglo-Arab with white socks up to the knees on three legs, and an all-brown left front leg.

Back on the bus, Stu Slifkin passed around historic black-and-white photos on a pause in Friendfield, where he said Bernard Baruch had a schoolhouse built, the church enlarged, medical access arranged, and tin roofs and porches added to the meager cabins. He also said Baruch paid the college expenses for every resident who earned a high school diploma.

Stu Slifkin delighted in making a U-turn onto a stretch of the original Kings Highway, a path that linked Wilmington, N.C., with Charleston.

“George Washington stepped on this dirt,” he said.

Two senior interpreters at Hobcaw continue amassing treasured times at Hobcaw.

Richard Camlin, in his 18th year on the foundation staff, said he loves seeing bobcats “any chance I can” and he’ll never forget seeing owls snatch snakes and fly away.

He recalled one summer moment sitting on his porch and witnessing a great-horned owl’s predatory “silent flight.”

“Usually squirrels and birds can see the shadow or the owl itself and start making noise,” he said, describing one red-headed woodpecker’s fate while feeding in a tree “about 10 feet from my porch,” then in an instant, the owl swooped in “with no warning whatsoever.”

Seeing two gobbler (male) turkeys flying and fighting with spurs also brought to life a scene Camlin said he had read about in Henry Davis’ “The American Wild Turkey.”

Getting wild about the native animals comes easily for Camlin, who also remembered a family coming into the welcome center, to whom he showed some animals’ skins and skulls.

“When they walked out,” Camlin said, “the children were screaming that ‘this was fun!’ That was my turning point for working with children in camps, schools, etc. I had one mother come back last year to tell me that each summer they visited made an impact on her son’s college and career choice. He is now a paleontologist. I know, dinosaurs and Hobcaw are a little bit of a stretch.”

Breaking a breathless silence

Lee Brockington, a historian and author, first worked at Hobcaw on April Fool’s Day 1984, a job she treats as “a privilege.” She said early in her time there, a staff mechanic who had retired from a career on Air Force One and Two wanted to speak with her, but he was “wordless and breathless.”

“Finally, the words tumbled out,” she said, quoting him: “ ‘I just saw a doe give birth, right beside Crab Hall Road!’ ”

Brockington reflected, “I couldn’t help but think of all the presidents and all the glitterati he’d seen in his career, but the simple sighting of a doe and fawn still made this man breathless. Nature is amazing.”

Speaking about a footprint made by the foundation, Brockington said that more than 20 years ago a replica of an 1840 Friendfield Village cabin was built for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, as part of the exhibit on Carolina Lowcountry rice plantations “and shared with millions of visitors each year.” She said that project resulted from a request from a museum official in Washington to relocate the actual cabin there.

“I believe,” Brockington said, “that the request became a catalyst for broadening the Baruch Foundation’s research and education in the environmental sciences by including historic preservation.”

Hobcaw’s golden anniversary entails amplifying awareness about the foundation’s “function and accessibility,” Brockington said.

“So few people in our community have an understanding of who owns the land and who may visit,” she said. “Through a thorough assessment, we are doing what is needed to raise our profile in the community and become a premier learning site for history and ecology.”

Camlin said the foundation’s move a few years ago from New York to South Carolina also has “made us more efficient.”

Brockington said she also has enjoyed recruiting and training education volunteers such as the Slifkins to lead the “ ‘Introductory Tours,’ as we call them,” and with help from Camlin and another staff educator, Trista Hindman, the team continues “to design and implement special focus tours, programs, lectures and events – just doing more.”

As Stu Slifkin said at the end of the first intro tour given on March 20, when Brockington was leading a “Women’s History Month Cruise” boating picnic on the barony, “This was just a little taste today.”

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