Waccamaw River Ferry – early 1900s – Courtesy of Georgetown County Digital Library
According to Dr. George Rogers in A History of Georgetown County, The Allstons (also spelled Alston by some of the family) were the richest of the Georgetown rice planting factions. Early land grants on the Waccamaw River and thoughtful marriages resulted in a family dynasty of distinction. Captain William Alston, who fought with Francis Marion in the American Revolution, entertained President Washington in 1791 at Clifton Plantation and was justly proud when his son, Joseph, married Theodosia, daughter of Vice-President Aaron Burr.
Joseph, a son of privilege, was quoted in Aaron Burr’s memoirs, published in 1836 by Matthew L. Davis: “With regard to our manners; if there is any state which has a claim to superior refinement, it is certainly South Carolina. Generally speaking, we are divided into but two classes, the very rich and the very poor; which if no advantage in a political view, is undoubtedly favourable to a polished state of society.”
Profits from plantations were reinvested in more land, both for timber and agriculture, and in more slaves. Purchased easily at auctions in Charleston and Georgetown, slaves were a part of nearly every activity in the life of a slave owner and served as skilled machinists, mechanics, maids, drivers, sawyers, carpenters, cowboys, hunters, butlers and cooks, as well as laborers.
The necessity of slaves to sustain the Southern lifestyle made the Georgetown district’s population 90 percent black by the height of rice production. Until the Atlantic slave trade was closed in 1808, many captured Africans brought with them an extensive knowledge about the cultivation of rice, which was a major factor in the success of rice planting in South Carolina. Rice was a crop that required a great deal of attention and was very susceptible to weather, pests and salt water. Yet the tidal waters of the Carolina Lowcountry proved to be an ideal location for it to thrive.
At first, rice cultivation was attempted in upland fields, where man battled with native grasses and weeds. Moving the crop to inland swamps proved much more successful. Earlier than once believed, cypress, gum and tupelo swamps adjacent to tidal rivers were cleared to create flat fields that could be flooded with an incoming tide, all due to an intricate system of canals, gates and banks. In Suzanne Linder’s An Atlas of Rice Plantations of Georgetown County and the Santee Delta, she finds “tidal rice lands” listed in early real estate indentures of the 1740s. By 1850, Georgetown grew more rice than any other place in the world except the area around Calcutta, India.
At the close of the American Civil War, 3,000 slaves on the Waccamaw Neck were freed on the same day. Some moved away, but many stayed to earn wages working the same jobs they had performed before for free. The unavailability of enslaved labor made rice planting much less profitable. That, along with several years of hurricanes that led to failed crops and competition from Western states, contributed to the final demise of the reign of Carolina Gold – the sought-after rice that had created wealth beyond belief in the Waccamaw Neck area.
New laborers came in the second half of the 19th century. Railroad workers laid logging railroads and a freight line that stretched from Wilmington to Savannah. Logging railroads enabled lumber mills to move operations to Georgetown County, including the Atlantic Lumber Company. They denuded areas of longleaf and loblolly pine, oak, cedar and especially the black and bald cypress that had escaped eradication when swamps were cleared for rice production. Hundreds of board-feet of lumber were exported from the port at Georgetown.
Georgetown’s port experienced its most profitable year in 1905, the same year that a New Yorker bought 11 former rice plantations at the southern tip of the Waccamaw Neck, but not to farm or harvest timber. Bernard Baruch came to hunt ducks, hundreds a day as the ducks spent the winters in the coastal rice fields.
Many millionaires, leaders of industry and politics, first became aware of the waterfowl after Washington D.C. newspapers covered the story of an 1894 near-death experience. President Grover Cleveland “nearly drowned to death” in the pluff mud as he stepped out of a small boat and made his way slowly and clumsily to a duck blind. His hunting guide, Sawney Caines, had to “grab a holt” to the leader of the free world and yank him out of his waders, mired in the mud. The headlines attracted the attention of millionaires who had been hunting in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, and Baruch led the way in a succession of purchases by other individuals who wanted plantations to use as winter residences.
Besides the Baruchs, the Vanderbilts, duPonts, Huttons, Huntingtons, Dodges, Kimbels, Guggenheims, Luces and others bought South Carolina coastal retreats and entertained world leaders, congressmen, Broadway and Hollywood moguls, journalists, musicians and military officers. These newcomers, described as part of “the second Northern invasion,” contributed to the local economy by building homes, employing local laborers and supervisors and supporting hospitals, churches, banks and businesses.
World War I brought employment to South Carolina ports and an increase in activity in road building and timber harvesting. The road connecting the cities of the East Coast had been a Native American trail that was widened during the colonial era and named King’s Highway. By the 1920s, the rise of the automobile made the small coastal highway a thoroughfare for travelers who spent summers in New York and winters in Miami. In time, gas stations, motor courts, restaurants and stores followed, and the highway, which was straightened and paved, was renamed U.S. Highway 17. By 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, a bridge was built to connect the Waccamaw Neck with the mainland that made it easier for people to travel and commute to jobs and education.
Also in 1935, the Lafayette Pavilion opened on Pawleys Island with big name entertainers performing to crowds of 300-500 on the weekends. Visitors from Wilmington to Charleston made the trip to dance and drink at the pavilion, and many stayed at the adjacent oceanfront Lafayette Court. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, tourists traveling Highway 17 stopped at the relatively new Hammock Shops, which offered nursery plants, pottery, hooked rugs and the still famous Pawleys Island rope hammock. Marlow’s Store, located just south of the Hammock Shops, was a general store with a meat market, dry goods, local caviar and groceries on credit.