Daufuskie Island charts a new course for its future
by JG Walker. Previously published in the 2016 Winter Issue
“The island is fringed with the green, undulating marshes of the southern coast….Deer cut through her forests in small silent herds.
The great southern oaks stand broodingly on her banks. The island and the waters around her teem with life. There is something
eternal and indestructible about the tide-eroded shores….” from The Water is Wide by Pat Conroy.
Pat Conroy’s 1972 memoir about his year as a teacher in the two-room schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island helped to launch his very successful writing career, spawned the feature film “Conrack” with Jon Voight in the lead role, and put the nearly forgotten barrier island off the South Carolina coast on the proverbial map.
As late as the early 1940s, Daufuskie had been home to as many as 2,000 residents, nearly all of them African-American descendants of emancipated slaves. Most families grew their own produce in the island’s rich soil and found employment in the surrounding waters: For decades, Daufuskie Island oysters were harvested by the locals and considered to be among the finest shellfish delicacies in the world.
But when pollution from factories along the nearby Savannah River poisoned the oyster beds, the island’s only industry collapsed and most of its residents left to find work elsewhere. By 1970, fewer than 100 people lived on Daufuskie.
At about the same time, just across the Calibogue Sound on Hilton Head Island, a new era of modern development was beginning to hit its stride. The major difference between Hilton Head and Daufuskie is that the first bridge connecting the former to the mainland had opened in 1956, whereas access to the latter—then as now—is only via ferry or private boat. As a result, destination resorts and gated residential communities sprang up all over Hilton Head, which today is home to about 40,000 full-time residents and welcomes millions of vacationers every year.
Development on bridgeless Daufuskie, however, has proceeded at a much slower pace. Of the three Hilton Head-style communities established on the island, Haig Point has been the most successful, with about 200 year-round residents and an equal number of part-timers. In total, just over 400 people now live full-time on Daufuskie.
In fact, large portions of the island look very similar to the florid landscape that Pat Conroy described in the early 1970s. Two local volunteer groups—the Daufuskie Island Conservancy and the Daufuskie Island Historical Foundation—are working to keep it that way. The island’s “Historic District” is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
But notwithstanding the laudable achievements of those groups and others with regard to the island’s environmental and historical heritage, the modern human landscape on Daufuskie long consisted of several diverse communities that had little interaction. However, two local residents—a self-described “farm girl from Maryland” and a pastor who found his calling on the island—have been working to change that.
DOWN ON THE FARM
“I was eight years old when my mom and dad moved us to the farm,” said Pat Beichler, recalling her family’s decision to buy a small Maryland farmstead north of Baltimore. “That’s when I started milking [cows] before and after school every day. We had cows, chickens, and pigs and that’s where I developed my love for animals and farming and hard work.”
After graduating from college and working for many years as a cardiovascular nurse practitioner in West Virginia, Beichler took a vacation to the South Carolina coast and a boat ride over to Daufuskie Island. It was love at first site. After being shown an available wooded lot on a dirt road in the island’s Historic District, she signed a purchase contract the following day. That was 17 years ago and Beichler still lives in the same house that she—literally—built herself. “I think it’s the prettiest home on the island,” she said.
Always the self-reliant, Beichler rarely left Daufuskie except for the occasional boat trip to stock up on supplies. Over the years, however, an idea began to form that would have an impact on the entire island. “When I moved here,” she said, “hardly anybody ever came out of the back gate at Haig Point or the other gated communities. One of the first things I started was the “mystery dinner” [program] to raise money to get a farm started.” The participants “would usually be four couples, one from Haig Point, one from Bloody Point, one from Melrose, one from the historic section and they would get to meet each other and nobody knew where they were going [for dinner] or what they would be eating.”
By 2009, with seed money in the bank, Beichler found an eight-acre tract in the heart of Daufuskie that the property owner was willing to lease for $1 a year. She formed a non-profit corporation and the Daufuskie Island Community Farm was founded. “That’s all I needed,” she said. “So I organized some volunteers and we got started. It was just solid woods then, heavy forest with no buildings, no well, no septic, just nothing but woods.”
With a big assist from her grandson, who had worked for a company that helped to establish sustainable farms, Pat and her volunteers started clearing the land. Except for the treated lumber necessary for structural support, all of the initial wood used for the farm’s buildings, fencing, animal pens and raised gardens were from the site’s felled trees. The group had a portable sawmill that Pat’s grandson knew how to use.
“He taught Aaron Crosby how to run the sawmill,” Beichler said, “and he [Aaron] has built all of the buildings since then…He’s really been my right-hand man.”
Aaron Crosby grew up in New Hampshire and worked in the resort management and real estate industries. He was serving as a development consultant when he moved to Daufuskie Island in 2005. Crosby’s current “day job,” as he describes it, is project manager for a 1,000-acre mixed-use development on the island’s Webb and Oak Ridge tracts that’s now in the planning stage.
But Crosby, somewhat to his surprise, found another calling at the First Union African Baptist Church, which had been established in 1881 and is still the island’s only house of worship.
“We started going to church here,” Crosby said, reflecting on the period shortly after he moved to Daufuskie with his wife and their two daughters. “As I got more actively involved, the pastor asked me to become a deacon and teach the Sunday morning Bible school and I did that for a number of years. And then I started preaching about four times a year and, when the associate pastor retired, that became two Sundays a month. Then, about a year and a half ago, the pastor said ‘I’m going to retire when I turn 80’ and the search committee then called me to be the new pastor.
“We consider ourselves to be a non-denominational community church,” Crosby said. With so many part-time island residents, attendance varies: “We might have 10 on a cold-weather Sunday and 75 on a nice summer weekend.”
But the quantity of church membership is clearly less important to this pastor than the quality of its mission. “I say this almost every Sunday: My objective here is to remove the barriers that cause people to think that church is something that takes place within four walls for an hour on Sunday. It’s about creating a sense of togetherness and building a community with one another.”
And although Crosby’s role at the Daufuskie Island Community Farm has evolved over the years from sawmill volunteer to chairman of the non-profit’s board, he’s quick to give credit where he believes it’s due: “Pat Beichler has built this fantastic community farm and she has pulled people together from all areas of the island. People from the planned communities come and work, but so do people who live on the dirt roads, and the farm has become a central point for the community to rally around. As a pastor, I can say that the farm has done more to pull people together than the church. It’s become part of the island’s identity.”
People from the planned communities come and work, but also people who live on the dirt roads and the farm has become a
central point for the community to rally around.
The results have certainly been impressive. In just five years, the Daufuskie Island Community Farm has now grown to include organic gardens that produce tomatoes, peppers, collards, spinach, lettuce and cabbage, plus an orchard with apple, apricot, plum, peach, pomegranate, olive, cherry and pear trees. Among the farm animals in residence are 60 egg-producing chickens, 15 goats that give milk for cheese, nine geese and two milk cows. Future plans include adding sheep to supply wool.
One of the farm’s most unique aspects is that none of its products can be purchased. The only way for local residents to share in the bounty is to volunteer their time to work on the farm.
INTO THE FUTURE
The same won’t be true for the community hub’s next ambitious project—an Artisan’s Village that’s going up on four adjacent acres. Daufuskie is already home to a number of talented artists, so the goal of the Artisan’s Village is to create a central location where weavers, spinners, metalworkers, painters, sculptors, photographers, woodworkers and other creative crafters can come together to work and sell their wares to other residents and a growing number of island tourists.
“I think that an important part of what the farm has done,” Crosby said, “is to serve as a stimulus, an incubator of sorts, so that people can see what is possible and that we don’t have to be dependent on everything coming over from the mainland.”
Crosby noted the recent establishment of numerous small businesses on the island, creative enterprises proudly promoting their new “made on Daufuskie” brands, as well as service providers. He believes that the community farm’s adherence to the mantra of the modern sustainability movement—reduce, reuse and recycle—has set an example that will be followed as more people move to the island. Outside-of-the-box thinkers will be welcomed.
“Obviously, a normal person doesn’t live on an island without a bridge,” he said. “It takes a bit of a pioneering spirit.”
And for community farm founder Pat Beichler, the sense of renewal that pervades Daufuskie these days isn’t limited to just younger residents. “I’m 76 now,” she said, “and proof that being older doesn’t mean that life is over.
“A lot of people say that you don’t choose Daufuskie, Daufuskie chooses you,” Beichler concluded. “It’s a magical place and, if you get it, you’re going to love it.”
To which Pastor Aaron Crosby might reply: “Amen.”
(For more information, go to DaufuskieArtisanVillageandFarm.com.)