The City Magazine Since 1975

Shifting Sands

Shifting Sands
October 2008

Two and a half centuries ago, when the first owners of Botany Bay Plantation took possession of the land, they discovered a tangled jungle bordered by marsh and the Atlantic.

Under the private stewardship of these and a succession of subsequent owners, this primordial wilderness was molded to suit the purposes of man—first in the cultivation of Sea Island cotton, later in the creation of a bountiful haven for the wildlife they hunted. Now, the 4,360-acre tract belongs to the citizens of South Carolina, and the state’s Department of ­Natural Resources faces the daunting task of balancing the right of public access with responsibly maintaining the ­plantation’s delicate habitats.

The road bumps over Botany Bay Plantation’s rough terrain as the wind stirs every branch of a hundred live oaks until they creak like the gears of a rusty shrimp boat. Leaves glitter against the cerulean blue sky, clearing the mind with the dappled light filtering through. The nearly 5,000-acre chunk of land off Highway 174 on Edisto Island is unspoiled, providing a haven to some of the Lowcountry’s most precious natural resources. Loggerhead turtles nest on the narrow shelf of beach fronting the river; stands of pine and oak provide habitat for quail, tanagers, and buntings; osprey pluck fish from the lake. It’s ­an ­environmental treasure that is free and open to the public every day from sunup to sundown. Never heard of it? There’s a good reason why.

For 263 years, Botany Bay Plantation—an historic wildlife preserve that is estimated to be worth about $100 million—was privately owned. On July 1st, the gates opened to the public under the control of the State Department of Natural ­Resources (DNR) according to the terms of a will ­probated almost 35 years ago. In just a couple of months, Botany has gone from being a secluded sanctuary known to only a privileged few to a public destination with as many as 180 visitors a day. But one question seems to be on many people’s minds: Can the state maintain a balance ­between public access to the land and the preservation of its environmental and historic treasures?

Storied Past

The tale of how the state’s windfall—and dilemma—came to pass is more than a little unusual. Originally two large plantations, Bleak Hall and Sea Cloud, Botany Bay was formed in the 1840s by John Townsend, who combined the separate tracts of land into one of the largest cotton plantations on the Sea Islands. Townsend, an ardent secessionist and prominent state legislator, made Botany a naturalist’s showplace. Hearing of a Japanese botanist named Oqui who had been brought to the country with Admiral Perry’s expedition, Townsend journeyed to Washington, D.C., and persuaded the renowned gardener to come to Botany, where he laid out extensive formal plantings of camphor, olive, spice, and citrus trees and all manner of vegetables and flowers. Vestiges of these gardens exist ­today. Later, 20th-century owners harvested timber, farmed the open fields, and managed the delicate environment to provide a rich habitat for various species.

In 1968, Botany was bought by John E. “Jason” Meyer, a businessman from Birmingham, Alabama, who had made his fortune in hotels and real estate. Meyer also owned White Hall Plantation, along with the largest private farm in Connecticut. “He loved the land, and he loved the wildlife,” says Bruce Rawl, Botany’s caretaker, who worked for the family for 23 years and ­remains on the property as an ­employee of the DNR.

Meyer was something of a legend. Photographer David Soliday, a friend who was close to the family, knew Meyer well and recalls many a tramp with him across the land on quail hunts and fishing expeditions. “He always smelled of old leather and gun oil,” Soliday recalls. “Jason was the quintessential Southern sporting gentleman.” Meyer was also a born raconteur and more than a bit brash. He had flown combat missions in World War II and once narrowly escaped death when antiaircraft fire hit his windshield. Shards of glass smashed into his face and permanently damaged his eyesight.

One day in the early 1970s, the war hero-turned-gentleman farmer looked out on the water that flowed into his property and decided to separate a tidal inlet into two ponds by constructing a dike with a water gate across it. Herons, clapper rails, dunlins, and other birds made use of the resultant brackish upper body of water; the lower freshwater pond supported such species as wood ducks, ibises, and moorhens. Everything was fine until the state—who believed the daily flushing of the marsh was better for the ecosystem—cited Meyer for building the dike without a permit. In part to avoid the fine and in part because he had been thinking of making Botany a wildlife preserve anyway, Meyer struck a deal with the state. He gifted the whole plantation to South Carolina in his will.

At the time, Meyer was in his early 50s and, according to his stepdaughter Grace Whitman, planned to negotiate a more detailed agreement later so that the land could be shared between the state and his family. Unfortunately, Meyer died of a heart attack on New Year’s Day, 1977, ­before he could revisit the agreement. “He had been talking about redoing the will,” says Whitman, “but then, suddenly, it was too late.” The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that protects ecologically sensitive lands and waters around the world, had been negotiating with Meyer to take over the property and let the family live there in perpetuity, but no details had been finalized when he died. “Jason probably didn’t intend for it to be public-use land, especially with so few controls on it,” Rawl says. “If he had, he would have just flung open the gates long before then.”

A Way of Life

After Meyer died, his widow, Margaret “Peggy” Pepper, remarried and remained at Botany until her death just 10 months ago at age 86.

Anyone who met her remembered Mrs. Pepper as a remarkable woman. She loved the outdoors, and she loved to entertain her vast array of friends at Botany, “almost on a daily basis,” says Soliday. She reportedly killed her first wild turkey at age 78.

While Mrs. Pepper lived there, Botany became a gathering place for environmentalists and sportsmen. An annual fall event, for example, was a great Thanksgiving dove shoot of 40 or more people. And from ­November through March, Mrs. Pepper and guests would go on traditional quail hunts, during which the party would ride from field to field in a Thomasville wagon—a topless, specially designed mule-driven ­vehicle with three bench seats and a built-in kennel for the dogs in the back. Handlers would release the dogs, who scoured the fields and open pinelands until the moment they scented the quail and their bodies froze into a stylish point to indicate where the birds were. A pair of shooters would hop out, approach to where the dogs pointed, and fire once the covey of quail flushed.

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford started going to Botany when he was “a little fella, no more than five years old,” and remained lifelong friends with the Meyers, participating in the annual dove shoots every year until Mrs. Pepper died. “It was such a magical place,” says Sanford. “An amazing piece of property, and Mrs. Pepper was very conscious of not leaving too big an imprint on the environment.” Whitman, who grew up on Botany, said that her mother channeled all her energy and hundreds of thousands of dollars into keeping it in pristine ecological condition, as well as protecting its historic artifacts.

Three architecturally significant outbuildings on Botany, all from the mid-19th ­century, are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. One is an icehouse, a small but outstanding example of Gothic Revival architecture with steep, ­cypress-shingled roof gables and lancet doors and windows. A nearby barn, whose roof burned several years back, is constructed of tabby, a concrete-like substance made of sand and crushed oyster shells mixed with lime and water and poured into forms to make walls. A third tabby building, probably used as a smokehouse, is topped by a wooden spire. Serrated moulding encircles the building below the eaves—very grand, indeed, for an outbuilding, but these are the elements that make Botany unique.

There are also remnants of the Sea Cloud plantation house, the Townsend family home, from which in January 1863 Confederate soldiers “had a fine view of the Yankee gunboats at the mouth of Rock Creek and also of the village of Rockville.” And a beehive-shaped Indian well, which Mrs. Pepper discovered, and part of a chimney from slave quarters that were ­destroyed by fire many years ago, still exist.

The Challenge

Until very recently, these structures had no protection against vandalism. They simply sat out in the open, cut off from the main paths and not overseen by staff. At the urging of Gretchen Smith, head of the Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society, who met with the DNR, fences have gone up around the buildings. “The DNR has been very cooperative,” says Smith. But many are still worried that the artifacts aren’t protected enough.

John Frampton, executive director of the DNR, doesn’t think vandalism is much of a concern. “The artifacts we have there aren’t that different from the ones in other Wildlife Management Areas, (WMAs),” he says, citing the Donnelly WMA and the Santee Coastal Reserve, which opened in 1992. “They’re probably better protected by the state, anyway, than when the property was privately owned.”

But as hundreds of visitors discover Botany daily, can its pristine state be maintained? Bud Skidmore, head of the Edisto Island Historic Preservation Alliance, which is working with the DNR to better protect the property, is concerned about sea oats being picked and plundered and holes ­being dug in the beach by children unmindful of ­nesting turtles.

Frampton, who has been working with island preservation groups and has spoken at town hall meetings on Edisto, pledges to keep everyone and everything safe to the extent that the DNR’s limited resources will allow. “We can’t have someone there all the time, but we will accept any help that other groups can give us.” Skidmore’s organization has already mobilized troops of volunteer patrols to monitor activity on the plantation.

“Botany is a place in transition,” says Governor Sanford. “Right now, it’s a novelty, but traffic will probably slow down as the summer ends. The DNR is establishing a baseline. They’re watching what happens there first before they start drawing conclusions.” This unfortunately does little to allay the fears of people like Whitman.“It’s heartbreaking,” she says. “I just can’t bring myself to go back there.” Skidmore concurs: “With so many visitors and without a good program of educating people how to use the land, we’re worried that Botany could be destroyed.”

“Challenges certainly exist,” says Smith, “but the dialogue with the DNR has been positive, and we think it will remain so.” Smith and others think that the state was simply caught off guard when it decided to open the property to the public so soon after Mrs. Pepper’s death. Tourism on Edisto is heavy, and its proximity to Charleston makes Botany even more of a draw.

“Location is definitely a factor,” Smith notes. “It’s not like Donnelley or Webb [Wildlife Center, in Garnett, South Carolina], which are out in the middle of nowhere. I don’t think the state realized how vast it is and how significant it is—architecturally, agriculturally, and ecologically.”

It is unusual for such a large, ecologically important property to have so few restrictions on its use. The closest ­example for comparison is probably the ­Ossabaw Island Heritage Preserve, which is owned by the state of Georgia and controlled by its DNR. By state law, all of Georgia’s barrier island beaches are open to the public, but the interior of Ossabaw is off-limits. As a “heritage preserve,” the island is open only to groups or individuals for “natural, scientific, and cultural purposes based on environmentally sound practices.”

Still, Lowcountry residents and preservation groups applaud the DNR for the work it has done so far, and they are sympathetic to the agency’s mandate. “The General ­Assembly puts enormous pressure on us to open our properties to the public and not have this invisible fence around them,” Frampton points out. “If we had waited to open it in the fall for hunting season, then we would have been criticized by nonhunters who said we were limiting it to one special group. We decided to open it in tourist season so that everyone could use it, and we inevitably are getting some criticism for opening it too soon.”

Rawl thinks visitor education is key, and with the Edisto Island State Park right next door, there will be opportunities to develop interpretive programs. “We don’t want to write tickets. We want to teach visitors to use the land in an environmentally responsible way,” he says.

If the state someday decided that Botany is just too expensive to maintain, its future might be imperiled. The DNR gets calls all the time from developers, but Frampton says the subject is closed. Although no conservation easements are currently in place, the agency is working to incorporate Botany into the Heritage Trust Program, which would automatically protect it in perpetuity.

Can the fine balance between preservation and public access be negotiated? Botany’s advocates are hopeful. As Skidmore says, “We know who we are going to the dance with. Now we just have to get comfortable knowing them.”