Sept/Oct 2009Edisto's Hidden Treasureby Debra Staples, photographs by Phillip Jones
Once a private paradise, Botany Bay Plantation now beckons visitors to its tidal creeks and marshes, moss-draped roads and wave-washed beach.
Tucked away on the northeast corner of Edisto Island lies Botany Bay Plantation Wildlife Management Area and Heritage Preserve. Laced with tidal creeks, draped in hanging moss and occupied by historic structures, these 4,687 wildlife-rich acres are part of the ACE Basin Focus Area. Visitors have been amazed at what they have found here since it was opened to the public in the summer of 2008.
The vision of former owner Margaret Pepper was for Botany Bay Plantation to remain a nature preserve. She spent decades preparing it for the transition from private paradise to managed land before ownership passed to the state of South Carolina upon her death in 2007. Bruce Rawl, who manages Botany Bay for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, previously worked with Mrs. Pepper. He recalls her deep commitment to its preservation. "She had other homes," he says, "but Botany Bay was her special place."
A Heritage Built on Sea Island Cotton
The early history of Botany Bay Plantation, made up of the combined lands of Bleak Hall and Sea Cloud plantations, is tied to the rise and fall of sea island cotton. This variety, known for its long, silky fibers, also grew on the sea islands of Georgia and Florida, but it thrived in the soils of South Carolina's islands and Lowcountry. It was exported to Great Britain where mechanized advances in spinning and weaving produced luxurious cotton cloth and lace valued throughout Europe. From about 1820 to 1861, the period referred to as Edisto Island's Golden Age, sea island cotton fueled the growth of large plantations - and the wealth of plantation owners - on the island. In particular, the sea island cotton raised by John Ferrars Townsend on Bleak Hall plantation was famous for its high quality.
The outbreak of the Civil War interrupted this prosperity. In November of 1861, Edisto Island was evacuated, and by the following February the island was occupied by the Union army. When the war finally ended, the island's plantations lay devastated, and property records were tangled. Townsend had to appeal to President Andrew Johnson to have the lands at Bleak Hall and Sea Cloud restored to his ownership. Townsend and his descendants returned to raising sea island cotton, earning top prices and awards for quality in the European market until the arrival of the boll weevil on Edisto Island in 1917. Sea island cotton never recovered from the weevil infestation and was wiped out by the early 1920s.
But the plantation remained. Its fields were farmed and its timber was harvested as it passed from owner to owner, yet many of the cotton plantation-era structures still stand. Today's visitors can take a driving tour of the plantation using a map and brochure with notes that correspond to numbers posted at each site. Some, like the brick beehive-shaped well, the ruins of the Sea Cloud Plantation house and the chimney of a slave's house, are protected from artifact collection by fences. However, the curious can approach the gardener's shed on the Bleak Hall grounds and inspect its walls built of tabby, a mixture of lime, mortar, sand and oyster shell used in many of the historic structures at Botany Bay Plantation. Nearby is the Ice House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This gabled wooden building kept ice brought from the North frozen in its tabby foundation during the 1800s; visitors can look through the doorway to examine its architectural detail.
Landscapes and Waterscapes
The gates of Botany Bay Plantation open into a maritime forest dominated by live oaks, which thrive in salt-laden breezes by secreting a waxy substance to protect their leaves. Cabbage palmettos, loblolly pines and mixed hardwoods also layer the canopy across the plantation, while shrubs like wax myrtle fill the understory. A road winds through Botany Bay revealing vistas of salt marshes, ponds and creeks. This lush, unspoiled landscape has been the setting for scenes in several films, including Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls and The Patriot. The main road runs along the dikes that formed Jason's Lake, where it isn't unusual to see striped mullet leaping across the surface. Across the dike at the upper end is a freshwater pond, attractive habitat for migrating waterfowl. The variety of habitats on the managed land lures an abundance of wading, shore and woodland birds, contributing to Botany Bay Plantation's reputation as an exceptional bird-watching site. Some visitors say they've heard or observed more than forty bird species during a single outing, including warblers, tanagers, painted buntings, vireos, raptors, quail and turkeys. The property is also home to a variety of mammals, including raccoons, deer, opossums, rabbits and squirrels.
One of the most important features is the two-mile-long natural beach, critical nesting habitat for both the federally endangered loggerhead sea turtle and the least tern, a shorebird listed as threatened in South Carolina. Loggerheads nest here from May to August; biologists counted more than 235 nests during 2008. Around mid-May, the least tern builds its nest on the sand, keeping the eggs cool by shaking water over them.
The path to the beach follows a narrow causeway across a salt marsh. To preserve the beach's natural state, shelling is restricted to allow only those seventeen and younger to collect up to one quart per day. You might be treated to a display of "beach art," as folks are sometimes inspired to arrange the shells of whelks, clams and oysters on driftwood logs and branches for others to enjoy.
Preserving the Legacy
In an arrangement that is the first of its kind within the DNR, Botany Bay Plantation WMA and Heritage Preserve is co-managed by both the agency's Marine Resources and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries divisions because it harbors both coastal and wildlife environments. Since it also has significant cultural heritage sites, the area is dedicated as a South Carolina Heritage Preserve, and the DNR works closely with the local community to balance preservation with public use. "This was a unique situation in opening a DNR area to the public," says Phil Maier, coastal reserves manager in the Marine Resources Division. "Usually the public wants it open as quickly as possible. In this case, the Edisto Island community wanted it done right, rather than fast. They wanted to protect the cultural resources as well as the natural ones." More than eighty dedicated local volunteers assist DNR staff with monitoring public use of Botany Bay Plantation.
You won't find the amenities here that you would expect in areas such as state parks. There are no public restrooms, picnic areas or trash receptacles; visitors must take their trash out with them. This is first and foremost a wildlife management area, and the DNR is working to keep it as natural as possible. Biologists and technicians conduct scheduled burns to reduce the risk of wildfires and to open the forest understory to sunlight, thereby encouraging the growth of plants preferred by wildlife. Plots of wheat, corn and sunflowers are also cultivated to provide supplemental food.
Hunting at Botany Bay Plantation is allowed on scheduled dates and is governed by Wildlife Management Area Rules and Regulations, available on the DNR Web site www.dnr.sc.gov. A WMA permit is required. Catch and release fishing is allowed at Jason's Lake on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays but is restricted to youths age seventeen and under who must be accompanied by no more than two adults eighteen years of age or older, who may also fish. Dean Harrigal, a biologist with the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division and a member of the Botany Bay management team, says the restriction is necessary because the lake could not otherwise sustain the fish population. "This, like the shelling restriction, helps teach youth about conservation," he says.
When You Go
Botany Bay Plantation is open from one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset. The area is closed on Tuesdays to general public access so that routine management activities such as road work can be done. Before planning a visit, be sure to check the DNR Managed Lands Web site (see below) for closures during scheduled hunts or at other times.
Stop at the kiosk just inside the entrance to register, read the regulations and pick up the interpretive driving tour brochure. You can also download the brochure and a map in advance from the Web site. There are many ways to explore the grounds: by vehicle, on foot, by bicycle or on horseback. Also, those who wish to explore Ocella Creek and the salt marsh may bring in car-topped canoes or kayaks to launch at Sea Cloud Landing. It's a good idea to bring along insect repellent and drinking water. A S.C. saltwater recreational fishing license is required for individuals age 16 and older who plan to surf fish.
You'll see much of what Botany Bay Plantation WMA has to offer if you take the driving tour, but plan to get out of the vehicle often. Feel the sea breeze as you hear it rustle through the trees; smell the salt marsh and listen for the roar of the surf as you walk across the causeway to the beach. This place is a feast for the senses; come prepared to be amazed.