Not So Very Victorian

IMG_2186 People who tour historic Charleston often walk past grand houses that seem to date to the Victorian period. Common features include the high-hipped Mansard Roof and the bulging Oriel Window, both of which were very much in vogue at the turn of the 20th century. Yet many houses that seem Victorian, such as the one pictured, are actually much older buildings that were updated with external features in the Victorian era.
Charleston suffered a tremendous economic disaster in the Civil War, as the terrible toll in lost lives, commerce, money and infrastructure turned a grand city into a shabby shadow of its former greatness. Opulent houses that had been built during the city’s flourishing years still stood, but owners had little means of maintaining them, and much of Charleston fell into disrepair.
This would prove beneficial in the long run, because lack of money kept Charlestonians from tearing down old houses and replacing them with gaudy Victorian styles in the 1880’s and 90’s. The wave of urban renewal
that swept through the Northeast and led to the destruction of countless antebellum and colonial homes did not reach Charleston, and numerous old homes were spared solely because there was no money to replace them.
For those who did want to conform to Victorian styles, it was more economical to add details to the house exterior to give it the look of a brand new home, and thus Victorian architecture made a sizeable influence in Charleston, without replacing many of the other classic styles that came before.The house in the picture is a Georgian style dates to the 1770’s, and was altered in the 1890’s to give it the Victorian look.

1675 Deed for Kiawah Island

Cassoe TreatyCharleston businessman David Maybank III showed me this deed witnessed and signed by his ancestor (David Maybank) on March 10, 1675. The deed, handwritten in old English script, states that the Indians of “Cassoe” convey the island “Kyeawah” to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, in exchange for “a valuable parcell of cloth, hatchetts, beads and other goods and manufactures.” What a deal!
The island is, of course, Kiawah Island today, and is worth quite a bit more.
The Indian name is probably a corruption of the Cusso or Coosaw, which was among a number of native groups living along the Carolina coast when the first European settlers arrived, all part of the larger Cusabo tribe.
Among the Cusabo groups were many names still recognized in the Charleston area today, given primarily to rivers, such as Edisto, Combahee, Ashepoo, Wando, Wappoo and Stono.
The deed is signed by seven of the English settlers on one side of the paper, and on on the other side are the marks of 29 Indians – the Cusso chief (cassique), three subchiefs, plus 14 women and 11 men who were of some rank in the tribe.
The Cusabo people were a great help to the early settlers of Charles Town,
and it was good initial relations and trade with the local Indians that helped the tiny original settlement of 57 people survive.
The Maybank name is also a classic South Carolina tradition, that has been included on lists of governors of the state and mayors of Charleston.
Ironically, the Maybank family gave an island back in 1993, bequeathing the 4500-acre Jehossee Island for a natural preserve as part of the ACE Basin Wildlife Refuge.

Simms’ Timeless Sentiments

The words below were penned by the great SC writer, historian and poet William Gilmore Simms in 1859, describing the alluring natural beauty of our coastal landscape, and are just as appropriate today.
“There is a wondrous charm in this exquisite blending of land and water scape. It appeals very sweetly to the sympathies, and does not the less excite the imagination because lacking in irregular forms and stupendous elevations. Nay, we are inclined to
think that it touches more sweetly the simply human sensibilities. It does not overawe. It solicits, it soothes, beguiles ; wins upon us the more we see ; fascinates the more we entertain ; and
more fully compensates than the study of the bald, the wild, the abrupt and stern, which constitute so largely the elements in that scenery upon which we expend most of our superlatives.
Glide through these mysterious avenues of islet, and marsh, and ocean, at early morning, or at evening, when the summer sun is about to subdue himself in the western waters ; or at midnight, when the
moon wins her slow way, with wan, sweet smile, hallowing the hour ; and the charm is complete. It is then that the elements all seem to harmonize for beauty.”

Historic Sullivan’s Island Stroll

IMG_2077Among the many enjoyable things to do in historic Charleston is a visit to Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island. The Civil War fortification is part of the Fort Sumter National Monument, and is administered by the National Park Service, and is one of the least expensive tickets in the area for a view of the old fort. There are also a number of displays near the fort that are absolutely free, such as the impressive row of seven giant cannons pictured, which stand just to the north of the old fort.
These guns range in size, but are all part of the formidable weapons used in Charleston during the Civil War. The big, bottle-shaped Dahlgren guns are smooth-bores, which fired round explosives and solid shot, and were the most effective guns at the start of the Civil War. Farther down, there are rifled cannons, which were grooved inside the barrels to fire a bullet-like projectile that spun with more more accuracy than the wobbling round shot.
The third one down is an especially unique gun, which was a Federal smooth-bore captured by the Confederates and converted to a rifled barrel.
Because rifled guns fired for greater distance, they were equipped with iron bands around the breech to keep larger gunpowder charges from ripping the gun apart, and you can just see the makeshift bands on the rifled gun. These were done by a local Charleston forge, the J.M. Eason Co., which also built an ironclad ship in Charleston harbor during the Civil War.
The Eason company markings can still be found on the gun, and all the guns have historic markings showing their muzzle sizes and places they were forged. The largest is a 15-inch Parrott Rifle, which could fire 200-pound explosive shells at distances more than 3 miles.
This is a fascinating place to wander by just outside Fort Moultrie, and nearby, there are other guns from the Revolutionary War era, when the fist fort was built on this location. Less than 100 yards away is a path to the beach on Sullivan’s Island, which at this point overlooks Fort Sumter and Charleston Harbor, and is a wonderful stroll any time of day.

Fritillary Fashion

IMG_2133One of the most colorful displays in the historic Charleston area this time of year is the Gulf Fritillary, a distinctive butterfly easily distinguished by its bright orange wings with black and white patterns and streaked veins. This tiny creature is native to this area, emerging from its caterpillar stage by late Summer to emerge with a fluttering frenzy in search of nectar from gardens, forests and roadside wildflowers.
Local gardeners plant shrub borders with Pentas, Lantana, and Honeysuckle, blooming with bright blooms that catch the Fritillary’s compound eyes, which can observe a 360-degree pattern without the butterfly having to move its head.
The tiny head has two sets of protruding sensors in the stub-like palpi and the long antennae, both of which can detect the scent of nectar being emitted by blooming plants.
With three pairs of legs to latch on to succulent blooms, the Fritillary loads its gas tank with a hollow protrusion called the probiscis, which sucks up the sweet nectar. Butterflies only ingest liquids, and will also lap up water, sweat, and even urine to absorb minerals and proteins.
The wings that make the Fritillary such an attractive creature are made up a thousands of paper-like scales. These are helpful in a number of ways: by absorbing heat the sun to give the constantly-moving butterfly extra energy; as a means of attracting other butterflies to mate; and, showing off color patterns that may warn predators in the natural world that the wings are toxic, as well as large, circular spots that can also deceive predators into observing the butterfly as something larger and more menacing.
So enjoy the Fritillary, it will be putting on this bright show for about another month.

Legare Street Lore

IMG_2114When sightseeing in the historic South of Broad district in downtown Charleston, tour visitors ask about Rainbow Row, the Four Corners of law, the Battery, and White Point Garden, but rarely ask to go by one of the most enchanting spots in the “Holy City” – 8 Legare Street.
This 1857 side-hall single house was built in Charleston’s antebellum heyday, and features the ironwork of the great Christopher Werner, as well as beautiful details in its stucco facade with grand, breezy piazzas.
It was home to a long line of traditional Charleston families, and in 1960, was purchased by a large family with many famous Charleston connections in the city’s storied past. The nearly 8500-square foot structure was just enough to hold the big family of nine, and among the children was a 7-year-old boy who was immensely curious about the nooks and crannies in the stately old house.
One day, he climbed through a dormer window above the third floor piazza, and walked out on the roof, over the crest of the gable and down to within inches of the 45-foot precipice on the northwestern edge of the house, which stretched down along aging brick and stucco, crafted by some pre-Civil War artisan into attractive quoins.
The young boy’s foot slipped, and he caught himself on the eave so high above, and nearly fell to his death. Fortunately, he did not, or you wouldn’t be reading this today, because I was that little boy, and part of the Trouche family which called the grand old house home for 30 years.
Sadly, after we’d all moved away as adults, the three-story climb of stairs to the master bedroom was too much for my father, and not needing so much house for only one couple, my parents asked if any of us wanted it. Even sadder, no one could afford the expense of such a monstrous structure, and it was sold to someone who’s name I’ve forgotten.

Cicada Chorus

IMG_2124A little information passed casually in an abstract way can actually be more confusing than helpful, and such it is with confusion over the Summer insect called the Periodical Cicada. This distinctive-looking creature, whose name is pronounced “Sikayda”, is better known for its shrill clicking sound that is made by males pounding their breast plates together, which attracts female Cicadas to mate. Swarming in large concentrations in oak and sycamore trees, these romancing little critters can emit an almost deafening sound.
Many people have heard about Cicadas, and are often told about the 17-year cycle in which eggs are laid in tree bark, hatch as larvae, and drop on the ground where the immature insects burrow beneath the soil to nourish themselves for a period of years before hatching as adults. There are actually a variety of Cicada cycles, with some lasting only a few years, but the common misconception is that these insects appear only once every number of years, which is absolutely untrue.
Even if all Cicadas were on 17-year cycles, the 1996 hatchlings would be coming out this year, the 1997 hatchlings next year, and so on. They hatch in huge numbers every Summer, and start the cycle all over again by digging from the soil and moving up into the trees, molting to from an outer skin to emerge as a winged, flying insect.
But there is little to the Cicada’s life besides making noise and making love, then laying eggs and dying, as everything quiets down until next Summer, when it starts all over again.

Dutch Town

IMG_2036The central and western part of Charleston’s peninsula were inhabited after the old city wall came down in the 1730’s, and a surge of immigrants came, attracted by the wealth and opportunity derived from exports of rice, timber and animal furs.
Many of the new immigrants were from the German and states, where turmoil throughout the 18th century sent families packing for better horizons. Typically, they landed in the Mid-Atlantic colonies and worked their way South, entering old Charleston by the highway known as the Broad Path, now King Street.
They crowded into the area known as Mazyck’s Lands just west of the Broad Path, along Archdale Street, named for the South Carolina’s only Quaker governor. As with most newly-arrived foreigners, the Germans were at first very insular, retaining religious and linguistic customs with the city’s first Lutheran congregation and distinctive sounds of “Deutsche”
To the predominant English population, the German language was quite a mystery with its inverted sentence structure where the verbs come last, and
in their lack of understanding, they interpreted “Deutsche” phonetically, referring to the Germans as Dutch.
Thus Archdale Street became the center of “Dutch Town”, where the oldest graves, homes and church of the German settlers still stand.

True Charleston Blue Bloods

IMG_2051We have always talked about “blue bloods” here in Charleston, referring to distinguished, long-time families who have kept names and traditions intact. Yet, the truest blue-blood found in #Charleston these days are the Horseshoe Crabs floating up on area beaches and sand flats.
The Horsheshoe crab is not actually a crab or crustacean, but a sea-dwelling anomaly closer related to spiders. Its circulatory system is laden with copper that turns the crab’s blood blue, and this blue blood is very valuable to modern science for its ability to bind to harmful bacteria and help prevent toxic reactions in various medicine.

The striking feature of the Horseshoe crab is its helmet-like carapace, from which extends a fierce-looking spiked tail called the telson. What looks
dangerous is actually very harmless, as the telson is simply used by the crab for leverage when flipping over. Underneath, the Horseshoe crab has five pairs of legs, used for eating, propulsion and, in the case of the males, for grabbing and holding females during summer mating.
Although the Horseshoe crab has ten optical appendages, it really can’t see very well, as I have found personally. I joined some biologists some years back who were collecting the blue blood from Horseshoe crabs who are easiest to find during mating season when they herd by the thousands into shallow water. In the near-sighted males’ frenzy to connect, they will latch on to anything, including human feet like mine, and I spent most of the adventure pushing the herd of helmets away.<img src=”natural wildlife” alt=”Horseshoe Crab”>


Carolina Day

IMG_2034June 28th is the annual celebration of Carolina Day, the anniversary of the victory over the British at Sullivan’s Island in 1776. Shortly after South Carolina had declared independence from England, troops were sent to Sullivan’s Island to build a fort overlooking the entrance to Charleston harbor to protect the city from the English fleet that was sent to take it back. The fort, called Sullivan’s Fort, was built out of palmetto logs packed with sand, the most abundant materials on Sullivan’s Island. These proved advantageous when the British attacked, as the guns of the English ships found that their projectiles were smothered in the soft core of the palmettos and the sand. In the famous instance pictured, a British shell shot away the South Carolina regiment flag, and sergeant William Jasper jumped atop the log and sand parapet to restore the colors and rally the defenders to drive the attackers away. The flag was blue with a crescent in the Dexter corner that was copied from the crescent emblem on the regimental caps of the 2nd South Carolina. That crescent is copied from the throat-protector from knights’ armor called the gorget, which was a popular symbol of military protection in the 18th century.
The anniversary of the battle day is celebrated in Charleston with a parade of groups of men and women from various historic organizations dressed in period costume that begins at Washington Park and proceeds down Meeting Street to White Point Garden, where replica cannons are fired near the monuments to Jasper and Sullivan’s Fort commander Col. William Moultrie.
And by the way, Sullivan’s Island is Sullivan’s Island, not “Sullivan’s” as is currently the fashion among newcomers to Charleston.