Rod Welch

This Thanksgiving morning I found myself traveling I-26 from James Island to Lexington. Soon after the I-95 overpass, I noticed a dozen or so orange-capped deer hunters circled at the intersection of two dirt roads between the highway fence and the edge of the woods. Like a squirrel, my thoughts jumped to Thanksgivings long past--and a quiet, secret place called Kiawah.

Kiawah (pronounced KEE-a-wah) is a 10-mile-long sea island located in lower Charleston County. Until the early 70s, most of Kiawah was an isolated wilderness. Until the early 50s, when it was purchased from the Vanderhorst estate by Aiken lumberman C.C. Royal, you could reach Kiawah only by boat. During this period the island had just one permanent resident--a black man named Charlie Scott. Charlie had been the head plowman for the Vanderhorsts, and he lived in a high-rise cabin on the Kiawah River, which separates Kiawah from Johns Island.

But every Thanksgiving Kiawah came alive, as men and boys from the surrounding Sea Islands gathered to ride horses, drive hounds, blow horns, hunt deer, fish in the creeks with cast nets, eat mullet stew, sip a little bourbon . . . and, most of all, laugh and tell stories and enjoy each other's company. It was a special time in a special place. More special, and more fleeting, than we understood.

Kiawah was special all year long though--a wondrous wilderness full of amazing sights and sounds and experiences. Deer silently swimming across creeks. Wild hogs on one end of the island, tended cattle on the other. Narrow, bumpy dirt roads. The thud of a snake falling from vine-covered trees onto the wooden roof of my grandfather's rusted-out, doorless gray jeep. The weathered, deteriorating, yet still imposing Big House. Driving on the beach forever. Island families pulling and raising a 200-foot seine in the summer surf, as the water inside the net boiled with fish and stingarees. Hanging bathing suits on the clothes line at sunset, one eye looking up at the line, the other looking down for alligators. The wonder of watching a giant sea turtle lay her eggs late at night, unfazed by the people and flashlights around her. My grandfather fishing in the surf . . . from the back of a horse.

Today Kiawah is, of course, a quite different world--a perfectly planned resort with wide paved streets, five golf courses, countless tennis courts, luxury villages protected by at least two security gates, and a manicured naturalness that is beautiful . . . until you remember how it used to look. The Big House has been renovated--and locked behind a distant gate. Shops and restaurants abound. Bicycles and golf carts have replaced the horses, cattle, and hogs. Mercedes and sports utility vehicles have replaced my grandfather's jeep and Charlie Scott's mule cart. And strangers from all over the world have replaced the islanders and their distinctive accent. Happily, the newcomers seem to be enjoying themselves as much as we did.

Today's Kiawah is still one of the most beautiful places I've ever visited. But I treasure the times I spent there before it was developed . . . and my memories of the Kiawah that was.

************************************************************************ Copyright 1997. SCIway News (SM) is written by Rod Welch of James Island, South Carolina--with a lot of help from people throughout South Carolina. Circulation: 13,000+ You are welcome to distribute complete, unaltered copies of this issue to anyone in any format . . . or to include parts of it in printed publications. But please indicate the source (SCIway News, December 5, 1997) and include our Web address ( Thanks!
Charleston ~ Isle of Palms ~ Sullivans Island ~ Kiawah Island
CoastalGuide ~ Greater Charleston