Beautiful Beaufort

Low-key coastal town whose ambience says that it’s Deep South
By Cassandra Sherrill
Friday, October 1, 2004

BEAUFORT, S.C. – Although it might not seem so today, Beaufort was once a party town. Plantation owners built homes here in the 18th and early 19th centuries so that they could spend the summer months socializing.

Now, Beaufort is a charming, low-key waterfront town with antiques shops to browse and streets lined with towering oak trees and stately old homes.

It sits amid the Sea Islands, a network of small islands separated by interlacing inlets, rivers, marshes and tidal creeks; there are more than 60 islands in Beaufort County. Although it is spelled the same as a town in North Carolina, this Beaufort is pronounced differently – "BYOO-fort."

Since I arrived in town during a morning rainstorm, the chance to take a tour in a (covered) horse-drawn buggy was even more attractive than usual. Buster clip-clopped his way through the puddles in the residential streets of the historic district and I sat back, ignored the drips and soaked in the genteel ambience and the tour guide’s tales about the town’s history and the many movies that have been filmed here.

The town got off to a rocky start when, only five years after its founding in 1710, the Yemassee Indians massacred almost all of its residents. The city was resettled, and afterward it had a relatively easy time of it despite the attention it received during wartime.

It took only one shot (it killed a horse) for the British to take control of Beaufort during the American Revolution, since many residents held Tory sympathies. During the Civil War, when the Union army attacked the South Carolina coast in 1861, the plantation owners and their families fled in what one reporter called "the Grand Skedaddle." They left behind thousands of slaves, with hardly a white person remaining on the Sea Islands. Many plantation owners never reclaimed their lands, and the Union confiscated the crops to help finance the war.

Because Beaufort had long been occupied by Union troops, by the time Gen. William Sherman came around on his destructive march through the South, its buildings were spared his ravages. More destructive was a fire in 1907, started by three boys smoking in a stable. It destroyed 40 buildings, including several homes in the richest section of town, the Old Point neighborhood.

This neighborhood, with its grand mansions and oak trees draped with Spanish moss, is a highlight of a visit to Beaufort. I regretted that I didn’t have time to rent a bicycle and pedal around its quiet streets once the rain stopped. Most of the homes are private residences, so visitors have to be content with admiring them from the street. A map from the visitors’ center shows some of the most notable houses.

The most famous is the Edgar Fripp House, also called "Tidalholm." It was used in the movies The Great Santini and The Big Chill, but you’ll get a better look at it in the movies, since the owners have put up a large fence to keep out curious tourists; you can peer through it for a peek, though.

Although newer than many of the homes, the line of multicolored Victorian-style homes on Rainbow Row are inviting. They were originally all painted white, but drunken husbands would often stagger into the wrong homes at night, so the wives on the street put their heads together and decided to have each house painted a different color so they would be easier to differentiate.

The one home that is open to visitors is the Federal-style John Mark Verdier House, near the waterfront. It was built about 1800 by a wealthy merchant and planter and is decorated to reflect city life in the 19th century. The Marquis de Lafayette was a guest here in 1825, and Union forces used it as their headquarters during their occupation of Beaufort. It stayed in the Verdier family for more than 100 years, but later was put to a variety of uses, including as a fish market, ice house, apartments, barbershop, restaurant and office for telephone operators.

It became run-down over the years and was condemned in 1942. In response to rumors of its planned destruction to make way for a gas station, a group of Beaufort residents banded together and bought the house. It was rehabilitated as rental space, then restored in 1976 by the Historic Beaufort Foundation as a historic attraction.

The Beaufort Museum, also run by the historic foundation, is housed in a castle-like building that was once the Beaufort Arsenal, where the city’s weapons and gunpowder were stored. The museum is small but offers a nice look at the founding of Beaufort and life in the town and the nearby Sea Islands. Many of its items are military in nature, such as a drum used by the Union Army, a Confederate artilleryman’s jacket, and cavalry sabers from the 1840s. Important events in the history of the town are documented, including the Great Hurricane of 1893, which killed 4,000 to 5,000 people in the Sea Islands, and the 1907 fire.

A particularly notable artifact – chiefly because of its former owner – is a grand desk that belonged to Robert Smalls, one of the town’s most famous residents. In 1862, Smalls was a slave whose owner entrusted him to deliver arms and supplies to the Confederacy on a steam-powered ship called the Planter.

Instead, Smalls and two crew mates stole the Planter under cover of darkness, picked up their families and a group of other slaves and delivered the boat and guns to the Union forces in Charleston. Smalls was hailed as a hero, given a reward and sent to meet President Lincoln. Upon his return, he worked for the Union on the Planter, eventually becoming its captain. He also served for a time in the infantry and was stationed in the Arsenal.

After the war, Smalls used his reward money to buy the house where he and his mother had been slaves and took care of his elderly former owner. He later became the first black U.S. representative, serving five terms.

Nearby is St. Helena’s Episcopal Church, built in 1724. It was used as a hospital during the Civil War. Doctors performed surgery on the cemetery’s flat tombstones.

One of the most pleasant places in Beaufort is Waterfront Park. Often the site of concerts, it provides a lovely place to stroll or sit on one of the many bench swings to look out at the sailboats docked at the marina.

© 2004 Winston-Salem Journal.

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