Daufuskie Island, a three by five mile sliver of paradise in Beaufort County, South Carolina with human inhabitation dating back over 6,000 years. Facing the Atlantic Ocean and bordered by the Cooper and New Rivers, Daufuskie Island’s closest neighbors are Hilton Head Island and Savannah, Georgia, each of which are about a 30 minute boat ride away.
In the early 1700’s, English settlers divided the 5,000 acre island into a handful of modest plantations, including Melrose. Long-staple sea island cotton was the crop of choice on Daufuskie. Construction on the island’s two lighthouses was completed in the mid-1870’s. One lighthouse was built on the northern tip at Haig’s Point, facing Hilton Head and the other at Bloody Point, facing both open sea toward Savannah.
During the Civil War, English land owners fled Daufuskie Island for safer Confederate territory. Union soldiers eventually took Daufuskie and divided the island into small plots that were sold to freed slaves.
As an island only accessible by boat, life was challenging for those living on Daufuskie Island in the 1920’s. Cotton farming was still the mainstay, but in the 1920’s the Hilton-Dodge Company started logging on the island. A small-gauge logging train that ran the length of the island was built so cut timber could transported to boats that shipped the wood to Savannah.
Daufuskie was struck by a boll weevil invasion in the 1920‘s, destroying the island’s entire cotton crop. As devastating as the boll weevil was, it did not deter the completion of an oyster cannery off the coast. Success with the cannery let to regular visits from the Clivedon steamship, ferrying people and musicians from Savannah to Daufuskie for an evening of merriment.
The party ended with the Great Depression, which hit Daufuskie residents especially hard. Many islanders sold their plots of land for whatever they could get and by 1939 there were only about 300 residents left on the island. In 1940, the few remaining Poverty stricken Daufuskie residents watched in amazement as bulldozers and dump trucks were being ferried to Hilton Head to turn that island into a resort.
When life looked like it couldn’t get any worse, in 1956, the oyster cannery was forced to shut down due to pollution in the river. Daufuskie’s population dwindled down to about 100 residents.
In 1974 a sign of relief came ashore in the form of tourists visiting Daufuskie to see the landmarks portrayed in the movie “Conrack.” The movie was based on the Pat Conroy book, “The Water is Wide” and told the story of teaching 5th – 8th grade children on Daufuskie Island. “Conrack” triggered a steady flow of visitors who arrived by ferryboat to tour the island. Residents sold their daily guests trinkets and crab cakes. Islanders petitioned for a store and in 1976 The Daufuskie co-op opened, selling food, tobacco, beer, wine and goods to residents and tourists.
Modern development on Daufuskie Island began in the early 1980’s with four distinct residential areas, including Melrose, Haig Point Club, Oak Ridge and Bloody Point . Melrose began as a private club that had more than 1200 members by 1991. The members took ownership of the club from the original developers and soon found that the costs of boat transportation and other operational expenses were beyond the resources and/or expertise of a volunteer board. The Melrose Club was sold to Club Corporation of America (CCA) in late 1996. CCA also bought Bloody Point and merged the two private clubs. It was called Daufuskie Island, a Pinehurst Company Resort. CCA renourished the beach, built the Island House and was moving the resort ahead when 9/11 occurred. Shortly thereafter, CCA withdrew from Daufuskie and put the resort up for sale. It was purchased by Tiburon, with Gail and Bill Dixon as the principals. They turned a building at Bloody Point into a luxurious spa and renamed the resort as the Daufuskie Island Resort and Spa. Unfortunately, Tiburon was unable to steer the club through the real estate downturn and historic recession of the late decade and the resort filed for bankruptcy in 2009. In 2011, the Pelorus Group, based in Salt Lake City, purchased the resort and re-named it Melrose on the Beach. The beautiful Nicklaus golf course had been maintained by a dedicated crew during the years of bankruptcy but other facilities suffered from neglect. Pelorus has been restoring these facilities to new grandeur. The Beach Club and pool areas have been completed and the Sportsman’s Lodge has been refurbished.
While islanders now enjoy modern conveniences, Daufuskie Island still only is accessible by boat, and golf carts and bicycles are the primary vehicles for local transportation. In many ways, time continues to stand still on this island paradise.