THE FIRST LADY OF HILTON HEAD ISLAND
For Mary Wyman Stone Fraser, 1963 was a magical year. It was a year of decisions that shaped her future and that of Hilton Head Island. It also was the year she met and married Charles E. Fraser and helped him move forward with his vision for Sea Pines and the island.
Mary Fraser and her daughter, Laura Lawton Fraser, were on hand Nov. 10 when Sea Pines Montessori Academy — a school Mary Fraser founded during her early years on Hilton Head — marked its 50th anniversary with a ceremony in Harbour Town. It gave her the chance to reflect on those early days on Hilton Head.
When Charles E. Fraser began developing Sea Pines in 1957, Hilton Head was a sparsely inhabited barrier island of palmetto trees and moonlight, sun and sand, wild animals and alligators in a semi-tropical maritime forest.
By 1963, Charles needed a social director to help entertain visitors and interest them in buying real estate on the island. He hired Mary at the recommendation of her mother, Allene “Linky” Stone, who was visiting the island from Greenville. Mary was working in Sen. Strom Thurmond’s office in Washington, D.C., and when Charles called Harry Dent in Thurmond’s office, Dent replied, “Charles, you shouldn’t hire Mary, you should marry her!”
And that’s how it began. After receiving the telegram from Charles offering her the job, she came down to look at “the most beautiful place I have ever seen.”
Mary assisted Charles in entertaining visitors who were staying at the Hilton Head Inn, on the site of what is now Marriott’s Grande Ocean. Every day, Charles would review the guest registry and invite people to dinner to explain his concepts and convince them to buy property, with Mary at his side. At the end of six months, the couple became engaged. They were married Nov. 30, 1963, in a large wedding in front of 3,000 guests in Greenville. After the wedding, Mary continued to entertain Charles’s guests, hand-delivering invitations to her legendary dinner parties.
In order to sell inland parcels, Charles studied recreation statistics, recognized the developing trend for golf and built Sea Pines’ original Ocean Course (now Atlantic Dunes). He is credited with pioneering the idea of building houses around golf course layouts. A graduate of Yale Law School, he was one of the first to use covenants and deed restrictions to protect the environment.
“Everything Charles did was based on intense, solid research,” Mary said, adding that Charles was a voracious reader who always had a book in his hand — and that he was an equally prolific writer.
Charles hired MBAs from the top business schools to assist in developing Sea Pines. In those years, they were building a new community and needed to put in place elements that would make this a home for families. Meanwhile, in 1968 Mary started Sea Pines Montessori Academy for her two children, daughters Laura Lawton and Wyman, and for the children of the new young executives Charles was bringing to the island. She was aided by Mary Bernard Pabst, formerly of the American Montessori Society, who consulted with Fraser during the School’s founding.
At first, the school was housed in a storage space owned by the Sea Pines company, and then it moved to an abandoned arcade building on the ocean. In 1978, the academy moved to its current location on Fox Grape Road outside Sea Pine’s Ocean Gate.
“The executives my father hired would not have stayed if the school didn’t exist,” said Laura Lawton Fraser.
The Frasers were generous in doing what it takes to build a community. They donated approximately 100 acres for the five churches on Hilton Head’s south end, and following the death of a child, Charles within a day had land cleared for Six Oaks Cemetery inside the Sea Pines gates.
Life was simple in the early years. Although there was a small grocery store — now Piggly Wiggly — in Coligny Plaza, Mary made weekly trips to Savannah to buy groceries and other necessities, and often picked up her dry cleaning, which she had mailed in.
Quality was a keyword in building the new community, from establishing Sea Pines Montessori Academy to the types of businesses that opened — the Doughtie family’s Island Shop, Signe’s Heaven Sent Bakery, Nell’s Harbour Shop and Café Europa. This careful development gave Hilton Head its character and distinction and set it apart from other coastal communities.
Together, the Frasers turned a remote sea island into a world-class resort, with many of their ideas becoming the gold standard for planned communities up around the country.
Mary Fraser and daughter Laura Lawton Fraser live in Cedar Mountain, North Carolina, with Laura Lawton’s son, Samuel. Mary’s other daughter, Wyman Fraser Davis, lives in Atlanta. Charles Fraser died in 2002 at the age of 73.