UNIQUE PROGRAM LETS VISITORS EXPERIENCE GULLAH LIFE WHILE RESTORING HISTORIC HOMES
Nestled on a dirt road under a canopy of oak trees on Daufuskie Island sits a bright blue cottage with a small porch. Built by a Gullah freedwoman around 1865, the Frances Jones House was home to several generations of island residents over the years. But the humid, hot climate took its toll and the dwelling began to fall into disrepair. In an effort to save the property, the Daufuskie Endangered Places Program, run by the nonprofit group Preservation South Carolina, came up with a unique solution to pay for repair and give visitors a firsthand look at Gullah life. The group started the project committed to making sure native islanders could hold on to their land.
Without a bridge to the mainland, Daufuskie didn’t experience the development that transformed Hilton Head Island. Jobs on Daufuskie became scarce, and many residents left the small island to find work. Still, they felt a powerful connection to land that in many cases had been in their families for generations and didn’t want to sell — even if they weren’t able to repair their historic homes.
It was time for a different approach.
“Our normal real estate module of acquiring and reselling properties wouldn’t work on Daufuskie because the owners wanted to maintain ownership,” said Mike Bedenbaugh, executive director of Preservation South Carolina. “We realized this was the perfect opportunity to really tie the importance of place to historic preservation. It’s more than just where they lived, it’s the unique cultural tie-in of the Gullah population. Daufuskie, to us, is the archetype of what the Sea Islands could have been if development didn’t hit.”
Preservation South Carolina reached out to the 1772 Foundation, a nationwide organization that provides grants to help restore historic properties. Bedenbaugh received three grants totaling $4 million from the foundation, and he invested them in two Daufuskie properties: the Frances Jones House and the Hinson-White/Lesesne House. Both had been empty for some time and needed extensive work.
There was only one catch: The money Bedenbaugh received from the foundation had to be recouped via a “sustainable income stream.” So Preservation South Carolina hatched a plan. Once the Daufuskie homes were restored, the organization would rent them as vacation properties until it had repaid the $4 million grants. Then it would turn the properties back over to the Gullah families of the original owners. These families would retain ownership of the properties throughout the renovations and rentals.
After restoring the homes, Preservation South Carolina listed the properties on rental site AirBnB. Visitors flocked to the Hinson-White/Lesesne House, with its marsh views, but weren’t as excited about the mid-island location of the Francis Jones House. So Bedenbaugh enlisted the help of Sallie Ann Robinson, a Gullah native and Daufuskie celebrity.
Robinson’s own family cottage was in disrepair, so she was looking for another home on the island. Preservation South Carolina offered her a place to stay as the docent at the Frances Jones House. The renowned chef and cookbook author provides breakfast for guests who come to stay and leads historical talks, sharing her perspective as a sixth-generation Daufuskie resident, from cooking on the wood stove with her mother as a child to attending classes taught by Pat Conroy in a one-room schoolhouse.
Preservation South Carolina had projected that it would take 13 to 14 years to make enough money from the home rentals to repay the grants. But thanks in part to the group’s partnership with Robinson, rentals are on the rise. In fact, the program has been such a success that the organization now expects to raise the money in just nine years — sooner if Bedenbaugh is able to raise money from community donations.
Once the grants have been repaid, the land and restored homes will be returned to their original Gullah owners, who will become full-time caretakers of the island cottages’ heritage.
Bedenbaugh has a list of interested Gullah families and homes for the future.
“Going forward, this is a fragile place that needs nurturing and caring,” he said of the Daufuskie project. “It will take work to be a success. We need to do a better job of participating with intention to save these properties.”
STAY ON DAUFUSKIE
For more information on Preservation South Carolina’s Daufuskie Endangered Places Program, go to www.preservesc.org.