Carrie Hirsch: Living history

Carrie HirschWhen Carrie Hirsch started working on the battered old “Little House” on Gumtree Road, she wondered what the neighbors were thinking.

“I thought, ‘Everybody’s going to think I’m a Realtor,’” she says, recalling how she’d drive over to the abandoned shack if she had a free hour and work to clear  brush from the site that would be transformed into the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island. “People would ask me what I was doing. Eventually I knew everybody by name, they knew me by name and I felt like they were watching out for me. I don’t know if they’ll ever know how much that meant to me.”

What’s intriguing about Hirsch, 49, is that she is so passionate about preserving a piece of history that holds no place in her personal history. She isn’t a native islander. She isn’t even a native South Carolinian. She’s a Hilton Head resident by way of New York City who stumbled upon the island’s true wealth while on vacation here several years ago.

“I’m not a tennis player, I’m not a golfer, so while my family was out doing those things I would get a rental bike and literally ride all over the island. That’s how I discovered the cemeteries,” she says. “They were really kind of the way I learned about the native islanders, the names of the families, the neighborhoods. It was really fascinating.”

At the time Hirsch was in the fine wine and gourmet food business, working as a sales manager and representative for very high-quality wines and specialty meats. She worked with the best restaurants and hotels in the Northeast.

“It was just the best job in the world,” she says. “A demanding job with a lot of hours, but fabulous.”

In her free time, Hirsch started digging into the history of Hilton Head and the Gullah culture. When her husband, Butch, convinced her to move to Hilton Head in 2002 in search of a slower pace, Hirsch’s passing interest in all things Gullah became much more. An assignment for South Carolina Living magazine in 2005 put her in touch with native islander Louise Cohen. As the two sat in Cohen’s kitchen making Gullah shrimp and okra gumbo with white rice, Hirsch listened to Cohen’s dreams of turning a one-acre parcel and ramshackle house she’d inherited into a Gullah museum. By the end of the afternoon Hirsch was signed up to serve on the new nonprofit’s board and to help Cohen pen her family’s history in book form.

“We made a lot of decisions that day, decisions that have affected my life profoundly,” Hirsch says. Since then the two friends have been raising money and awareness for the fledgling museum, which got a big boost last year when the Remodelers Council of the Hilton Head Area Home Builders Association chose Cohen’s 1930-built “Little House” as their community project. The museum’s board, which includes former Penn Center executive director Emory Campbell, hopes to open on an appointment-only basis sometime this spring.

In addition to her volunteer work, Hirsch has managed to blend her new passion for history into a professional project. She’s writing a book for Carolina Plantation Rice that features recipes from top chefs across the state as well as the rich history of rice growing in South Carolina. “Never before in my life have I actually devoted this much time and effort to history,” Hirsch says. “But I can’t even tell you how rewarding it’s been.”