If these walls could swim ...
The last house standing on the southern end of Hunting Island is a quizzical sight, perched alone on pilings surrounded by the swirling sea.
The beach cottage looks intact, but it has long since been vacated due to erosion. So have all but two cottages in Hunting Island State Park on the Atlantic Ocean near Beaufort.
The walls of “Little Blue” could tell many stories. Its pilings are driven deep into to the core of Beaufort County’s cultural, economic and environmental history.
The last house standing reflects the stubborn will of the people of Beaufort to go down the river every weekend, rain or shine, in the wind or wilting heat.
It stands like a crab clinging to a net as a reminder of the glory days of a beach village created in the state park, where people came for decades to rejuvenate with nature.
It also is a reminder of the power of the sea and mankind’s long and losing battle to tame it, especially on the shifting sands of barrier islands. Dozens of Hunting Island cottages have been removed or crushed by the sea.
Little Blue stands as a sentinel to the new era that dawned on Hunting Island during the Great Depression and still shines brightly today.
“The opening of Hunting Island State Park heralded the start of Beaufort County’s next great industry,” says the new third volume of Beaufort County’s history, “Bridging the Sea Islands’ Past and Present.”
That industry is tourism, usually associated with Hilton Head Island’s development decades later.
But Hunting Island State Park was a smash hit from its opening in 1941 and remains one of the top state attractions with more than 1 million visits last year.
For the owner of Little Blue, Sara Steinmeyer of Beaufort, its swimming walls tell a simpler story of a woman pulled to the seashore like a spring tide every weekend for 66 years.
“You could leave all your troubles in town when you went to Hunting Island,” she said.
Henry Steinmeyer was a football star and Sara Roberts was a pretty little girl from Port Royal when they became sweethearts at Beaufort High School.
They were married in 1948 when Sara was 19. She says that’s when she became a “beach bum.”
He went down the river every weekend with a group of men called the Capers Cats. They hunted, fished, horsed around and built a camp and many memories on Capers Island.
Meanwhile, Sara and her three children – Charles, Sally and Sandra – packed up each Friday and headed to Hunting Island. Sara often rented for the weekend a rustic, un-air-conditioned state cabin when the people who booked it for a week bailed out early.
But the Steinmeyer roots are driven even deeper into Hunting Island’s sand. Sara’s nephew Sonny Bishop of St. Helena Island recalls day trips for family picnics in the 1930s when they had to get there by boat from the Gay Fish Co. dock.
They swam and fished and ate near the black and white Hunting Island Lighthouse, where there was a cistern and a two-hole outhouse. They took fish home alive in buckets of water.
And Sara’s brother-in-law Freddie Steinmeyer of Yemassee had one of the first cottages built on Hunting Island. During the week, he and Henry were electrical contractors and Sara sold real estate.
In 1978, Sara Steinmeyer saw an ad in The Beaufort Gazette offering a half- interest in a beach cottage. It was 11 p.m., but she responded. By the morning, others had phoned too, wanting the lease. But Sara had beat them to it, finally getting her own piece of Hunting Island.
The Hunting Island cottages were owned by individuals on land leased from the state. Sara got in when one of two partners from Atlanta wanted to get out of their cottage, and she eventually gained full ownership.
It wasn’t Little Blue. It was a larger house that had been barged over as surplus from the U.S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, and then added onto over the years. It had a big yard, tall sand dunes and a lot of close neighbors.
Her large family enjoyed the place they called Big Blue for more than 20 years. It was there for the rest of Henry’s life. He died in 1992. But erosion claimed Big Blue in 2000. It sat on ground level and was worn out. “The only thing holding it up was termites holding hands,” said Sara’s son, Charles Steinmeyer of Beaufort.
Sara, then in her mid-70s, was determined to rebuild, and she did.
In the meantime, the family put a 12-by-16 hut on the lot and spent weekends in it.
“Our lease stipulated that we must rebuild within two years or forfeit the lease,” reads a history of the place prepared by Charles Steinmeyer and his sister Sally Steinmeyer Altman of Beaufort.
“We began a sand fence project, which included planting 1,000 sea oats, in hopes that the lot would increase to a size that would allow us to rebuild.”
It did and the 600- to 700-square-foot Little Blue was finished in 2003 on 35-foot pilings drilled deep into the ground in anticipation of erosion and storms. Charles jokes that they knew they were building an ocean liner, but he says they had seen the beach erode and rebuild in cycles over the years.
“It always came back,” he said. They hoped the cottage would last all their mother’s life and for as long as the lease with the state could be extended – 2022.
Once again the family had a weekend place where the main meal was served at 11 a.m. and they could play as they wished the rest of the time. Two of Sara’s granddaughters were married there. She played a lot of bridge. The walls were covered with snapshots of good times by four generations. They fished, crabbed, collected shells, swam, ate, walked, dozed, played board games and chatted.
“It’s our life,” Sara said. “All of us just enjoyed Hunting Island so much. If they would allow you to rebuild, why wouldn’t you?”
Many families built, or rented, their dreams on the sands of Hunting Island.
Courtney and Elizabeth Siceloff built a cabin the 1960s as a refuge from the tense work of civil rights advocacy when he was director of the Penn Center on neighboring St. Helena Island. They were Quaker pacifists and the cottage was called Quaker Oats.
“My parents were on duty pretty much 24/7 at Penn, and the cottage was a place we could have family time,” said their daughter, Mary Siceloff of Savannah. “Courtney tried several times to buy a cabin, but when the sellers found out who he was, things ‘came up’ and the cabin was sold to someone else. Courtney was stubborn, though, and he finally was given the lease on the last lot along the line, at the far southern tip, facing Fripp Island. It was considered ‘unbuildable.’
“As the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice, it turned out to be a very protected lot and was one of the last ones standing.”
Hunting Island became so precious to the family that Courtney Siceloff’s cremated remains were scattered there when he died last year.
The Siceloffs sold the cottage to Connie Curry of Atlanta, a civil rights activist and author.
“I had it for almost 40 years until it washed away (in 2011),” Curry said. “It was one of the saddest moments of my life.”
She recalls Martin Luther King Jr. being at the cottage. She said Julian Bond, the civil rights activist, and his new wife, Pam, honeymooned there in 1990. Bob Moses of The Algebra Project used it as a get-away.
Long-time renters of the cottage, psychologist Jerome and Emily Vreeland of Knoxville, Tenn., published a book in 2012 called “Hunting Island: A Love Story in the Midst of Change.”
Jerome Vreeland took thousands of pictures over the years of the tame herds of deer, the flashy painted buntings, the dunes that came and went, the maritime forest, lone beach walkers, the relentless force of erosion, and the sometimes eerie shapes and creases of “root souls” left by the surging sea.
“These are souls that live in tree roots and are disgruntled at being uprooted,” he wrote.
On the cover of his book is a photograph of Little Blue, standing far out on a beach strewn with new “root souls.”
He calls the cabin The Indomitable Lady.
“This book is for future generations,” he said. “This is for them to know what was there.”
Little Blue offered a sad perch from which to see the other cottages disappear.
The pace of losses picked up about 10 years ago, despite a number of beach restoration projects by the state.
One island cabin owned by the Patterson family of Beaufort was moved away from south beach and remains on the vacation rental market. And the state, which had long waiting lists to rent more than a dozen cottages, has only one left, and it is in the lighthouse compound.
A cabin owned by the Ed Gay family of Beaufort succumbed to erosion this month, according to pictures on the Facebook page, “Help Save Hunting Island, SC.”
The Steinmeyers enjoyed Little Blue so long they could fish from the deck. But it slowly took greater effort just to use it.
When the road it was on buckled, they had to get there in an all-terrain vehicle. They had to time their comings and goings with the tide. They had to put in a portable toilet when erosion ate the link to the septic tank. As the pilings seemed to stretch taller and taller above ground, the family got a rolling ladder like one used at Lowe’s to stock shelves to reach the house.
The last family gathering there was the Fourth of July in 2009. By then, the cabin had lost power and Sally Altman recalls telling her mother, “Forget it, Mom. We can’t do it anymore.”
They moved all their stuff out in 2010. Charles Steinmeyer said they have done all that the state requires as far as removal goes.
That same year, the family bought a place at adjacent Harbor Island, but it doesn’t seem to soothe Sara’s soul like Hunting Island did. She’s more likely to sit at home in town, where she can glimpse the river from her chair.
She laughs about how everyone was praying for Little Blue, including the large families of two nephews who are missionaries.
“Everyone was praying, ‘Lord, let Little Blue stand.’ I’ve told them recently that we stopped short with our prayers. We should have asked for availability of it.”
Today, Little Blue has become popular for photographers and beach walkers.
The family has heard the many names people have given it: Last Cabin Standing, One Tough Lady, Majestic Lady, Miss Majestic, Great Dame of South End, Lone Beacon and Lone Soldier.
“We have enough memories and pictures that it ain’t over for us,” Charles Steinmeyer said.
His sister Sally said, “It’s just sad.”
She taps her smartphone and holds out a photograph.
It’s not Little Blue standing against great odds as a symbol of Beaufort County’s culture.
It’s two of her granddaughters – dashing into the surf at Harbor Island.