David Lauderdale: Newhall helped keep Lowcountry's environmental conscience straight

May 2, 2010 

Where is Beany Newhall when we need her?

Beaufort residents are shaking their fists at tree trimmers along Bay Street. Hilton Head Island residents scratch their heads at plans to clear-cut a forest around the airport. And Okatie residents ask what a proposed 280-acre shopping center will do to the headwaters of the Okatie River across the street.

Twenty-five years ago this week, our community celebrated Beany Newhall Day. At the time, it was the least we could do for the tiny woman whose immense influence on the environment remains hard to measure. Today, it helps us keep our bearings.

Beany's real name was Caroline. She was born in Asheville, N.C., in 1905, graduated from Smith College, married George Newhall and lived in a number of places.

They got to our shores by chance. An exploratory foray into the Lowcountry in 1954 found them at Beaufort's famed Gold Eagle Tavern. They said they wanted to settle on a warm island, and someone told them to go see Hilton Head. They came across in an eight-car ferry because there was no bridge.

"We drove down a sandy one-track road with enormous trees on either side almost touching the car," Newhall told Katie Callahan in a 1981 news story. "It was as wild and simple and natural and beautiful as any place I'd ever seen and I loved it at first sight."

Wilton Graves had a two-room motel, and they took a room for a week. It was a far cry from the crisp linen tablecloths and curried chicken of the Gold Eagle.

"It was a long and fairly narrow all-purpose room with a sitting-bedroom at the front end that had two single beds and room for a card table," Newhall said. "A stove backed up and divided the eating and sleeping areas, and there was a big table that hinged against the wall. A bathroom was tacked on at the rear.

"There was no place to eat on Hilton Head, so you'd better be able to cook. The only time George ever tried to help me cook was in that room. We caught some crabs and he decided he'd cook them. He ended up with 18 crabs on the floor and three in the pot."

The Newhalls bought a one-acre lot on South Forest Beach. Pete McGinty designed a home she'd sketched on an envelope, and Wilton Graves agreed to build it. The porch was 40-by-16 feet -- as big as the house. From what I can gather, it was the fourth home built by newcomers to an island that is today home to some 37,000 people.

'MANAGERS AND CARETAKERS'

Newhall started an Audubon Society chapter in 1960. It set an important standard. That was 15 years before the island had a hospital and 10 years before it had a newspaper. She led the first Christmas Bird Counts, and imparted to newcomers her sense of wonder, curiosity and stewardship of the Lowcountry.

She led trips into the woods, and taught schoolchildren about the environment. She walked the island day and night with her beloved dachshund, Gretchen, or a mutt she rescued from the garbage dump and named Rubbish.

She was an inspiration to Sea Pines developer Charles Fraser who in 1965 succumbed to her yapping and donated a 50-acre nature preserve on Palmetto Bay Road, now called the Audubon Newhall Preserve. It stands today, with its pond, wetlands, trails and many marked plants, as a testament to Newhall's values -- and Fraser's. It is a result of grueling volunteer work, then and now. Its guided walks today are reminiscent of the Sunday afternoon treks to duck ponds that Newhall's generation enjoyed. And Newhall left an endowment for the upkeep of the preserve.

She was not the only voice for conservation, but her influence was important to the small band of islanders who balked when plans were announced in 1969 for a $400 million chemical plant on the Colleton River near Bluffton. The plant that would have forever marred our environment never got off the ground.

Later, she would march in the streets with other "little old ladies" carrying signs saying: "Bulldoze Us Not Our Trees." She would hire lawyers to fight permits for a conference center and a shopping center. Both were built. At one time, she said, "I still love the island, I just don't like it."

By the time Beany Newhall Day rolled around, accolades for her courage and leadership came from President Ronald Reagan, Sen. Strom Thurmond and Sen. Fritz Hollings, who wrote: "For the past 30 years, you have been the voice for the waters and wildlife on the island. You have taught us that we are the managers and caretakers for the last remnants of our great natural heritage."

The celebration was held at the 137-acre Whooping Crane Pond Conservancy in Hilton Head Plantation, where the 1,100-foot main boardwalk was rededicated and named for Newhall. She had insisted on the boardwalk so the public could learn about and see egrets, herons, ibis and all 100 wildlife and 75 plant species in the preserve. And she put up the money to make sure it had the boardwalk.

THE HERON AND THE HAWK

Newhall never sought attention, but was always a sprightly step ahead of the crowd.

She volunteered at the elementary school and added books to its meager library. In the summer of 1965, when Operation Head Start blazed a national trail here to teach 27 little preschoolers, Newhall was there as a volunteer.

She and her friends sewed things to brighten the lives of mental patients at the S.C. State Hospital in Columbia. And in the 1960s, Newhall pushed for a mental health clinic in Beaufort County.

She brought tennis to Hilton Head. Long before Stan Smith, Rod Laver and Billie Jean King were linked to smashing island tennis resorts, Newhall financed the first tennis courts in Sea Pines. She played most mornings. Fraser repaid the loan with a lot on Calibogue Cay.

Newhall was a founding member of St. Luke's Episcopal Church, and there we get another glimpse into the order of her world.

On its altar, the two large candlesticks and cross were given by Newhall as a special thanks to God. She and a son spent most of their first summer on the island in its warm and gentle ocean waves. Newhall always felt that helped heal her son's polio.

She died in 1991 and is buried with George in Six Oaks Cemetery in Sea Pines.

Packet co-founder Jonathan Daniels wrote something about Newhall that can still instruct all those fretting about where Beaufort County is headed:

"As long as men and women on this shore follow her flight as the heron for beauty and the hawk against polluters and other predators, this will remain the magic isle of our hopes and expectations."

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