Old census gives new perspective on Lowcountry changes

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJuly 26, 2012 

Heritage Library Foundation volunteers Prè Moore and Isabelle Bitner transcribed the handwritten 1940 U.S. census for Hilton Head Island.


Oh, how we like to whine about hard times.

Bad news is as relentless as the tides in the Lowcountry. We are underemployed and overcrowded, undereducated and outclassed. Hilton Head Island, they like to say, has been ruined by the cul-de-sac, timeshare, guarded gate and newcomer.

You want hard times? Take a look at the newly released details of the 1940 U.S. census on Hilton Head.

Prè Moore, a volunteer at the Heritage Library Foundation on Hilton Head, has transcribed the handwritten material under the guidance of fellow volunteer Isabelle Bitner.

In May 1940, schoolteacher Miss Frances E. Jones went door to door on Hilton Head, counting 985 souls. All but 35 were African Americans. Many listed their income over the past year as zero. The economy was powered by the marsh tacky horse pulling plows over 113 small farms. Occupations listed were:

Farmers, 103; farm laborers, 56; employed by private families, 24; oyster picking, two; fishing, 21; canning factory, two; road construction (Works Progress Administration), six; log camp, 14; game keeper, one; schoolteachers, six; cotton press operator, one; retail grocers, five; private-duty nurse, one; building construction, seven; farm superintendent, one; seamstress, one; constable, one; magistrate, one; proprietor wholesale fish business, one; lodging housekeeper, one; clubhouse janitor, one; laborer, U.S. dredge, two; U.S. engineer, carpenter, one; operator retail farm, one.

But despite the slow trickle of money, land ownership and education were high priorities for islanders.

Moore was touched by the pride shown in 195 families owning their own homes. Values ranged from $50 to $700. Forty-two households rented their homes, from 50 cents to $25 per month.

Seventy-two years ago, 248 little islanders were attending school. Of the total population, 291 had attended or were attending grades four through eight, 21 had attended or were attending high school (off the island), and 10 had attended or were attending college. Sixty-four residents age 12 and older had never attended school.

Gracie Houston was the oldest islander at 106.

Many people look back at that time -- just one lifetime ago, a decade before 20,000 acres was sold to timbermen who became developers, 10 years before electricity was turned on and 16 years before the first bridge opened -- as an era of close families, low crime and true community. It seems as hard to get land and hold it today as it was then.

But it's also accurate to look at our time -- with the 2010 Census count of 37,099 islanders -- as one of greater opportunity. People who think we're ruined have forgotten just how poor we were.

Related content

  1. The Heritage Library Foundation
  2. Official national 1940 census website

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