On Hilton Head, a piece of Lowcountry lore falls from the 'skyline'

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comAugust 7, 2012 

Wouldn't the prisoners who were chained to a huge oak tree by the main road on Hilton Head Island be glad to know their prayers were finally answered?

It happened decades too late to help the few criminals who had to wait for the steamer to take them to the Beaufort County jail, but the specimen live oak tree came tumbling down Monday afternoon.

The calamity backed up traffic from Squire Pope Road across both bridges from the mainland. And it left a big gap in the skyline -- and storyline -- of what was downtown Hilton Head when there was no bridge and islanders could walk the beach for weeks and never see a soul.

The tree stood by U.S. 278 at Squire Pope Road for about 250 years.

Its canopy was full and green, and the air was still, when one of its three trunks fell over, crunching a chain link fence at Carolyn's Landscaping & Nursery. The other trunks were taken down before they could fall into the bustling highway a few feet away.

Non-visible decay at the tree's base and forks caused it to fall, said Alfred Jones, co-owner of Jones Brothers Tree Surgeons, which did the job.

"It was top-heavy," Jones said. "Its limbs were long, leggy and heavy."

They also were covered with fig vines.

In the 1930s and '40s, the tree stood in the yard of "Old Man Ben" -- J.B. Hudson -- who was in the commercial seafood business, ran a store and was the postmaster, magistrate and in charge of malaria control on Hilton Head.

In that area, known as Stoney from plantation days, were stores run by Charlie Simmons Sr., Arthur Frazier and John Patterson. Besides the post office and court, it would be home to a small health building, the island's first red-brick consolidated elementary school and Arthur Frazier's Holiness Temple.

Children embraced the long arms of the live oak trees, pretending to be Tarzan and Jane.

And Old Man Ben built a circular bench around the base of the oak that toppled this week. Between churches, families, oyster factories, woodsriders, constables and the magistrate, islanders usually handled their own justice. But that bench always sat waiting, chains at the ready.

At one point, the Clivedon steamer came only four days a week. So if somebody wanted to drink bad moonshine, he might want to look at the calendar first, said Barbara Hudson, who was married to Old Man Ben's son, the late Benny Hudson.

"It was a real good deterrent," Barbara said.

She was on her way to get her car repaired when she saw the big tree missing.

"I was sad," she said. "I said, 'Oh, my God, there goes another piece of history.' It just disappears."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Related content:

Island's longest residents? Two storied oak trees

Tree company adopts Beaufort area's largest and oldest live oak

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