Lowcountry book club celebrates 100 years of page-turners

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comApril 13, 2013 

The book was closed Wednesday on a remarkable chapter of Lowcountry lore.

The Estill Book Club ended its 100th year with a sprightly discussion of books, notable quotes and current events, with brunch served on china, silver and linen.

World wars and boll weevils haven't come between a succession of 12 ladies at a time and their beloved gatherings. What started as the Wednesday Afternoon Book Club has not missed a single meeting -- 12 a year for 100 years. Minutes from 1913 to 2006, handwritten in an old-fashioned "Records" book, are now held for posterity by the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina.

Lib Usher Laffitte has been in the club since 1950. Laurie Wiggins Hanna is a fourth-generation member. President Lawton Clarke O'Cain said, "It's like when Kennedy was shot and 9/11, everybody knows what they were doing when they got invited to join Book Club."

Similar clubs endure throughout the state. The Clover Club, a women's literary and social group, was established in Beaufort in 1891. The oldest known book club in the state is the Up-To-Date Book Club in Chester, dating to 1896.

Estill, population 2,000, with its railroad tracks, water tower and single stoplight an hour north of Hardeeville on U.S. 321, is known more for being on the poor side of the swamp in Hampton County than a place of letters.

On Wednesday, the women turned their attention to books that opened avenues of the mind, like "The Iquana Tree," "Rules of Civility," "A Good Man," "The Witness" and "Killing Lincoln."

And, of course, they gave full attention to hostess Anne McLaurin Lawton's famous cheese biscuits with brown sugar and pecans.

HOGS, DEER AND BLUFFTON

In 100 years, I was the fourth man ever invited to a meeting. We've all been writers, seeking to capture their intense sense of place.

I especially enjoyed the banter over the brunch of strawberry salad, sausage and grits casserole, tea biscuits with ham, spinach quiche, roasted tomatoes, and blueberry cheesecake.

Lawton O'Cain kept a running dialogue through the day about having no water when company came for Easter weekend.

"We got up Easter morning and said, 'The Lord is risen.' 'He is risen indeed.' 'Do we have water?' 'No.' 'We will worship in a different way.' "

Brenda Smith Barnes told about a deer eating her flowers. She named it Lily. "I would go out in the yard and look at her and say, 'Lily, you've got to stop eating my lilies.' "

An old story was told about the time wild hogs got in the yard of Gertrude Johnston Williams, a club member since 1964. Lawton O'Cain recalled the kids screaming, "Miss Gertrude is shooting a pig!" Miss Gertrude admitted to using a large pistol, and learning you have to shoot a wild hog in the head to do any good.

Lillian Peeples Solomons remembered going to Hilton Head Island when the old swing-span bridge still had a toll. Teenagers got a trip to the beach if they'd bring their parents tomatoes from the fields where Hilton Head Plantation is today.

They told about going to Bluffton for weekends and summers on the May River, and how the kids would count turtles on logs to pass time during the trip down, and compete to be the first to see the Estill water tower on the way home.

Estill's long ties to Bluffton were splashed across the living room in a new oil painting by club member Lin Jackson Laffitte. It was hostess Anne Lawton's Christmas present from her husband, Winston. It shows the boat house on the May River at a home built by her in-laws, the late Winston "Streak" Lawton and Sarah Lawton. Streak was an oil distributor who opened a gas station on Hilton Head in 1959. Sarah inherited her Book Club membership from her mother.

ANOTHER 100 YEARS

Members answer roll call by sharing a quotation.

Laurie Hanna used one from Margaret Thatcher on the week the "Iron Lady" died: "Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't."

As each discussed one of the 12 books they all read this year, Kay Thomas Bostick said "Defending Jacob" was a great suspense novel. It sparked a discussion of the mass shooting in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school.

Anne Solomons Harper, a member since 1968, said everyone says "Porch Lights" by Dorothea Benton Frank is supposed to be an escape. "If you took out everything about food and preparing food, you wouldn't have half a book," she said. "It wasn't a big enough escape for me."

They always close by sharing current events, or items of interest.

Brenda Barnes read about a young man in Vermont whose mission is to reunite lost, stolen or pawned Purple Hearts with their rightful owners or family members.

Lin Laffitte read a New York Times op-ed column by David Brooks, "Freedom loses one," about personal freedom and gay marriage.

Laurie Hanna talked about a lack of health care in Estill. "It's really a sin," she said.

Anne Harper told about a four-day "Yamassee Indian Tribe Green Corn Festival" coming up in July in Allendale County. The first word out of everybody's mouth was, "hot."

Put it in the records. The 10 members present walked out into a warm Lowcountry day, with dogwoods and cherries blooming, saying a little prayer that Book Club will last another 100 years.

Contact columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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