New program seeks to preserve Daufuskie Gullah cottage

rlurye@islandpacket.comOctober 11, 2013 

This Gullah cottage on Daufuskie Island, the former home of Frances Jones, will be restored by the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation in the coming months.

PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL BEDENBAUGH

Broken windows, ripped screening, peeling paint and a bright orange sign greet passersby at the small cottage on Daufuskie Island.

A Lowcountry conservation group, the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, thinks that's no legacy for the former home of Frances Jones, who was a teacher and principal at the segregated Mary Fields School and founder of the annual Daufuskie Day. By leasing the Gullah-built home from its owner, an heir of Jones, the trust plans to restore the vacant structure and make its history, which dates to the 1800s, available as a vacation rental.

Another goal is to help Gullah families keep their properties and earn some money.

The Palmetto Trust hopes to rehabilitate other vacant homes on the island, though no other property owners have made commitments so far, trust executive director Michael Bedenbaugh said.

"The houses are a reflection of the Gullah culture that, if they're not stabilized, will be lost," he said. "So this is a method in which this house, at least, and any others that work with the program, can be saved and their stories told."

Renovations to the Frances Jones House should be finished by March, after which it would be temporarily available for vacationers to rent, Bedenbaugh said. After renting the property has helped underwrite some of the renovation costs, it will be returned to the homeowner. It was not yet clear how long that might be.

The initial funding for the pilot project comes from a $150,000 grant.

"We know Daufuskie is a place where tourists love to come to and see and visit, and we know people like to come over and spend the night," he said. "Having a very unique piece of property like this is, we feel, going to fill a need."

There's a large market for heritage-rich experiences on the island, said Deborah Smith, director of client relations for Daufuskie Rental Group, which will promote the listing free of charge.

When Smith toured the home recently, she was struck by evidence of the cabin it was originally built around, as well a quilt in a corner that belonged to Jones. It's that kind of detail the trust is dedicated to preserving, Smith said.

"This house will really serve as a living museum for people who are lucky enough to stay there," Smith said. "How many places can you go to vacation where you walk in the front door and you've been hurtled decades back in time?"

However, the project remains a concern for some Daufuskie Islanders. Land rights are a delicate issue for many Gullah residents, said Ervin Simmons, president of the Daufuskie Island Foundation.

"I'm just skeptical of anything where someone else has control over my land, or our land," he said. "I think we have lost too much."

Simmons also owns a vacant property, the home his parents lived in, but he has not considered working with the Palmetto Trust. He is keeping an open mind about the conservation group's pilot project, though, because of the importance of preserving Jones' history.

The trust will not displace any Gullah residents, as it would only renovate empty homes, Bedenbaugh said. He would not comment further about local residents' concerns.

Simmons, a student of Jones' in the late 1960s, remembers her as a firm figure in the classroom, the type of teacher who could rattle off the names of each pupil's parents. After all, she had taught them, too.

Jones also founded Daufuskie Day in 1976 to strengthen the island's community and give Gullah residents who'd moved away a reason to return at least once a year. Often, her little cottage became a workshop where she would help people pay taxes and complete the forms that declared their land ownership.

"She had a king of legacy," Simmons said. "I think the most critical piece is getting the history right."


If you want to bid

Bids for renovating the Frances Jones House on Daufuskie Island will remain open through Oct. 31. Contractors can send bids to 8301 Parklane Place, Columbia, SC 29223.

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.

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