Monkeys dangling from trees on Hilton Head Island stunned young Phil Jones.
He was a kid at the time — an 8-year-old when his father built one of the first homes in North Forest Beach in 1954.
That was two years before the secluded island was opened to the world by the first bridge.
Rhesus monkeys perched above the mysterious Zion Chapel of Ease Cemetery still lurk in Jones’ mind.
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“The monkeys did not typically exhibit the bared teeth expression, grooming of a peer, or rump exposure so often seen with zoo monkeys,” the retired pathologist writes in his new book about that other-wordly time before Hilton Head was developed.
“They seemed as fascinated to study us as we did them. They periodically interrupted their human examinations to demonstrate tree gymnastics.”
As we chatted last week in the same home his father built on Dune Lane near Ibis Street, Jone said, “It was almost as if they were amazed to see us.”
Tales of wild monkeys on Hilton Head have leaped along these shores forever, with little proof of their existence, or how they got here, or why they left.
Now this new book presents a blurry photograph of a monkey on Hilton Head. It’s an AP photo printed in The Augusta Chronicle on April 10, 1958. It was among the many things his mother, Eloise, clipped and saved during her lifetime — a stash that got Jones started on his book.
The photo shows Dr. W.E. Hoy, head of the University of South Carolina biology department, holding a monkey shot dead on Hilton Head.
Jones got details in a follow-up story printed two weeks later.
A farmer discovered the monkey stealing corn from a horse trough and killed it, he writes.
Hoy was called. He came down the next day and took the dead monkey back to Columbia to unravel its secrets.
Jones could find no results of that study.
But he did track down the USC senior biology major who came along with Hoy to Hilton Head.
Henry H. “Hank” McKeithan, now 86 and living in Florida, told Jones, and also me when I called, that “after we took the monkey back this study just sort of died.”
He said he saw a small colony of maybe five to 10 monkeys on Hilton Head.
And he said Hoy concluded that the monkeys were not native to Hilton Head but got here by swimming ashore from a shipwreck.
It has often been said they came to Hilton Head from a monkey farm near Bluffton, where many Rhesus monkeys were imported to help produce the Salk vaccine licensed in 1955 to eradicate polio in America.
Jone said, “I wondered, Why would monkeys swim across to Hilton Head from Bluffton when they did not have to? If they were shipwrecked, they had no choice but to swim to the island. I assume they wouldn’t take that on if they didn’t have to.”
The third option, which was suggested to Jones by longtime islander Henry Driessen, was that someone brought the monkeys to Hilton Head.
“That’s likely, but it’s not nearly as romantic as the shipwreck,” Jones said.
Lots of romance
Jones was the second of five children born to Dr. Frank and Eloise Jones of Augusta, Ga.
His father was a busy and well-respected surgeon who loved the coast and came as often as possible, often with the Westerfield family of Savannah, including retired Hilton Head Island High School teacher George Westerfield.
The book tells stories of a much different place.
It was the world of Nancy “Candy Doll” Ford, a native islander who helped take care of all those children and feed them. Jones said her flounder looked black, she used so much pepper. He said they loved her as her own family did, and they named a street off William Hilton Parkway for her: Candy Doll Bluff.
“She loved to sing and on occasion would ask my sister, Janice, to play ‘Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross,’ which she sang beautifully, like an angel from God,” Jones writes.
It was a world of marsh tackey horses. Phil had one named Minnie and Janice had one named Starlight.
It was a world where their next-door neighbor used the beach as an airport, landing and taking off in a red and white single-engine plane on a stretch of sand nine blocks from today’s Coligny Beach Park.
That neighbor, obstetrician Bill Boyd, was also their next-door neighbor in Augusta. He was a Renaissance man who had a pipe organ in his home, and designed the Jones cottage with a soaring ceiling with open beams, and windows up top. Still today, it stands as a practical work of art.
It was a world with no air conditioning, television or telephones, and precious few paved roads.
The five Jones children — Janice, Phil, Vernon, Dennis and Wayne — created their own romantic world, crabbing and surfing all day, listening to their mother play the piano in a long cocktail hour she always ended with her signature, “The Lord’s Prayer.” They went to sleep on the back screened porch to the sound of a pounding surf.
Vernon and Dennis also grew up to become doctors. Phil lives in Macon, and today the fourth generation enjoys the beach house.
It’s air conditioned now and has a TV in all five bedrooms.
The marsh tackies are gone, and so are the monkeys. But the book records memories of a rare time in a rare place.
Where to get the book
“Cocktails and Prayers,” by Dr. Phil Jones is available at the Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head Island, and the Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites.