One of Hilton Head Island’s most haunting and intriguing locations is now officially recognized as historically significant.
The Zion Chapel of Ease Cemetery and Baynard Mausoleum were listed last week in the National Register of Historic Places.
The mausoleum, built in 1846, is considered the island’s oldest existing structure.
From the late 18th century until the outbreak of the Civil War, the site was the center of activity on the island. It had a wooden chapel of the St. Luke’s Parish established in 1788, a militia muster house and a Masonic hall near the cemetery for white planters at the corner of today’s William Hilton Parkway and Mathews Drive at Folly Field Road.
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The cemetery was owned by the Historical Society of Hilton Head Island until it merged with the Heritage Library, a nonprofit reference library and research center that is raising money to restore the mausoleum, create a learning center and “patriot’s park” at the cemetery and someday erect a replica of the chapel that disappeared after the Civil War.
“To the library, this designation means that we will be able to do more with the property, and it validates the historical significance of that property,” said library executive director Linda T. Piekut.
Volunteer and library board member Iva Welton of Hilton Head worked three years on the National Register application.
“I feel strongly that we as a community have a responsibility as good citizens to restore and preserve our historic sites to acknowledge those who came before us and what they did,” she said.
Ehren Foley, director of the S.C. Department of Archives and History, said, “A lot of nominations we receive are for the tax-credit program.”
For example, that helps make restoration of old cotton mills feasible for people finding new uses for vacant buildings, he said.
“It’s notable that here we have a community group, people not reaping any kind of financial benefit, willing to stand up and say, ‘This place matters and we are going to do the work to do that,’” Foley said at the Historic Zion Forum sponsored by the library on Hilton Head last week.
“Everyone should be quite proud about this listing.”
He said the nomination was fueled by the site’s funerary art and archaelogical potential. It contains more than 30 contributing objects, such as headstones and fences, that help tell a broader story of social change on Hilton Head, he said.
Some documentation of the site’s significance took place when U.S. 278 was widened in the late 1970s, he said. And in 1973, an historical marker was placed at the site.
Questions that remain to be answered include the exact location of the chapel, and the full extent and location of the burials.
Beaufort County now has about 70 sites and districts on the National Register of Historic Places, and there are about 1,500 statewide.
A question was raised at the forum about getting Gullah cemeteries of Hilton Head on the list. Foley said they certainly could be historically significant but someone must undertake the long and tedious process of preparing a nomination.
Welton, who also spent years preparing the nomination when the Rose Hill Plantation House in Bluffton was listed in 1983, said it requires a deep commitment.
“My family thought I was crazy,” she said.
In 2012, the Cherry Hill School that served the Gullah community on Hilton Head, was named to the National Register of Historic Places. The Fish Haul Archaeological Site, important to documenting the Mitchelville freedman’s village, was added in 1988, and the nearby Fort Howell site was added in 2011.
The intrigue of the Zion Chapel of Ease Cemetery runs like a wisteria vine through the recorded history of Hilton Head.
It has been recorded many times over the years, including the following description written in 1932 for a Charleston newspaper by Chlotilde R. Martin of Beaufort.
She observed a cemetery “hidden among tangled vines and bushes and great trees”:
“This is an old graveyard, centered by a tall, brown stone vault whose heavy doors hang open and the skeletons of whose rotted coffins lie exposed to a curious world ... Two of the coffins are form fitting and made of metal. These, however, have rusted and fallen to pieces at the bottom. Other coffins have been desecrated, the tops pried open and the skeletons left exposed. Several of the tiniest coffins, which are also open, contain only a gruesome dust.”