A centenarian's story: 70 years of Hunting Island

A string tied to the leg of a live chicken ensured there would be fresh meat -- just in case the fish weren't biting -- when Ottie Houser Roberson first camped at Hunting Island State Park.

But Roberson's husband made sure the whiting and spottail were plentiful that day while she kept his fishing lines untangled and fried drop biscuits over the campfire.

Roberson of West Columbia, who celebrated her 100th birthday in March, has been camping at Hunting Island State Park every spring and summer for almost 70 years. Her husband, Bob, has since passed away, but Roberson and her daughters are back again this year.

She remembers her first trip to the island when Civilian Conservation Corps "boys" were still working on the road -- which still had some low spots of pluff mud. Hunting Island State Park was one of 800 parks built by the corps, a Depression Era public work relief program for men ages 18 to 25.

"They had to pick our car up to get us out of the marsh mud," Roberson said.

Bob Roberson discovered the island while training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island. Ottie was no stranger to camping before they married.

As a child, she recalls riding in a horse-drawn covered wagon to campgrounds near Cherokee, N.C.

"My father would put a sheet over the top of two wagons -- one for the children and one for the adults," she said of the times before cars were common.

Married in 1937, each summer the couple and their children would pack up a tent and six cots for summer vacation.

One year, Roberson remembers the family stayed in one of the three to four barracks left behind by the conservation corps.

"It was full of spiders, so we took our sleeping bags down to the beach and slept there, but when the tide came in we had to move," she said.

Stumps left behind by trees cut down by the conservation corps formed great places to easily find a supper of crabs.

"Water was standing around those old stumps and we would find all kinds of crabs in there," Roberson said. "We had plenty of crabs. And we had lard and corn meal if you didn't catch anything."

With plenty of fish and crabs in those days, they didn't have to eat the chicken they'd once brought as a backup dinner plan.

"We put a roost up by placing a fishing pole between two trees," Roberson said. "He'd crow every morning, and we fell in love with him. We ended up taking him home."

One summer, the Robersons started finding old shell casings which still had gunpowder in them. They were told the military had used the island for a firing range.

"We would take (the casings) home and break them apart and make our own fireworks for the Fourth of July," said Sybil Parsons, one of Roberson's daughters, during their recent trip to the island. "We would take an iron pipe and bend it and put cotton and the powder down in there with a string, light it and then you run."

The family's most unusual find was a set of human teeth -- which they were told by forensic experts probably came from a cemetery at Coffin Point.

Beachcombing finds such as the shell casings and sand dollars were more plentiful when the Robersons first started visiting the island.

Other things also have changed. Roberson and her daughters recall a vastly different beach line and road system that has changed due to erosion.

"I remember walking that beach and the banks were high with big dunes above," Parsons said. "Daddy brought us down here because he wanted us to enjoy nature as it was and the beauty of Hunting Island."