David Lauderdale

5 things you didn’t know about how Charles Fraser developed Hilton Head

The bust of Sea Pines founder Charles E. Fraser at his grave by the Liberty Oak in Harbour Town, along a walkway of coquina shell.
The bust of Sea Pines founder Charles E. Fraser at his grave by the Liberty Oak in Harbour Town, along a walkway of coquina shell. dlauderdale@islandpacket.com

Here are five things you might not know about Sea Pines founder Charles Fraser and the early development of Hilton Head Island.

They were mentioned Monday at “A Charles Fraser Forum,” a two-hour panel discussion that filled the Coligny Plaza theater.

Moderator Charlie Ryan, author of “My Life With Charles Fraser,” coaxed stories from “some of the people who achieved Fraser’s vision of making Hilton Head Island what it is today.”

Panelists were Gregg Russell, James N. “JR” Richardson Jr., Robert Graves, Ed Pinckney, Mark King, Edward G. “E.G.” Robinson III, Jane Furtado and Richard Woods.

▪  Not all of Fraser’s ideas were great. He once asked Mark King why sand traps on a golf course are filled with sand. He argued that the sand should be replaced with pine bark. That lovely idea never got off the tee box. But King mentioned this mulligan. He noted the day Fraser grilled him on how to book tee times from around the nation. It was a crazy idea at the time, but 20 years later it became common practice on the internet.

▪  Everybody on staff called Charles “Charles.” It reflects the heady, fun times of a team of people in their 20s and 30s creating communities out of whole tartan cloth. But there also was tension and stress, even to make payroll. And Fraser could rake staff members over the coals, and call them in at midnight, but he’d turn right around and show that he cared for them personally. “We grew up together,” one said. Many of them still live in the county.

▪  It was not all a careful plan. The coquina shell pathways at Harbour Town are considered a carefully planned detail that adds to the ambiance of Fraser’s signature development. But it wasn’t part of a great plan. Richardson said he had that feel in mind as he developed Windmill Harbour, and proudly showed the finished product to Fraser, complimenting him on the great idea of coquina shell pathways. That’s when Fraser told him he used them only because he ran out of money, and concrete would have been more expensive.

▪  No, all the off-island marketing was not targeted at Ohio. Teams of Sea Pines marketing and sales employees went to the Northern hometowns of Sea Pines residents for “winter tours,” or “off-island parties.” Jane Furtado, who was Jane Gage when she came to the island as a summer lifeguard at the William Hilton Inn and returned to work in marketing at Sea Pines, said they were invited to these cities by Sea Pines property owners, who would host their old neighbors at the club or a hotel. They were not to use hard-sell tactics, but they could drop in a few factoids, like the average temperature on Hilton Head in January. People like Jim Chaffin, Jim Light, Tommy Webster, Tommy Baysden, Val Hawkins, Bill Yergens, Sue Emanuelson, Bob Hodde, Jim Bradshaw, Susan Griffin Woods and Furtado would go on a 10-city tour, including Detroit, Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, Washington, Philadelphia — and yes, Cleveland and Cincinnati. The winter tours produced $10 million in sales, back when $10 million was real money.

▪  The yin and the yang. The earliest potential buyers of lots in Sea Pines had to come to terms with this whiplash described by JR Richardson. Envision Fraser’s office, set up near today’s Sea Pines Circle. It was a prefabricated building that Richardson called “the chicken coop.” Nearby, real estate prospects would find Fraser’s futuristic geodesic domes set up in the woods, where they could learn about the long history of Hilton Head Island. But just as their imagination began to flow, they would hear a horn blow. It was Fraser’s cutting-edge mobile phone. It was about the size of a suitcase. It was in the trunk of a 1952 Buick, which was up on blocks because it didn’t run anymore. When the phone rang, the horn would blow. Some of them bought into this life in the fast lane — and the rest is history.

David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale