When Alfred Lee Loomis gave each of his three sons $1 million, the baby was only 14.
When the stock market crashed and people were jumping from buildings on Wall Street, he and his brother-in-law Landon K. Thorne had cash to buy most of Hilton Head Island.
When America’s military hierarchy said radar was a tool for a future war, the reclusive gentleman scientist saw to it that it was availalble to help Allies win World War II.
This life few have ever heard of will be revealed at 9 p.m. this Tuesday on the PBS show, “American Experience.”
The hourlong documentary by filmmaker Rob Rapley is called “The Secret of Tuxedo Park: How a reclusive millionaire changed the course of WWII.”
Surely it will tell how he and Thorne devised holding companies to finance and plan the electric utilities that lit up America after World War I. And how Loomis’ Ivy League education, law degree and scientific mind, matched Thorne’s outgoing personality, to beat the street.
They bankrolled an America’s Cup entry, bought mansions and fine art.
And they walked away from Wall Street in their prime — flush with enough cash to buy most of Hilton Head in 1931 — after foreseeing the crash.
It will tell how Loomis hid an extensive private laboratory in a home in exclusive Tuxedo Park near New York City, and bankrolled the greatest scientists and laboratories that made America great. His influence courses through world history, yet he rarely said a word publicly after divorcing his wife and on the same day marrying another woman, which didn’t sit well with high society of the day.
What the documentary might not tell much about is what Loomis and Thorne meant to Hilton Head, where they owned virtually everything from South Beach to Jarvis Creek.
$6 an acre
They paid $6 per acre for a large tract pieced together by New England shipping magnate W.P. Clyde and then wealthy New Yorker Roy Rainey. They bought more and more land as it became available, the last large piece being the 803-acre Fort Walker site from the federal government for $12,600, according to the book, “Tuxedo Park” by Jennet Conant.
After 20 years of wintering on the island, they sold to the Georgia timbermen who would develop Hilton Head. In 1950 and 1951, they sold it all in two transactions for $1,080,000, according to the book, “Profits and Politics in Paradise” by Michael N. Danielson.
That shaped the island we know today because the onslaught of development began with large tracts — where grand ideas and tight control could take place under the guidance of a few men known as “benevolent dictators,” Fred C. Hack, Olin T. McIntosh and Charles E. Fraser.
By-and-large, Hilton Head would not be developed piecemeal, even though there were few land-use controls and no zoning.
Heck, there were no streets, electricity or doctors when it all started — and that’s the way the private Alfred Loomis and his family and friends liked it.
Hilton Head as science
Honey Horn, now publicly-owned and home to the Coastal Discovery Museum, was headquarters for Loomis and Thorne.
They turned Honey Horn into a working farm, with the island’s first tractor.
But the island was primarily a haven for hunting and lavish entertainment, including at one time the king of Sweden.
Their hunting parties would be served lunch in the field on silver and china.
Loomis would entertain children with his endless magic tricks. He would beat several people at a time in chess, with his back to the boards and seemingly not paying attention.
“Loomis dedicated himself to making a scientific survey of the island,” Conant writes, digging for Native American relics and recording full accounts of wildlife.
“The covies of quail found in 1936 were 293 — about 1,000 quail are killed during a season, the limit per gun a day being 10,” he wrote. “The duck shooting is extraordinarily fine, and no less than 19 varieties have been seen on the island.”
He then lists them all.
They collected rattlesnakes to use the venom for science, or to send them to zoos.
And they mapped the island. They went to great lengths to research each parcel, not only obtaining clear title but tracing ownership, and thereby documenting a history of Hilton Head.
It’s a history with a secret chapter about a Wall Street tycoon who changed the course of world history.