David Lauderdale

The last bateau on Hilton Head whispers the 2 secrets to life in the SC Lowcountry

Hilton Head’s beauty is preserved, but what about the island’s slave and Gullah history?

Louise Miler Cohen, curator of the Gullah Museum on Hilton Head Island, says history of Mitchelville and other sites on Hilton Head must tell the story of slaves and their freedom for future generations.
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Louise Miler Cohen, curator of the Gullah Museum on Hilton Head Island, says history of Mitchelville and other sites on Hilton Head must tell the story of slaves and their freedom for future generations.

It’s just a collection of pine boards and plywood.

But Frank Kidd Sr.’s new bateau is so much more.

The flat-bottomed skiff he built for display in the yard of the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island may be the last bateau.

People don’t make them anymore because people haven’t used them much since the Fiberglas Carolina Skiff boats came to town in the 1990s, the new vessel of choice for oyster pickers on Hilton Head and St. Helena Island, and in Bluffton.

The bateau, however, is Lowcountry to the bone.

It’s glued like pluff mud to the soul of a people who used it for transportation, for a livelihood, and even recreation in a harsh place.

The bateau is a cousin of the dugouts used here by Native Americans who left us with their mysterious shell rings as a 4,000-year-old wink to our elixir of salt and sweet in a single muddy slurp.

The bateau was even used to escape from slavery. Museum founder Louise Miller Cohen is fond of telling of her great-great-grandmother, Mariah Miller, stealing away to Hilton Head from Rose Hill Plantation on the mainland.

It tells about blacks, and whites, and the child labor of Polish immigrants who turned the oyster into an industry that was the most valuable South Carolina fishery from the late 1880s to just after World War II.

“The land and the creek,” Cohen says. “That’s all they had.”

On one leg

Frank Kidd Sr. was born in 1940 on Pinckney Island.

He said he was raised by his grandfather in Bluffton, legendary waterman Andrew Kidd Sr.

“He WAS the river,” Kidd said.

He taught young Frank how to build a bateau, how to read the moon, the wind and the river, and what each season would bring.

“It’s just like he had a map of it in his head,” Kidd said.

His first job was rolling oyster shells out of a shucking factory at Sawmill Creek after women hammered out the plump meat and shoved the sharp shells to the concrete floor.

As a young man he picked oysters, filling and refilling a bateau to where maybe an inch of siding showed above the river waves — getting 30 cents a bushel from L.P. Magionni and Co.

He harvested crab from a trot line sweetened with fingerling strips of bull nose. Or he’d pull crab potts, 125 of them a day, by hand, from 10- to 30-feet below. He’d sometimes sell the crabs straight from his bateau to a boat operated by the big Blue Channel canning operation in Port Royal, getting cash right there in the bobbing channel.

Like so many others, Kidd would leave the Lowcountry for the promise of opportunity up North. He was working at a New Jersey fertilizer plant when his lost a leg in a screw conveyor.

And all these years, after coming home with his wife, Margie, and raising four college-educated girls, including one who served her country in Operation Desert Storm, Frank Kidd Sr. has been working the Lowcountry waters with one leg amputated below the knee.

He’s worked on 30 shrimp boats, and owned three.

And he’s still picking oysters part-time for Larry and Tina Toomer at the Bluffton Oyster Co.

“I just like being on the water,” he said. “It’s peaceful. It’s quiet. You do the same thing tomorrow, what you did yesterday. All you got to do is work.”

Lowcountry legends

Capt. Woody Collins has plied the local waters since his childhood in Beaufort.

He said the bateau was as common as a loaf of bread when he was growing up, and built by whites and blacks alike.

He and Larry Toomer tell stories of the legendary waterman in their bateaux, rowing or sculling a 20-foot skiff into the wind and against the tide before there were 25-horsepower Evinrudes.

“It’s a wonderful history,” Collins said.

He said the late Thomas Cohen of Hilton Head “took a full-sized oyster bateau AND a 16-by-16-foot barge with him picking the ‘steam’ oysters. He tied the barge around his waist while he was picking and pulled the bateau.”

Larry Toomer said, “And then they’d have to shovel the oysters 8-feet over their head when they got back to the dock.”

“Thomas ‘Cosby’ Holmes of Hilton Head used to pick enough oysters to keep five women busy shucking,” Collins said.

“I heard of some of the OLD pickers talk of the old, old guys that they considered legends. They had been long gone. I don’t know any of their names.”

But now a bateau silently tells their story, resting on a pile of oyster shells at the Gullah Museum on Gum Tree Road. And Kidd made another recently for the Mitchelville Preservation Project on Hilton Head.

He said his mentor, Andrew Kidd Sr., used to say, “To know where you’re going, you got to know where you came from to get to where you want to go.”

Frank Kidd Sr. said the last bateau can still whisper two secrets of the Lowcountry’s people.

“People need to know they worked hard,” Kidd said.

“And they made do.”