David Lauderdale

‘I’m a wheeler-dealer’: Colorful Lowcountry character Henry Ingram dies in NC

Henry Ingram and a granddaughter standing in his “bird feeder” in a patio behind his home on Club Course Drive in Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island in 1990.
Henry Ingram and a granddaughter standing in his “bird feeder” in a patio behind his home on Club Course Drive in Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island in 1990. Staff file photo

The South Carolina Lowcountry has lost one of its most colorful characters.

Henry Edward “Ironhead” Ingram Jr. lived like Br’er Rabbit, always getting thrown in the briar patch, and Br’er Fox, a business wheeler-dealer always trying to stay a step ahead of the man.

He railed against Yankees, spent time in jail, once ran for mayor of Hilton Head Island and battled Sea Pines in court over a boat in his yard. He put bird seed in it and said it wasn’t a boat, it was a bird feeder.

Ingram, who had been living in south Texas for about the past 20 years, died June 24 at age 80 in North Carolina, where he had been treated for cancer since last October.

He lived in Savannah as a small child, but was reared in Ridgeland. He became a self-employed dealer in chinchillas, fireworks, coin-operated amusement games, entertainment and real estate. He was a video poker baron until the state outlawed it, with Ingram insisting the hypocrites in Columbia were switching to their own gambling with the S.C. Education Lottery.

Ingram had olive skin, slick black hair, a tightly trimmed mustache and wore Fedora hats. He had a ready smile, a great sense of humor, and he never shied away from attention.

“To him, it was all a game,” said a one-time business partner, Roy Prescott.

“He was always getting ahead, somehow,” said Ridgeland native Gene Baldwin.

At one time he owned Lemon Island, the Pineland Hunt Club in Jasper County, and Delta Plantation near Savannah.

He got the name “Ironhead” from football coach Harold Turpin with the Ridgeland High Tigers. They say it’s because his helmet popped off during a play, but he kept on going. Ingram’s obituary says that in two years at Clemson University he wore the Tiger mascot costume at athletic events.

Ingram married Zenie Malphrus Ingram of Ridgeland, and they had four children before divorcing. He later married Linda Howard McGeary of Sea Pines. Between them, they had seven children and 14 grandchildren.

In 1993, when he ran for mayor, Ingram said the island’s focus should be on young people.

“They’re worrying about someone cutting a tree down, not a kid ruining his life on drugs.”

The FBI sting

Ingram was convicted on federal charges of conspiracy and extortion along with former Jasper County Sheriff Clifford Brantley in 1984.

In that undercover FBI sting, a fake lounge for illegal gambling and liquor sales called Bernie’s Silver Fox Lounge was set up in the Levy area of Jasper County. Ingram had been showing the undercover agents property on Hilton Head for a club, including one spot he said could be a good chili bordello.

Ingram served 10 months of a four-year sentence. He maintained the investigation was a sham, the prosecution was flawed, and he was a victim of entrapment. The prosecutor later agreed.

“I’m a wheeler-dealer,” Ingram said in court. “I’m a hustler. I was trying to sell the man some property. It was none of my business what he was going to do with it. What’s wrong with that?”

His case was statewide news. When he ran for mayor, he said voters should not worry about it.

“There’s a lot of us convicted felons,” he said, “but there’s a whole lot of unconvicted felons out there.”

Hilton Head signs

Ingram’s battles against local sign laws were legendary.

He had a seafood restaurant on Marshland Road, well off the main highway. He wanted a directional sign at the corner of U.S. 278 and Mathews Drive but couldn’t do it legally. So he put a sign in the bed of an old pickup truck and said it was truck, not a sign.

He put signs in front yards on U.S. 278. When asked how he could get off-premise signs, he said they were on-premise signs. He said they were on the premises of his restaurant “warehouse,” where he said pots and pans were stored in a nearby pump house, about knee-high.

Hungry Henry’s

Hilton Head Islanders were all but having seizures when a new McDonald’s and Starvin’ Marvin’s convenience store opened next to each other a block from Sea Pines Circle.

Then Ingram rode that wave of publicity, leasing the former Circle Mobil gas station on the circle. He said he was going to open Hungry Henry’s, a convenience store and all-night restaurant offering rentals of mopeds and luxury cars. His card said: “Hungry Henry’s, Mercedes-Benz To Crab Bait.”

He had the island’s first skating rink, Skateland, on Palmetto Bay Road.

Sea Pines bird feeder

Ingram won his legal tussle against Sea Pines for having a boat in his yard, really, because he moved the boat to the back yard.

The case before the late Beaufort County Master in Equity Thomas Kemmerlin led to one of the great legal discussions of our time.

“They don’t have any covenants saying what a bird feeder is,” Ingram said. “I could fill it with water, and put goldfish in it, and it would be a goldfish pond. I don’t have no intention of moving it.”

In his ruling, Kemmerlin said, “I had at one time a boat in my front yard. I planted peonies in it. I thought they were right pretty.

“The neighbors made me move mine, and I’d make you move yours but you’ve already done that. I want to make it perfectly clear that in the enclosed patio, he can keep it there and he can use it any way he wants to. He can go to the bathroom in it if he wants to.”

Yankees

Ingram had a real thing about Yankees.

When he bought the 1,700-acre Delta Plantation in Jasper County near Savannah, he put covenants on the land that got the attention of the national press.

He said the land could never be owned by Yankees, and that owners could not have the last name Sherman, and the land could not be sold or leased to anyone whose last names could be rearranged to spell Sherman.

When he ran for mayor, he said he was going to put a tax on Yankees.

Asked what he’d do with the money, he said, “Send them to chahm schoooool.”

The Gold Club

Ingram brought the first topless night club to Hilton Head.

He bought a building on U.S. 278 where national acts where promised when it opened as Scandals in 1980. But that club didn’t last, and neither did two subsequent businesses offering family-oriented shows. Skipper Sam’s Music Hall lasted only two weeks in 1984.

Ingram turned it into Jason D’s, featuring entertainment by his friend Jason D. Williams, a raucous piano player in the vein of Jerry Lee Lewis whose high-energy act includes him standing on the piano, doing back flips off of it.

He could make a cadaver get up and march around the room, but that club didn’t last either. In August 1981, it became The Gold Club. The island was breathless on the night it opened, with the solicitor, sheriff and town manager having to go to see if was obscene.

The Gold Club didn’t last long either, and the site has been home to Central Church since 1992.

Victory House

Ingram did things that he thought were good for humanity.

He donated use of eight coin-operated game machines to the Youth Center, with all profits going to that Rotary Club-sponsored spot on Cordillo Parkway, forerunner to today’s Island Recreation Center.

He said that as mayor he would donate his entire mayoral salary — $18,000 over two years — to “eradicating teen-age drinking on this island.”

And he offered the use of a dilapidated building on Singleton Beach Road to a rehabilitation center for drug and alcohol abusers, called Victory House.

Burial

A graveside service for Ingram was scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, June 29, at the Ridgeland Cemetery.

In recent years, he posted things on Facebook under the heading: “I been thinking.”

His last post from mid-June, atop a photo of Robert E. Lee that said “No apologies,” he wrote: “GOD BLESS DIXIE.”

Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
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