David Lauderdale

On Daufuskie, being bull-headed is a good thing

They call him the bull whisperer.

Clarence Simmons tamed a baby bull that spent days running from everyone else on Daufuskie Island.

Why the frisky black cow was mesmerized when Simmons spoke to it, we don't know. But we do know this. That bull understands Gullah.

Simmons is one of the few blacks left on Daufuskie. He's one of fewer still who keep up the old ways that once meant survival for the Gullah natives of a sea island with no bridge.

When Simmons was young, every home on Daufuskie had a bull. The bull, or a castrated bull they called an ox cow, was used as a family sedan, truck and tractor. It was sometimes the country version of Walt Disney World when kids raced them on the beach.

And it was a Lowcountry rite of passage when boys about 12 got a bull to tame. Cows were needed to pull carts, wagons and plows.

Wise Gullah parents knew they were needed for something else.

"Training a cow is how they trained me," Simmons said.

"I had a job to do and the cow had a job to do."

Simmons had to get firewood from the woods and bring it home. Or five gallons of water from the hand pump.

"I got me a cow to pull a wagon," he said. "I got a little cart."

Today, the 51-year-old contract worker lives in a family compound with his mother, Janie, and his own two bulls, five pigs, four goats, some chickens and a peacock. He can fix cars and houses.

And he's a bull whisperer.

BULL RIDERS

Wick Scurry, who operates several businesses on Daufuskie and a ferry and barge service to Hilton Head, brought the bull and a heifer to Daufuskie several weeks ago.

He says this all started with a recent conversation with Sherman Washington. Washington is now a deacon in Savannah, but he grew up on Daufuskie, a son of Flossie Washington and the late Jake Washington, a character known as the "mayor of Daufuskie."

"When I came to Daufuskie in the 1970s, I used to see kids riding bulls," Scurry said. "Sherman and I were talking about it, and Sherman said he could still do it. I was saying stuff like, 'No, you're too fat. You'd kill yourself,' and he said 'no.' So I said, 'OK, I'll get one.' "

And he did. Scurry brought a bull and heifer from Greenwood, where he was raised. He put them in a fenced area near the Freeport Marina he operates. The next morning they were gone.

For days, people saw the loose cows all over the island, sometimes giving chase in a golf cart.

Then Simmons said, "I'll get him."

He spoke quietly to the bull, walked up to it, established a trust, and put a rope around its neck.

To everyone's amazement, Simmons got the bull loaded onto a pickup and returned it to the pasture overlooking the Cooper River, a small patch it shares with pecan trees, palmettos, a blue-hulled sailboat and the wheelhouse from Scurry's first ferry.

"They say it can't happen," Simmons said. "I say it could be."

He said the bull already knows its name: Sherman.

"A couple more weeks, I'll have it pulling a wagon," he said last week.

DUMBO

Patience, Simmons says, is the key.

You don't shout at a bull, or wave your hands and chase it. You keep it calm, he said, just like he and his brother, Ervin, tried to do when they were kids. They once brought a baby bull across Calibogue Sound to Daufuskie from Hilton Head Island. They roped it into in a 14-foot bateau. The two kids, a bull and a bateau flipped once during the voyage.

"When we got it here, we named it Dumbo because it (was) so dumb to get in that boat," Simmons said.

Scurry may use the new bull to pull a wagon for tourists, or friends. Sherman Washington's white-haired mother, Flossie Washington, told Scurry not to dare bring that bull near her house.

"Clarence just walked up to that bull," Scurry said. "It was amazing. It's a tiny slice of what is left of a beautiful culture and way of life. When it's gone, it's gone and it will never come back. People have Gullah festivals and all that stuff, but it's not the same.

"It's a very, very sad, melancholy feeling I get when I think of it, really."

While Daufuskie's new bull may understand Gullah, that understanding is fading to a whisper everywhere else.

  Comments