This column was first published May 7, 2006.
Like a lot of Southern stories, this one starts with a rattlesnake. It starts with the mesmerizing skin of a bulging snake hanging on an office wall in North Carolina. It ends with one of the most significant books yet written on the history of Beaufort County.
That snakeskin grabbed the curiosity of Richard Rankin, an educator, writer, historian, conservationist and historian from Gastonia, N.C.
The diamondback rattler, he was told, was killed on Hilton Head Island. He would come to find out it was a Hilton Head of old -- a place so different from today that a walk through its towering virgin forests dotted with compounds of odd-speaking natives was like stepping onto a different planet.
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From the encounter with the snakeskin, one question led to another, and one person led to another, until Rankin produced a marvelous book about an overlooked era of local history.
His book -- "A New South Hunt Club: An Illustrated History of the Hilton Head Agricultural Society, 1917-1967" -- tells about the island before the first "big cut," when timbering changed the course of history in 1950.
Rankin doesn't just spin yarns. He documents -- with footnotes, bibliography and photographs -- the story of a specific tract of land owned by the hunt club. The land was once owned by the Beaufort Gun Club and once eyed by the powers that be as a great place for an airport. Today it comprises Palmetto Dunes Resort and Shelter Cove Harbour.
The 126-page paperback book, published by John E. Blair Publisher of Winston-Salem, N.C., is important because it shows that Hilton Head did not begin with the first bridge, the first "plantation" or the first shopping center. It offers a rare look at the native islanders, and the first newcomers to acquire land after the Civil War.
'REGALLY THEY SMOKED'
Ironically, Rankin's book could not have been written from here. As a native of Gastonia, Rankin was vaguely familiar with the hunt club. It was always based in Gastonia but also included members in equal numbers from two other communities: Chattanooga, Tenn., and the small South Carolina town of Clover, near Gastonia.
It's there that he found club minutes, documents and memorabilia. As the club name suggests, the land initially was bought to produce cotton. But the boll weevil ended that in 1920, and it became a favorite hunting ground for a small group of shareholders.
Rankin calls it a New South hunt club because it reflected the fruits of the first bursts of capitalism in the South after the Civil War.
Club members included the movers and shakers in textiles and banking.
But it wasn't a fancy club. Quite the opposite. The hunters slept in a large room called "the bull pen" in a clubhouse with peeling paint. Some of the older members slept next door in a house bought from a Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalogue. Framed over the clubhouse mantle was this line in fancy script: "Regally they smoked and spat and fearsomely they lied."
One character from Clover had a finicky gun named "Mable." One time on the way home, Mable was tossed onto the road after a wreck, along with two crates of dogs, five gallons of oysters and two dressed pigs.
The Clover Herald reported that Mable was fine, but -- ever the lady -- was terribly embarrassed "to undergo the shame of rolling over highways with dogs, pigs and oysters."
Rankin found photographs of native islander Preacher Driessen, who rode a bull named Charlie YW and greeted everyone with the line, "Sweet honey in the rock," from Psalm 81.
'BEGINNING OF THE END'
We sense the powerful draw of a magical place none of us will ever know. And we feel the remorse members felt as external change ended what Rankin calls "perhaps the greatest deer-hunting club in the 20th-century American South."
Member Bill Dixon Jr., then a teenager, expressed the uneasiness that came with the first paved road, built for World War II Marines who camped by the Leamington Lighthouse.
"I had a bad feeling every time I passed over that road -- there was something artificial about it, something that just didn't belong there," Dixon wrote. "It was more fun when we had to dodge low limbs and push the truck through mud holes. It marked the beginning of the end of the island paradise."
The club finally accepted the inevitable and sold its land in 1967. Each club member's initial investment had been $250. When it sold, each share was worth $50,000 cash or an equal amount of land. Most of them took the cash when 1,700 acres stretching from the Atlantic beach to the shores of Broad Creek sold for $2.2 million. A group of Greenwood businessmen and doctors bought it.
Members cherished their annual week in camp, a trek that could take two days. They landed in a peculiar place, far removed from the hustle of their competitive working worlds.
There were no telephones, but plenty of deer, boar, fish and rattlesnakes.