David Lauderdale

Past, present and future converge at Gardens Corner

Gardens Corner just keeps on turning.

For 300 years, it's been a major Lowcountry crossroad.

Now, our generation has put its $100 million stamp on the area where U.S. 17 intersects with U.S. 21 in northern Beaufort County.

Revolutionary war giants Francis "Swamp Fox" Marion and his dastardly British counterpart, Banastre Tarleton, kept an eye on the same corner.

George Washington breezed through in 1791 in a custom coach with his trusty greyhound, Cornwallis, running alongside.

The Sheldon church ruins nearby stand as witness to the lucrative traffic when rice was king in Prince William Parish.

When the Beaufort Garden Club formed in the 1930s, its first project was to plant palmetto trees and bulbs at Gardens Corner, the gateway to their lovely city by the bay. Benjamin Garden, who ran a trading post there in colonial times, would have been pleased. The sultry gardenia plant was named to honor his brother, botanist and doctor Alexander Garden.

Later, when America discovered the family sedan and Florida vacations, George and Elizabeth Elliott Ricker of Beaufort put out a welcome mat at their Gardens Corner Restaurant and Court. It was famous for its pecan and apple pies, shrimp creole, homemade pickles, Lobster Dainties, and the "best cup of coffee on the East Coast."

Their daughter, artist Nancy Ricker Rhett who's had a gallery on Bay Street for 30 years, remembers its sophisticated guests like environmentalist Rachel Carson, artist Dick Bishop, illustrator Boris Artzybasheff, and big-band musicians Louis Prima and Keely Smith. She remembers cars full of gypsies sometimes pulling in as a caravan, their exotic earrings and bright clothes a marvel to a little girl almost afraid to watch. She remembers seven of the Munchkin actors from "The Wizard of Oz" pulling up in a beautiful yellow Cadillac with the top down.

The business was a window on the world from 1947 to the early 1970s, succeeding with the help of neighborhood sisters Inelle Bryan, Gladys Aughtman and Ramona Hudson -- and Geneva Middleton, who ran the kitchen.

Rhett remembers her father planting some of the intersection's famous live oaks. Those are the only ones to survive the new construction.

"When I was 14, I had to water them all summer," Rhett said. "That's my only legacy left at Gardens Corner."


More recent history gave reason to celebrate Feb. 10 when the widening of almost 10 miles of U.S. 17 from two lanes to four lanes was dedicated -- with the new Harriet Tubman Bridge over the Combahee River, safety measures for residents of the Big Estate community, and the new Gardens Corner interchange with its overpass and traffic circle.

Brenda Meyers and members of the B.J. Scott Choir from the Huspah Baptist Church next door swayed in blue robes at the ribbon-cutting ceremony as the title of their last song said it all: "Grateful."

"It's been a very, very long time coming," she told me later. "I've had relatives lose their lives and be crippled on that road."

New construction can't bring back more than 35 people killed between Gardens Corner and Jacksonboro since 1997.

Emily Stewart spoke at the ceremony on behalf of Advocates for Change on Highway 17. It was formed by Brenda Ladson Powell when Lashawnda Fields of Big Estate was killed on the highway July 5, 2005, leaving behind a baby daughter. Dozens of people showed up at the Booker T. Washington Community Center to demand change.

"We met with the Coastal Conservation League to help preserve our community," Stewart told me. "We met with the Department of Transportation. They really listened to us and did a lot of what we asked."


Stewart grew up in Big Estate when Greyhound buses stopped for people waving handkerchiefs on the roadside, and when the Carolina Cider Co., whose pecan pie was listed last year in Southern Living magazine as the best in the South, was a country store run by Herman Peeples.

She hopes the new road can somehow pave the way for new businesses, like a replacement for the Piggly Wiggly that recently closed, and the mom-and-pop stores of her youth.

Maybe it can rejuvenate pride in a rural community that gave the world artist Jonathan Green. His bold strokes of bright colors opened many eyes to the beauty of the Gardens Corner community and the Gullah culture as a whole.

Who knows what the next chapters will be in this 300-year-old story for Beaufort County.

"Now it's done and it's beautiful," Stewart said. "I only hope that future generations appreciate it and keep it beautiful, and do what they have to do when new problems arise."