David Lauderdale

Tales of our long-gone past 'shrouded in mystery'

Southern Beaufort County with its Great Swamp was once upon a time more like a rugged Cajun bayou than the haven for active retirees it is today.

The folklore of that swamp -- where "hoopsnakes" bit into their own tails and rolled around like wheels on a stock car -- now glides innocently into our air-conditioned palaces in a new book.

Hardeeville resident Earl S. Cooler Sr., who is pushing hard on 80, wrote "Tales of the Great Swamp: Shrouded in Mystery" to honor his great-great-grandfather. That was Andrew Ishmael Cooler, who was born in 1815 in northern Beaufort County but lived most of his 94 years in Okatie before being buried in the Maye River Baptist Church cemetery with most of his 15 children in attendance.

Earl Cooler himself has seen immense change since he was born at home into the hands of a midwife in the Red Dam community in 1931. He was in a class of 11 at Hardeeville High School before getting drafted, serving in Korea, then working 37 years with the railroad.

Cooler liked to sit by his grandmother, Ola Bradham Cooler, who lived to be two months shy of 101. She told him the old stories about when Red Dam was called Scuffletown, and the Great Swamp had a "suck hole" that would swallow you whole and spit your limp body out into the ocean.

Cooler was worried that we might lose those tales and a feel for the way it was. He says his book is half factual and half his imagination. He leaves it to the reader to surmise which is which.

Ishmael Cooler was real.

And even though there was really no such thing as a "hoopsnake," and the "suck hole" was probably a warning to keep kids from going too deep into the swamp, there's value in the old local stories that Earl Cooler will share at 1:30 p.m. Thursday at the Heritage Library on Hilton Head Island.

"I want the reader to understand what people had to do to survive back in the 1800s," Cooler said. "It was a hard life, particularly for this section. People farmed and hunted and sold hides and skins for cash. They didn't have much, but they really lived pretty good."

He describes an isolated community divided by swamps and rivers, with few roads and no bridges. Today, we beg the world to come see. But Cooler tells of a day when the only outsiders allowed might be a practical teacher or a wheezing evangelist.

"They were clannish," Cooler said. "They didn't have much contact with the outside world and didn't trust the outside world. If you got to snooping around, all of a sudden you'd vanish."

Maybe there really was a suck hole in the Great Swamp.

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