David Lauderdale

Lowcountry lady fights for vanishing way of life

Mary O. Merrick managed to sit still for her 90th birthday party Saturday, but her activism over the years to protect the Lowcountry also deserves a six-layer chocolate cake with raspberry filling, garnished with white chocolate.

They call her "Mary O." to distinguish her from all the other Marys in a family that has lived in Pinckney Colony near Bluffton since her great-grandfather bought Calhoun Plantation in 1847.

Mary O. taught school in Bluffton for 30 years. Jean Tanner, who sent me some pictures from the party, said she learned algebra, geometry, biology, chemistry and even English from Mary O. Her son, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner, is among many second-generation students of the woman who left the farm, graduated from Florida State University at age 19, worked as a chemist at Union Camp in Savannah, then raised five children, one named Mary, back on the farm.

Mary O. struggles to find words to describe her attachment to the 150-acre slice of Lowcountry that she ended up with along the Colleton River.

"It's just attachment and love, I guess," she said. "It's part of us."

In the late 1960s, when she got word that a large chemical plant was going to be built near her on the Colleton River, Mary O. transformed into an activist. Not many people at that time knew the value of a clean environment. Mary O. did, and she joined a few hundred locals, mostly from Hilton Head Island, in a bitter fight that kept a BASF plant from ruining the rivers and Port Royal Sound.

Then, she helped fight off a Chicago Bridge and Iron plant proposed for the same site, and then a boat-building plant. More recently, when she stood at the end of a long public hearing on a developer's plan to litter the tip of Pinckney Colony with docks, the crowd applauded her before she said a word. Then she said to more applause: "I've lived in Pinckney Colony on the Colleton River for 86 years, and I plan to live here and fight this development to my dying days."

Mary O. put her money where her mouth is in 2004. She put her land in a conservation easement, selling development rights for a fraction of the property's appraised value. Her five children have large plots that can never be developed. It thrills her to see her three daughters working the land on their organic Three Sisters Farm.

She says "it wasn't our privilege" to sell it for development ... for big money.

"I live on the Colleton River, and my ancestors, cousins, children and grandchildren have all enjoyed and loved its rich resources," she said. "We hope that we may be able to keep our treasure for generations to come, so that they, too, may love and enjoy this vanishing way of life."

It will be their privilege to love it, if they, too, are willing to fight for it.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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