Q: Can you tell us about the Seashore Farmers' Lodge and how it was a focal point for community life in Sol Legare?
A:The community of Sol Legare is very unique and has a very intriguing history. It is one of the last remaining of its kind in the south and the majority of the community are descendants of the original settlers.
During the Civil War, the 800 acre island housed many federal troops, including the 54th Massachusetts who would later make their mark on history in the famed yet fatal battle of Battery Wagner under the leadership of General Robert Gould Shaw. This regiment would pave the way for African Americans as the first military group to fight – July 1863. The community of Sol Legare was also the host to many battles during the war including the Battle of Sol Legare.
Seashore Farmers' Lodge: Before Restoration
Flash forward 30 years – the area was settled by the now Freedmen and they made a life for themselves by truck farming. The plats of land were narrow and long – the house was in the front and the crops in the back. The families of Sol Legare would continue to make their living by utilizing the sea and land around them. It was a completely self-sufficient farming community at the turn of the Century.
The Seashore Farmers' Lodge was significant because it was the heartbeat of the community – erected in 1915 through the sweat equity of its members; the brotherhood supported its own in times of need. If one member grew ill, the other members would come together to care for their family, carry their crops to market and in the worst of scenarios, handle the burial and funeral arrangements. Each member held a $500 insurance policy as one of the perks of membership.
The Lodge was one of three in the area – but it was the "master," the example others followed. In a time when not much else was certain, the support of the Seashore Farmers' Lodge was the backbone of this small farming community. The structure served as church, funeral home, school, insurance – it was the strength.
However, as time moved on and many generations of African Americans migrated north and/or farming was not such a way of life, weather and time took its toll on this sacred structure, and it slowly fell into disrepair.
Q: You recently restored the lodge after a long and very successful community effort. How did the restoration project come about?
A:In 1998, the Lodge members – Ed Wilder, Art Wilder and Bill Cubby Wilder (a 4th generation descendant) began focusing on ways to save the structure, which was a small tropical storm away from demise. Fundraisers were held, but the structure was in pretty bad shape and estimates were astronomical.
Flash forward to 2006 – I met Cubby while working with Trademark Properties who at the time had a hit reality TV show, Flip This House. The Seashore Farmers' Lodge was the actual beginning building in the intro of the TV show. The after was a figment – so it only seemed appropriate for it to be one of our projects. Along with Vance Sudano, Richard Davis, owner of Trademark Properties, appointed me to work with Cubby and the community to oversee the restoration of this sacred structure. Cubby is a pretty inspirational person – his past is pretty important to him and he loves his community and the history it holds.
In 2006, Vance and Cubby and I got inside the building and shored it up by using 2 x 4s and creating a wedge that literally pushed the building out as gravity was pushing it inward. Later, our contractor Mike Riffert said had we not done this, it never would have been possible to save it.
At this point, I found Karen Nickless through Joe McGill – she was with the Edisto Historical Society at the time – but was a grant writer. I met with her and immediately hired her (Richard and Trademark footed the bill here) to write our nomination for the National Register of Historic Places. She came out and interviewed Cubby and his mom and wrote a very successful nomination. One year later – 2007, we were listed on the National Register. We still work with Karen now – she has been a huge support for us.
However, due to unforeseen circumstances, the project was drawn out and almost didn't even get filmed at all but was put on hold in 2006.
Video: Restoration of the Seashore Farmers' Lodge. Be sure your speakers are on!
Yet, Cubby forged onward. James Island formed its new township, attempting to incorporate as a town the first time and Cubby was successful in obtaining a $50,000 history grant which would later be the launch pad for the matching funds. He and Mary Clark were INSTRUMENTAL in the birth and infancy of this project – without that initial $50,000 the rest was a dream.
In 2008, all of the stars aligned when Ernest Parks (a 5th generation descendant) moved back to town from Atlanta. He was not only the perfect candidate to oversee the project but also an historian with an avid interest in preserving and presenting the history of his community for others. He and Cubby had reassembled a team of volunteers to move forward but everything seemed near impossible.
The day after Christmas, I got a call from Richard that the TV show started up again and Sol Legare would be our first project — again I was to be in charge of PR, marketing and fundraising and Vance (Sudano) would oversee project management.
After many crazy bids – some in excess of $400,000 – committee member Chris Wilkerson brought a guest to one of the meetings – Mike Riffert, owner of Construction Consultants, LLC and a Folly Beach resident. He would end up being the backbone of the project and completing the majority of the restoration in 36 days – only charging his cost and not making a penny otherwise. After that initial 36 days, we ran out of money and had to forge on piece by piece.
On Feb 16, 2009, we began filming the restoration of the Seashore Farmers' Lodge at Sol Legare for an episode of the Real Estate Pros. The good part about this, was the cameras caught the entire major parts of construction in perpetuity. But honestly, otherwise, we raised all of the money on our own – the exposure the TV show offered was priceless but all of the funds were raised through fundraisers, grants, private donations, the town of course, and us – the volunteers who worked for FREE for the past 5 years.
And seriously, the rest is history. This project is a result of several like-minded people with a goal in mind who work well together. We officially opened the doors on April 16, 2011 – the Sesquicentennial of the commencement of the Civil War.
Q: You have won awards for your preservation efforts. What were your reactions when you learned of the awards?
A:2011 was a great year for us and brought us many great accolades for our hard work – it was really nice to be progressively acknowledged for our work – the icing on the cake if you will.
The first award was from The SC African American Heritage Commission. They have been great supporters of us since day 1, especially Joe McGill – I bet he didn't know what he was getting himself into when I met him in the summer of 2006. This award was the Preserving our Places in History award. We won it and our committee got honorable mention for people making a difference.
The next award was an Honor Award from the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation – a statewide award, too.
The last was the pinnacle of them all – an honor award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation – one of fourteen chosen nationwide – and we were among groups like the Boston Orchestra – I mean REALLY!????
Left to Right: Ernest Parks, Vance Sudano, Corie Hipp, Mike Riffert and Paul Hedden with Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation
My immediate reaction for each award was legitimate shock. I was the one who applied us for these awards – chalking it up to nothing left to lose but wasting my own personal time. When I got the call from SC African American Heritage I screamed, called Ernest, he thanked God, prayed, I cried, we laughed – we called the others – hysterically. This was the same reaction for the Palmetto Trust.
When I got that email that we won the National Trust award, I almost hyperventilated. I called Ernest, he was speechless at first and then he thanked God, prayed. I kept crying, we laughed, and called the others to tell them Sol Legare would be going to NY but only for a visit to bring home the coveted honor award for our hard work and approach towards restoration, education and history.
We were one of over 200 applicants nationwide. I still can't believe they picked us. The whole story is an inspirational outcome of what can happen when a team of people work hard towards a goal. Our group picture at the NTHP award had a rep from each of the previous awards accepting it with us.
Q: What is next for the Seashore Farmers' Lodge?
A:An interactive museum that explores the contributions of Coastal African Americans at the turn of the Century and to the present. Through living history and interactive skits, we will tell a story many wouldn't otherwise experience – we are preserving the past to educate the future.
Video: Real Estate Pros: Restoration of Seashore Farmers' Lodge
Watch the restoration unfold from start to finish in these inspiring videos, filmed for Trademark Properties' television show Real Estate Pros: