Are you the kind of person who can be driving down the road, see a sign with an unusual name and find yourself turning the steering wheel to check it out? Well, we are too. (Chari) I have pulled off to check names like Havre de Grace in MD just because it sounded so pretty or places like Bucksnort, TN because they made me laugh. So when I saw a sign on Rt. 17 just north of Georgetown for Hobcaw Barony and it made me say “Huh?”, I had to hang a left and find out what it was. We seem to be blessed with finding the most wonderful places. After you read this post, if you want to take the tour, make your reservations well in advance. They only do one tour a day at 9:30AM Tuesday-Friday with a limit of 13 people (that’s the capacity of their van). The 3 hour tour costs $20/person. We signed up on a Thursday for the following Wednesday and were numbers 11 and 12 for that tour. When we were waiting for our tour to begin I overheard the receptionist say all tours for the rest of the week were filled.
Imagine owning a property of 17,500 acres as a winter retreat? It was an area larger than Manhattan. That’s what Bernard Baruch did when he purchased eleven old rice plantations in 1905 and named his hunt club retreat Hobcaw after a Waccamaw indian word meaning land between the waters. The term barony comes from the land grant originally given by the King of England to one of his barons in 1718. Today it serves as a nature preserve, a university and NOAA research facility and a historical landmark. Thanks to Hobcaw and other privately and state or federally owned lands 66 contiguous miles of South Carolina coastline are protected from development.
Bernard Baruch was born in Camden, South Carolina and moved to NYC at age 11. What a change in lifestyle from a small town to one of the world’s largest cities. He must have been a genius. He entered City College of New York at 14 and graduated at 17. He took the NY Stock Exchange by storm and was a millionaire by the time he was 20. That was in the day when a million was a lot more than it is today. He was stock broker, financier and advisor to seven presidents. He had three children. His oldest daughter, Belle, was the most like him. Both were very tall (6’2″) and loved to be out of doors. Belle established herself as a fierce competitor in the world of sailing at a time when women “just didn’t do that sort of thing”. At 21 she inherited a million dollars. She went to France and became well known in the horse world for her trophy winning horse jumping. In 1956 Bernard Baruch sold Hobcaw to Belle for $5,000. She lived here until her death in 1964. Showing much foresight Belle Baruch set aside Hobcaw in her Will as a foundation for conservation, preservation and education. I had no luck finding a good photo of Belle Baruch.
Our tour began with a short movie about the Baruch family and Hobcaw. Then we boarded the Center’s bus. We were a varied group. Steve and I found ourselves talking most of the time with a couple from Quebec. Our first stop was at a preserved workers village called Friendfield. There are three villages on the property but this is the most complete. At one time there were 16 homes here. Now there are about 6. We were able to see the church and two homes on our tour. One home is essentially as it was when Friendfield was slave housing. When Bernard Baruch bought the land, rice planting was a failing enterprise. Although free men, most of the people who lived in the village were ‘transferred’ as part of the sale. They stayed on as employees to work the property. Besides providing improved housing the Barauchs paid for education and medical care for their employees. Our guide mentioned that one of the Hobcaw Barony volunteers had a personal history with Friendfield as his grandfather used to live in the home pictured below. It is a 3 mile walk from the village to the main Baruch home which was our next stop.
Our route took us over the original Kings Highway that ran from Georgetown north and was the Route 17 of it’s day. Looking at the narrow dirt road you could see how difficult transportation of goods would have been 250 years ago. There are 100 miles of roads on Hobcaw Barony and all are dirt roads. When the property was first bought there was a wood frame Victorian home here. It burned down in 1929. Bernard Baruch rebuilt his home from brick and concrete to be fire safe. Coming to Hobcaw had long been a very sought after invitation. During the 1930s and early 1940s two of its most famous visitors were here: Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. While on tour you can sit in the chair Winston Churchill used or use the same toilet as FDR. Other notable visitors were President Woodrow Wilson and General Pershing. The home is in the midst of a multi-year renovation. Although over 13,000 square feet, Hobcaw House has a comfortable and welcoming feel. There are several valuable works of art displayed. As with so many of the historical homes no photos are allowed inside. They had artwork stolen several years ago. Some has been recovered but other pieces are still missing. Each year Antiques Roadshow does a show about stolen antiques in an effort to alert the public to these items. This year the show airs on 2/25/13 and Hobcaw House will be one of the locations discussed.
When Belle Baruch returned to Hobcaw she built her own home and called it Bellfield. She chose a site overlooking a pond where she had played as a child. In her Will Belle gave her life partner a life estate at Bellefield. It was then used as offices.The home has been vacant for seven years and has not yet been renovated. It is not open to the public. The Center is hoping grant money can be found to restore the home. Belle Baruch was a “down to earth” person. Our guide told a story about a visit by FDR. They were having a meal on her patio. Belle began eating then noticed the President was not eating. She inquired “Don’t you like the food, Mr. President?” FDR replied “I’m sure I would if I had a fork.” Besides the home there is a large stable where she kept her horses and an airplane hanger. When she was no longer able to ride because of arthritis, Belle Baruch became a pilot. She was licensed to fly single engine planes and co-pilot twin engine planes. Not your typical heiress.
The last portion of the tour is showing the research facilities of Clemson, University of South Carolina and NOAA. For those of you not familiar with the universities, you should know they are arch rivals. Is that the reason the areas of emphasis are kept separate? Clemson concentrates on the upland forest area while USC concentrates on the salt marsh region. Our guide went into detail about current research into water quality and timber growth. Wildlife conservation and management is another focus of Hobcaw Barony. While we didn’t see any on our tour there are great photos and exhibits at the Visitor Center. One project is control of feral boar. It is estimated that the property has a population of 1500-2000 boars. Since they reproduce quickly, boar traps are frequently seen along the road. An annual target of boars to be captured is 600. Another avenue for education at Hobcaw are the many special programs and activities the center offers. Be sure to pick up a flyer or check online. This is not a place to visit only once.