Preserving Edisto

by Gretchen Smith


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Edisto Island is famed for many things, including beaches that are perfect for shelling, creeks teeming with shrimp, crabs and fish, age-old oak trees draped with Spanish moss, and its laid-back way of life.  The charms of Edisto are immediately apparent once you cross the bridge onto the island, and they keep visitors coming back year after year.  Once discovered, Edisto does not let you go.  

Edisto has another asset that often surprises and fascinates our visitors, and that is our rich history, which is documented as far back as 1570, when a Spanish missionary arrived to convert the Edisto Indians.  In 1683, the Edisto sold the island to the English, and then moved off the island and resettled near Port Royal.  It was at this point that the first documented white settlers arrived on Edisto Island, and a new phase of its history began.  Paul Grimball built the first plantation on Edisto, which was Point of Pines, and portions of its tabby foundation can still be seen today. 

Edisto’s "Golden Age” of prosperity began in 1790 and lasted until 1861, with the plantation owners amassing huge fortunes.  The source of this wealth was the highly prized sea island cotton.  At the height of the Golden Age, there were 62 plantations on Edisto Island with a total of around 5,000 slaves.  In the years following the Civil War, most of these plantation houses disappeared either from fire or neglect.  However, while some of these beautiful homes still remain today, they are all private and are only open to the public once a year during the Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society’s tour of historic plantations, churches, and graveyards that is held on the second Saturday in October. 

Fortunately, for Edisto’s visitors, it is still possible to get a view of what this grand lifestyle was like during the years of prosperity created by the cultivation of cotton.  In 1986, a group came together to form the Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society to preserve and exhibit the history of the island and to create a museum. 

Those who came to this island left a part of themselves behind – pottery shards, sweetgrass baskets, and fine furnishings from the grand plantation homes, farm equipment, Civil War artifacts, and photographs –  all of these and more can be seen at the Edisto Island Museum.  When you walk through the doors of the museum, you can step back in time and see what this life was like.  There are also artifacts from later times as well reflecting the changes that took place in the lives of Edistonians as they returned to a completely different life after the Civil War. 

In addition to telling the story of Edisto’s wealthy plantation owners, you can also learn the stories of generations of African Americans who came to the island as slaves.  Many of them stayed on the island after the Civil War as freedmen and became an important part of the local culture and community.  The Gullah influence of the descendants of former slaves can still be seen today, and the museum includes numerous examples of their contributions to Edisto’s way of life. 

Many people think of museums as stuffy places and don’t see how they could possibly be of interest to "regular” folks.  But, if you come to the Edisto Island Museum you will probably leave with a different point of view.  In addition to a large number of interesting artifacts, we also have a wonderful collection of old photographs from a variety of Edisto’s plantations.  You can even learn where the phrase "sleep tight” comes from when you see our rope bed that belonged to U.S. Vice-President John C. Calhoun!  And, we have a nature room designed just for our younger visitors where they can see examples of animals native to Edisto and the Lowcountry, including snakes, birds, raccoons and bobcats. 

When you’ve finished touring the museum, be sure to leave time to visit their wonderful gift shop.  It offers a large variety of books on the history of this area as well as cookbooks, jewelry, gifts and educational toys.  

The Edisto Island Museum is located at 8123 Chisolm Plantation Road.  Hours of operation are 1:00 – 4:00 on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays (January/February) 12:00 to 5:00 on Tuesdays through Saturdays (March through October) 11:00 to 4:00 on Tuesdays through Saturdays (November/December).  Visit or call 869-1954 for further information on special events and exhibits and directions.