By Carol Antman for Island Eye News
What does a sixteen year old do when he inherits $330 million dollars? Slide into a life of luxury? Ruin it through self-indulgence? Not Tom Yawkey. In 1919 he suddenly became heir to a fortune in mining, timber, tin and oil and the owner of South Island Plantation near Georgetown, S.C.
The Native Americans, who’d given their names of Pee Dee, Santees, Sampits, See Wees, Waccamaws and Winyahs to the nearby waterways, were displaced by the Spanish who came in the 1700’s looking for gold and slaves. Then the English, Scots and French started the indigo trade there followed by the next great industry: wealthy Northerners. William Yawkey bought it as a hunting preserve. When he died at 43, Tom said of his inherited plantation “I hope I’ll be able to do some good with it; I hope I’ll be as good a man as my dad.”
Tom Yawkey is as captivating as the land he preserved. He was a rich man who chose to live without grandeur. Unlike aristocrats living majestically nearby, he replaced his modest, burned down house in 1955 with a trailer and lived there until he died in 1976. During his months up North he stayed in a hotel.
He kept to himself. Unlike his father who had invited President Grover Cleveland to come and hunt, Tom scorned visitors. He didn’t socialize with Bernard Baruch or other wealthy neighbors, preferring to spend time with the people who worked for him. He had a tremendous work ethic.
Days were spent beside his employees on land management, surveying and production. Three generations later, some of those same families continue to follow his example of being dedicated stewards of the land.
He was insatiably curious and inventive. Through diversion of the Santee River, fresh water ponds were created; he grew shrimp, became a self-taught ornithologist and developed waterfowl management.
He supervised staff and wildlife biologists and provided funding that will perpetually support their research. Our guide Jim Lee spoke with reverence of Yawkey’s vision, “As the sea levels rise, these managed wetlands will become more and more important.”
He was exceedingly generous but shunned acclaim. Hospitals and scholarships benefitted from his largesse, often anonymously. He built St. James AME Church for the islanders in 1928 where “if the spirit didn’t move you, you were already dead.” Today the 80 island residents continue to praise, stomp and clap in it.
His one extravagance was baseball. Like his father who had owned the Detroit Tigers, Yawkey bought the Red Sox when he was 30 years old. They’d just completed what is still a record for the franchise’s worst season ever—an 111-game losing streak—but he optimistically set his sights on winning the World Series. He poured millions into talent, coaching and the renovation of Fenway Park and brought the team down for drinking, hunting and a little spring training.
Photos of Ty Cobb and Ted Williams hang in the hunt club today. Although he saw the Red Sox win the American League pennant four times, he was still hoping for a World Series win on his death bed when he pressed his wife for two last wishes: lead the team to victory and finish acquiring the remaining parcels that now comprise the Yawkey Wildlife Center. She bought the land but died herself before the Red Sox won the championship in 2004. He gave people something to talk about.
When community leaders warned that the town’s daughters wouldn’t be safe from the sailors returning to port in Charleston, he invited the madam Hazel Weiss to open the infamous Sunset Lodge. From 1936-66, it was the most visited attraction in South Carolina second to Fort Sumter and a boon to the local economy. Some called him a racist.
Jackie Robinson said he was “one of the most bigoted men in baseball” because of his treatment of African Americans players. Our guide called him “a misunderstood and private person.”
The legacy of this independent, curious, hard-working, generous and complex man is the Yawkey Wildlife Center. The three islands sit like a string of pearls at the mouth of Winyah Bay in Georgetown County. Yawkey deeded it to the Department of Natural Resources for the purposes of wildlife management, education and research. Not recreation. No timbering. The only way to visit is by taking a free tour with DNR on selected dates from Sept. to May by reservation.
After a very short boat ride across the Intracoastal Waterway, time slows down. There are pine trees over 100 years old; some are still leaning from Hurricane Hugo; a huge insect population that “reaches a crescendo in June,” ancient Indian shell mounds and cemeteries hidden in the foliage. It’s a wild, minimally managed place and a magnificent gift to South Carolina from an extraordinary man.