Read other sections: Part 1
On the surface, owners of the new estates and the people who visited them during their annual sojourns differed greatly from native South Carolinians. Most came from privileged backgrounds. Lineages reaching back to colonial New England proved common, and many belonged to families who had figured among America’s business and social elite for a generation or more. At least twenty held degrees from Ivy League schools, and a number had attended elite private academies as youths. Moreover, many had achieved success in business. Frederick Pratt, owner of the Cheeha-Combee Plantation, had been a partner in the Standard Oil Company; Robert R.M. Carpenter, owner of Lewisfield Plantation on the Cooper River, served as vice president of E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company. R.H. McCurdy, owner of Tomotley Plantation on the Pocotaglio River, headed the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York. C.W. Kress, owner of Buckfield Plantation in Hampton and Jasper Counties, had founded the Kress Chain of retail stores with his brother, Samuel H. Kress.
Estate owners who had not amassed capital through their own labor had generally inherited sizeable fortunes. Figures such as Robert Goelet, Gertrude Sanford Legendre, Archer M. Huntington, and Thomas Yawkey provide convenient examples. Goelet, who purchased Wedgefield Plantation on the Black River in 1935, descended from a family with extensive real estate interests in New York City. Legendre’s father, like his father and grandfather before him, headed a major carpet manufacturing firm. Huntington, the adopted son of railroad baron Collis P. Huntington, devoted himself to philanthropy, a popular choice among heirs who strived for virtue amid circumstances conducive to excess. Yawkey inherited the bulk of his father’s lumber empire and ownership of the Boston Red Sox. He passed the winter months at South Island, his estate below Georgetown, where he entertained members of the team and close friends.
With wealth came trappings characteristic of upper-class life. Estate owners held memberships in elite social clubs, owned multiple residences, and traveled widely. At least twelve owned or had familial ties to country estates on Long Island, a seasonal center of upper-class activity. Some owned shooting lodges in far-flung corners of the globe, and other traveled abroad regularly to hunt in exotic locales. Still, others mingled with European nobles on occasion. As a group, estate owners belonged to the class of monied “plutocrats” that Americans both revered and reviled. To be sure, not all possessed great fortunes. Some, such as John R. Todd, owner of Brewton Plantation in Beaufort County, and Silas Howland, owner of Poco Sabo Plantation, simply achieved success in white-collar professions. Todd headed an engineering and construction firm that handled contracts for commercial buildings in New York City. He and his associates managed construction of Rockefeller Center and participated in the rehabilitation of Colonial Williamsburg. Howland, an attorney, became a specialist in corporate financing and reorganization and a member of the Guggenheim Brothers mining firm. Yet even men in this category lived in a manner reminiscent of the wealthy. As historians such as Sven Beckert have shown, the class of salaried managers and professionals who worked for and on behalf of captains of finance and industry tended to gravitate to the same leisure pursuits as their social and economic superiors. In this regard, Todd, Howland, and others like them fit within established norms. By adopting the dress, behavior, and manners of the wealthy, they pursued a familiar method of social advancement.
Daniel Vivian is a historian of the American South. He earned his PhD at the Johns Hopkins University and has taught at the University of Louisville since 2010. He is currently revising his dissertation, “The Leisure Plantations of the Carolina Lowcountry, 1900-1940,” for publication. His writings have appeared in the New York Times, Winterthur Portfolio, Ohio Valley History, and the South Carolina Historical Magazine.