My name is Kimberly Boswell, and I’m currently a Francis Marion University research assistant at Hobcaw Barony, the 16,500 acre plantation in Georgetown, SC, saved by Belle W. Baruch for research and education. I fell in love with Hobcaw Barony on my first tour of the property, led by Senior Interpreter Lee Brockington. At that time, I never imagined that just a few months later I would be working alongside my professor, Dr. Lynn Hanson, handling checkbooks and folders full of records straight out of Belle Baruch’s damp and musty basement. As a Professional Writing student and Senior at Francis Marion University, I thought that my field of study would eventually lead me to work in a quiet office writing reports and memos, as my major classes have always been full of that type of work. However, when I arrived at Hobcaw as a Professional Writing intern, I found much greater adventures outside the office.
I spent my first day as an intern outside Belle Baruch’s house at Hobcaw in a thin, white hazmat suit, cleaning mold off of checks from the late 1950s. It might not sound like the ideal first day to most people, but I enjoyed every minute of it. Once the checks, receipts, checkbooks and other documents are clean and safe to handle with bare hands, Dr. Hanson and I record the information in an Excel database. Every scrap of paper has a row in the spreadsheet documenting every bit of information on it and even the information we can hypothesize from what we have learned from other documents.
I’ve heard that guests at Hobcaw often compare the best moments of their tours to scenes from the show Downton Abbey. That’s exactly how it feels every day to be exploring the history of a wealthy and influential woman like Belle Baruch. Women may have had less rights and respect in her time, but she never let those restrictions stop her influence. She made donations to organizations, such as Planned Parenthood and Seeing Eye, Inc., that empower those who are overlooked and undervalued by society. She also generously gave to her friends and employees. By looking through her checkbooks, Dr. Hanson and I have seen large checks given as Christmas gifts to many of her employees. She paid medical bills for her friends, and was a loyal customer to many businesses in both Georgetown and New York.
While Dr. Hanson and I are at Hobcaw, our goal is to uncover as much information as possible about Belle Baruch’s life, both from the catalogues of documents she left behind at Bellefield and from the memories of her employees and friends. Recently, Dr. Hanson interviewed the man who served as Belle’s attorney during the last few years of her life. We learned about Belle’s reasons for creating the Belle W. Baruch Foundation and leaving her home to South Carolina’s universities for research. Her love for the land and the connection she felt to Georgetown’s beautiful marshes influenced part of her decision, but she also wanted to ensure that her partner Ella Severin would be able to live comfortably at Hobcaw for the rest of her life.
As a Professional Writing student, my goal is to interpret complicated information and display it in an understandable medium. In the past few months, Dr. Hanson has been crafting a timeline of events at Hobcaw Barony, focusing on Belle’s lifetime and relationships with family, friends, and employees. When we have recorded enough information from Belle’s letters, checks, and checkbooks, we will be able to compile all of the information and tell a fuller story of Belle’s life. Even in the past few weeks, we have been speculating about who she stayed in contact with during her last few years of life, why she regularly wrote checks for hundreds of dollars each month, and how her relationships formed and ended. We will be able to tell about Belle’s typical day in New York, shopping at stores like Sophie Serlin, Abercrombie, and Bloomingdale’s, buying groceries at Busy Bee Grocery, and picking up bouquets of flowers from Rhinelander Florist. The stories that come from looking through her checkbooks are endless.
Recently, Dr. Hanson and I have been sorting and sampling the information we’ve recorded in the Excel database from all the checks, receipts, check stubs, and handwritten notes in Belle’s records of the late 1950s. We’ve noticed several patterns that may lead to a new understanding of Belle’s relationships and how she liked to spend her time. We have also been cataloguing some of Belle’s letters, both business and personal. Those have by far been the most interesting finds; we get a sense of how Belle interacted with employees, relatives and friends. She was definitely loved by many for her generosity and kindness.
In the next couple weeks, as my summer comes to an end, Dr. Hanson and I will continue recording information from business and financial documents from Belle’s records. Because Mr. Bernard Baruch, Belle’s father, was a talented Wall Street financier who once made over a million dollars in stock profit in just one day of sales, I expect to see similar patterns of smart investments in Belle’s stock statements.
Although this project will likely go on for years, Dr. Hanson and I have already seen hundreds of stories come to life through our documentation research. I can only imagine what the full story will look like when every document has been read, every interview conducted, and every avenue of research followed. It truly is a project of enormous scope, and I look forward to watching it continue to grow each day.