As for owners’ relations with lowcountry whites, the general pattern that developed hinged upon tenuous acceptance, social distance, and bouts of occasional cooperation. By and large, estate owners kept to themselves. Although a few made inroads in lowcountry circles, most did not, preferring instead to limit their activities to hosting friends and family at their estates. A few supported local institutions – the Charleston Board of Trade, for example – but mostly out of courtesy rather than serious commitment. None became heavily involved. The News and Courier occasionally published estate owners’ views on political issues, but it featured their opinions mainly for the sake of curiosity. Owners remained something of a novelty throughout the era. Newspapers called attention to their views to stimulate interest in them more than to influence policy.
For middle- and working-class whites, northerners’ estates amounted to a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they provided employment. They created an entirely new job title – plantation superintendent – and put men to work managing large domains for recreational purposes and supporting sporting pursuits during the annual season. Some superintendents came from the ranks of the old planter class, while others had training in scientific agriculture and forest management. During the 1920s and 1930s, perhaps as many as three dozen men worked in this capacity. In addition, construction of northerners’ estates provided other opportunities. Construction and engineering firms, land surveyors, and electricians benefited from estate-making efforts. As Charleston architect Albert Simons noted in 1929, “outside of the winter colonists there is little local work.” Other members of the building trades would undoubtedly have agreed with his observation. During an era of persistent weakness in the lowcountry economy, northerners’ estates supplied valuable employment opportunities for working-class whites and a few professionals. On the other hand, sporting estates infringed upon whites’ customary rights. Owners complained relentlessly about poaching and urged hiring of game wardens. Illegal hunting on private land showed resistance to owners’ efforts to assume exclusive control of tracts previously shared through informal arrangements. During the late nineteenth century, whites had hunted on lands made accessible thorough familial relations, neighborly agreements, and other forms of reciprocity. The advent of sporting estates rapidly changed such customs. Tensions between lowcountry whites and owners and superintendents demonstrated unease over the transitions underway. Although conflicts never over access to wildlife never became severe, they nonetheless showed disapproval with the consequences of owners’ activities. In many cases, residents continued to see traditional practices as valid. Francis E. Johnstone, Jr., scion of a rice planting family, candidly stated in his memoirs that he and many of his generation “felt like the ricefields and plantations had been stolen from [their] ancestors.” He and his friends responded by poaching and trespassing on land formerly owned by their families.
Of all the concerns sparked by the Second Yankee Invasion, the cause of wildlife conservation fostered the strongest cooperation between lowcountry people and estate owners. Sharp declines in waterfowl populations caused alarm among estate owners and others during the early 1930s. The crisis resulted from decades of overhunting and affected shooting grounds throughout the eastern half of the United States and Canada. The lowcountry, with its position on the Atlantic flyway, the migratory route followed by ducks and other birds annually, suffered severely. The results included formation of the Carolina Plantation Society (CPS), an organization comprised of owners of large estates and a few lowcountry people. The brainchild of Charleston attorney Augustine T. Smythe, the organization first met in 1932 and generally held annual meetings thereafter. The CPS proved most effective at fostering close ties among estate owners. Smythe’s initial goal of promoting amicable relations between lowcountry people and “winter colonists” went largely unfulfilled. Yet in addition to forging solidarity among estate owners, the CPS also served as a forum for sharing information about land management practices. Most of the featured speakers at annual meetings focused on land and wildlife conservation. Stricter game laws and establishment of national wildlife refuges did considerably more to reverse the decline in waterfowl populations, but the CPS nonetheless reflected widespread concern among large landowners and took modest steps toward encouraging practices conducive to game reproduction and habitat conservation.
In the end, estate owners sparked little political action but fostered discourse on matters of regional and national concern. As one of several developments that moved the lowcountry away from the economic and cultural isolation that had set in after the Civil War, the creation of grand sporting estates fostered greater awareness, attention to new possibilities, and recognition of ties to major cities and capital markets. Lowcountry residents often seemed more awed by sportsmen’s and sportswomen’s activities and their estates than certain of how best to use their interest in the region to advance local agendas. Still, the discourses that surrounded their activities made strides toward promoting the lowcountry as a premier destination for leisure, tourism, and outdoor recreation. The long-term results are evident in the landscape of coastal resorts, beachfront houses, and tourist attractions that today dominate large stretches of the Carolina coast.
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.