Famous American Beaches

MOSQUITO BEACH — In the middle of the last century, a small stretch of high ground wedged between Sol Legare Island and the marshes of southeast Folly Beach was the stomping ground of African Americans seeking a good time.

They indulged in comfort food, music and dancing, seizing an opportunity to socialize safely away from the gaze of White people. Some rented a room for a night or two.

This was one of just a few places in the Lowcountry where Black people could access the water. It was called Mosquito Beach, and it was a hot spot for decades, reaching its peak of social activity in the 1950s and ’60s.

Local residents have been trying to rebuild this gathering place ever since Hurricane Hugo wrecked it in 1989, but the efforts have faltered for a lack of adequate funding and an abundance of bureaucratic obstacles.

Several years ago, a renewed effort got underway, spearheaded by the Historical Charleston Foundation and Kyle Taylor, who is project manager of the whole enterprise. They secured a $43,000 research grant from the National Park Service, then succeeded in getting the Pine Tree Hotel property listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

That cleared the way for a second application to the park service's African American Civil Rights Grant Program for money — about $490,000 — to rehabilitate the hotel.

Momentum was building, and the team took advantage of it, landing a Hurricane Irma Emergency Supplemental Historic Preservation Grant of $250,000 to restore the Island Breeze Restaurant next door. With this money in hand, the team solicited construction and renovation bids earlier this year.

The project to restore Mosquito Beach was underway.

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Construction work will begin on the Pine Tree Hotel on Mosquito Beach, thanks to a grant from the National Park Service. The hotel was badly damaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Since then efforts have faltered to repair it. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The contractors expect to start work in December and finish by the end of June. Because of the historic nature of the project, it has attracted attention from the makers of the reality TV show “American Builder,” hosted by Brian Gurry, and from the Food Network. Michael Riffert is the main contractor. Hans Altenbach is the architect.

Riffert said the hotel structure is severely compromised and unsafe but his team will save anything that can be recycled and incorporate the material into the renovated building.

The Pine Tree Hotel will be rebuilt pretty much as it was: eight bedrooms on the second floor, one on the first floor, an office, shared bathrooms, big porches on both floors and a small area for vendors to sell their goods, Riffert said. A parking area behind the building will accommodate 45 vehicles.

The Island Breeze Restaurant, built of cinderblock and painted yellow, is structurally sound, and will require straightforward restoration work, he said.

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'The Factory'

Mosquito Beach had its share of mosquitoes, to be sure, especially when the breeze disappeared and the sun began to set, but it didn’t really have a beach to speak of. Rather, it featured a pavilion extending over the marsh. Boats with drafts measured in inches could skate over the pluff mud and gain access to King Flats Creek, which connected to Folly Creek. This was the way to the ocean.

The boardwalk and pavilion provided a way for swimmers to take a plunge, and it offered recreational fishermen a platform to cast their lines. But mostly it was a stage.

The first hurricane to damage Mosquito Beach was Gracie in 1959. The community restored the structures damaged by the storm and kept on gathering here. The second big hurricane that came through, Hugo in 1989, wrecked the place.

Nevertheless, this tiny spit of land remained a vital part of the Sol Legare community. During the past few decades, a couple of structures at the far end have been used for events and accommodations, and a couple of food establishments continued to operate, selling local delicacies.

But Mosquito Beach today is a shadow of its former self.

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The view of Mosquito Beach from the Waterfront Café's porch on Nov. 9, 2021. Mosquito Beach is an offshoot of the Sol Legare community located between James Island and Folly Beach. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Sol Legare Island once was part of Savannah Plantation, about 800 acres owned by Solomon Legare where enslaved laborers cultivated sea island cotton, according to historical research conducted by Michael Allen, a retired park ranger and consultant to the restoration project. During the Civil War, Savannah Plantation was the site of encampments for the Black troops of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

In 1874, Legare sold his property to Charles Seele, who subdivided and sold it. Black farmers were among the buyers, among them Nelson Left, Edward Green, John Lafayette, Harrison Wilder and Joseph Gaillard.

Their rectangular lots were relatively small, but enabled them to grow fruits and vegetables. Proximity to the waterway meant they could also access fish, crab and oysters.

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In 1922, seafood merchant George Creighton Varn leased 2 acres at the western end of Mosquito Beach from Left and established the Unity Oyster Co. of Charleston. “The Factory,” as it came to be known, employed local men, women and children, and included a dozen or so huts in which some of the shuckers lived. By all accounts, it was a terrible place to work. But the commercial activity helped transform this strip of farmland into the community’s social focal point.

In 1931, Varn died and The Factory closed. The building became an informal gathering place, the cultch to which other businesses attach like larvae to a shell. The first new business was Joe Chavis’ store. Soon this would become a cluster of connected venues.

In the early 1950s, the Harborview Club, Jack Walker’s Club and Manchi and Nucca’s Pavilion opened for business.

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Cubby Wilder tells AJ Medley about the history of Mosquito Beach on Nov. 9, 2021, in Charleston. Medley, visiting from New York will be filming a TV cooking show segment on Mosquito Beach. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Bill “Cubby” Wilder, an elder of the Sol Legare community, said his parents worked in The Factory. Oysters back then cost perhaps $1 a bushel. (Today, it’s closer to $50, he said.) Once The Factory — a moniker ultimately given to the whole of the area — became known as Mosquito Beach, Wilder spent hours and hours every week enjoying the music and dancing. His uncle Andrew Jackson “Apple” Wilder built the pavilion in 1953, managed the clubs with his wife Laura and, eventually owned much of the property.

Cubby Wilder remembered the good food, cool shade cast by numerous palm trees, and bumper cars that cost 25 cents per ride.

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Imagining the scene

Those were the days when legal segregation confined African Americans to a limited number of venues and hot spots within their own communities.

Charlie’s Place, located on “the Hill” in Myrtle Beach, was a club that drew acclaimed musicians and encouraged the mingling of Whites and Blacks on the dance floor — until the Ku Klux Klan intervened in 1950. Atlantic Beach nearby was the area’s “Black beach.”

In the Charleston area, African Americans had perhaps five options: Seaside at Edisto Beach; Frasier Beach on Johns Island; Peter Miller’s Pavilion along Wallace Creek near Red Top; Riverside Beach Park at Remley's Point in Mount Pleasant; and Mosquito Beach. None were beaches in the proper sense of the word. None faced the ocean.

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Folly Beach, just across the marshes from the Sol Legare community, was off limits to Black people, except those who worked in the hotels and restaurants — although they were expected to get off the island by sunset.

Where did some of them go to shake off a long day’s worth of accumulated anxiety and humiliation? Mosquito Beach of course.

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Old dock pilings rise from the marsh by Mosquito Beach where an entertainment pavilion once stood. The Historic Charleston Foundation secured a National Park Service grant to be used to restore an old hotel and restaurant on this historic property near Folly Beach. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

On a sunny November afternoon warm enough to activate swarms of gnats, the team — Taylor, Wilder, Riffert, Altenbach, Gurry, Justin Schwebler of the Historic Charleston Foundation, and local residents including Thelma Gilliard, who owns the soon-to-open Waterfront Café — gathered to discuss the project. A king tide sent water over much of Mosquito Beach Road, so Riffert used his big pickup to shuttle people from Sol Legare Road to the hotel site.

Wilder and Gilliard said they looked forward to the imminent change, and expect Mosquito Beach once again to draw visitors and locals alike. Wilder, recalling the old pavilion, noted that a bit of groundwork already has been laid to get permission from the Department of Health and Environmental Control to construct a new venue on the water.

And he imagined the scene: Crowds enjoying good music, dancers spinning their partners, Gullah cuisine for sale, guests staying at the renewed Pine Tree Hotel, creekside oyster roasts and more.

The shuckers and bumper cars are gone, along with that sense of solidarity and celebration shared by people briefly escaping the yoke of Jim Crow. This is a new age, a different time. Mosquito Beach will never be the same as it was.

But, if all goes well, it sure could come alive once more.

Source : https://www.postandcourier.com/news/mosquito-beach-once-a-destination-of-african-americans-now-under-restoration/article_73272698-4d57-11ec-bd03-175a5d7fa210.html

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