Goat Island idyll: Rustic life draws hardy few to call community home
Wade Spees // The Post and Courier
“My granddaughter made that — she just loves this place,” said 88-year-old Ethel Nepveux, indicating a “Welcome” sign. Nepveux, first started coming to Goat Island with her husband in the early 1960s. They built this cottage to replace the one destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
GOAT ISLAND -- The skinny strip of sand bluff is a place of tides, and the people who live here instinctively are in tune with the water's ebbs and flows.
They have to be, because boats are the only way on or off.
Ethel Nepveux and her husband Felix first stepped foot on Goat Island in 1960, lured by an ad selling affordable waterfront lots. Two things happened -- they found a lot where the front porch view would be the sandy beach and waterway across to Isle of Palms, and the back porch view would be live oaks, palmettos and the beach out to Gray Bay.
The other thing that happened was people they had never met walked on down and invited them over.
"The people," Nepveux says a half-century later sitting on that front porch, "make Goat Island."
Goat Island is the quirky enclave motorists see to the north as they climb the Isle of Palms Connector bridge over today's Intracoastal Waterway. It's only two and a half miles long. In places, it's barely wide enough to support little more than a home, well and septic tank. You barely see the homes, tucked away in the trees. You see the docks.
The island is legend. Its early 20th century settlers were goats moved off Isle of Palms, and then a man and his wife who simply squatted amid the feral herd and lived much of their life au naturale -- the "goat people" who would scream at intruders.
The island remains a throwback to a time when life on a coast was a rustic retreat, hammocks were the furniture of choice and kids fussed over who got to sleep on the bed on the screened porch. Isle of Palms is a collection of trim lawns and upscale beach tourist rentals. Goat Island is the maritime woods. There is electricity but no paved road.
A lot of the houses are snug little beach cabins, weekend and summer places for people who live somewhere else. A handful of people are "full-timers," living there year-round. Like the island itself, they are unique -- painters, musicians, skilled carpenters and crafts people who make things like flying staircases.
It says a lot of what you need to know about Goat Island that the father of third-generation islander Laura Watkins, a painter, used to joke that he never had to change her diaper as an infant; he just took her down to the water and dipped.
It says the rest of what you need to know that the view from Nepveux's porch now includes resort golf course holes and the distant roofs of fancy Isle of Palms waterfront manors.
The island is a place where you do for yourself, so doing for others comes naturally. A neighbor working with a handsaw will stop, come across the yard and caution a visitor walking down the rickety dock next door that he should stay atop the joists.
"You go to Goat Island, you have to bring it with you," says Lane Mack, a friend of "Miss Ethel."
The year after the Nepveuxs arrived, neighbors brought the Goat Man and his wife a small hut, because they were getting too old to live in their driftwood and palm frond lean-to. After Hurricane Hugo tore apart the place in 1989, neighbors fetched their own and each others' belongings from their yards and rebuilt, sometimes using pieces of the wreckage of each others' homes.
People value their privacy and their community. For Christmas 1990, the island held its inaugural Tour of Homes, a take-off on tony Charleston Historic District tours. Party-goers went house to house to admire the hurricane renovations and feast. The tour is still held.
It's as primitive a residential island as there is left around Charleston. The goats are gone, but deer still leave hoof marks down "The Leisure Trail," the lone dirt track running along the length. Raccoons and smaller critters scavenge with enough impunity that island residents keep dogs and cats as deterrents.
It is a place where dogs run free, and not just dogs. Watkins checked on the barking one time to find rare red wolves in her yard, temporarily absconded from their former breeding grounds in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge to the north. Red drum tail in the reedy shallows. Dolphins and pelicans cruise past.
Miss Ethel's dog, Coby, once came across a badly injured red-tailed hawk, which was rehabilitated at the former Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw, returned to the island and released, in the middle of a release party, of course.
Watkins keeps an eye on 3-year-old Wahoo, her son. As a kid's life goes, the island is an adventure. Watkins grew up hunting fossils and Indian pottery in the salt marsh. Wahoo doesn't go anywhere without a pair of binoculars. Her children have found a pygmy rattler on the porch and she had to pick up a daughter in diapers when she spotted an alligator sunning in the yard.
"Not all kids have to get up in the morning and put on a life preserver," she says.
It takes scrappiness to live on Goat Island. One commuter kept a car in the woods on Isle of Palms, and when the tide was too low to get her boat freed from the muck, she would swim, holding her work clothes in her hand above the water.
A lot of people live there for a while until getting the children back and forth from school or some other relentless duty drives them ashore. Others stay put.
"Too much pluff mud between our toes," Watkins says. The Nepveuxs themselves couldn't live on the island full time, not with the demands of Felix's dental practice. But they carved out long weekends and long summer stays.
Life on the island has changed over the years, despite the rustic appeal for its people, who a few decades ago put the entire Gray Bay shoreline under conservation easement. Miss Ethel recalls a time when her child swung in the hammock as feral goats raced by on either side.
First, somebody got a telephone. Then came the golf carts. The boats became more efficient than the old ones with motors that were always acting up, she says.
The waterway, too, has changed. Barges and fishing boats have been supplanted by flashy motorboats and Jet Skis that contribute to erosion along the banks. Islanders post signs pleading for no wakes. Natively friendly, they have gotten a reputation for cliquishness. The summer waterway traffic is just too busy, the boaters too loud and obtrusive. If they don't like you, they won't wave.
In winter, the island retreats within itself, peaceful and quiet as lapping tides wash its shores.
Miss Ethel is now 88 years old. Felix, her husband, died last year. A published historian, she lives in West Ashley, where she works on regional histories, some of them based on an ancestor of hers, George Trenholm, treasury secretary of the Confederate States of America.
She was the country girl who grew up on Johns Island among horses and boats. Felix was a city boy. But the island became his passion, Mack says. He built his cabin, Miss Ethel alongside him, and then rebuilt it after Hugo, boating over the supplies.
It's hard for her to go there now, she agrees with a nod. But she looks out at the shining water and her eyes light up. After Felix got sick he talked about selling their island cabin. After he died, she talked about selling it. But she didn't.
"You hate to give it up," she says. She steps from the porch, a stir of wind tussling her hair. It's cool and it smells like salt. She gestures across the waterway at Isle of Palms.
"The breeze is better over here than it is on that side."