DAUFUSKIE ISLAND - David Helmuth steps between the hodgepodge of exposed floor joists and walls studs inside the early 20th-century cottage here at 188 School Road, as he finishes removing the last of its termite-damaged wood.

Helmuth, a contractor, is working for the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, a state preservation group working to save this remnant of the island's once-thriving Gullah culture.

This cottage is more historic than most because it once was home to Frances Jones, a revered community figure who taught black schoolchildren on this remote Sea Island and who also helped many of their illiterate parents.

But the most significant aspect of this ongoing restoration is not Jones' story, nor the uniqueness of the structure itself.

Instead, it's the innovative deal that the Palmetto Trust struck that not only aims to restore the home but also to preserve its ownership by Jones' descendants, even though they currently cannot afford the repairs.

Michael Bedenbaugh, the trust's director, came up with the program to try to save a historic house while also preserving its ownership by a family whose ancestors created a thriving community here a few generations ago, when timbering and oyster factory jobs were plentiful.

"The hope is it goes beyond this house," he says, "and there will be others."

How it works

The Daufuskie Endangered Places Program was made possible through a $150,000 grant from the 1772 Foundation, a Connecticut-based nonprofit that supports preservation work across the country.

The grant is helping the trust finance the current restoration work, which is expected to be finished in June. The Palmetto Trust is leasing the house from Jones' family for 30 years and plans to rent it out to island visitors for about $150 a night.

Bedenbaugh says that income - and other donations - will help the Palmetto Trust recoup its costs over time.

"If we do it right, we might raise more money from donations" than rentals, he says. "While we do this, they (family members) can stay there any time it's not rented."

The Palmetto Trust has received support beyond the 1772 Foundation. Haig Point, a private development on the island's northern end, has helped Bedenbaugh with logistics, and many island families also have helped out.

Once the trust gets its investment back - which could happen in just a few years - it will end the lease and turn the home back to the Jones family with a protective easement. The family could keep leasing it out or just enjoy it privately.

And the trust then would hope to restore another home here on similar terms. The island's historic district still has about 16 black-built cottages from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Bedenbaugh says the next home could be leased out as a residence or it could become a restaurant or distillery or have some other income stream.

"We see ourselves as nurturing this systematically and letting it go," he says. "I think it will work, but the mechanism will show itself going forward."

If it works, it could prove an important new strategy for preserving historic buildings owned by Lowcountry families who don't have the means to repair them but also don't want to sell the land.

Frances Jones

In some homes here, Jones' picture hangs on the wall alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy.

She taught school for many decades, and her retirement opened a teaching slot filled by a young white Citadel graduate named Pat Conroy, who chronicled his time here in his 1972 memoir, "The Water is Wide."

Despite Jones' status as a leading figure, her home was modest. Its foundation included mostly cinder blocks stacked on the ground - and an occasional tree stump. Its wall joists show markings of plaster and lathe - a sure sign they were salvaged from an earlier building. The house's bones also show its oldest part is an 11-by- 18-foot cabin that was added to over time until it reached about 900 square feet.

Bedenbaugh says the restoration aims to keep as much of its old charm as possible while creating two bedrooms and a working kitchen and bathroom.

"We're going to keep it on the concrete blocks," he says. As he talks, he and Helmuth debate where would be the best place to put a washer and dryer. They agree only to discuss it more in a few weeks, and the work is expected to continue at least through May.

"We've got a ways to go before we get down to the lip gloss and makeup," Helmuth says.

Will it work?

Bedenbaugh knows a lot is riding on the success or failure of Jones' house.

This island, reachable only by ferry, once was inhabited mostly by blacks, descendants of slaves and those who came here to work in the oyster factory.

But in recent decades, that population has dwindled as private resorts have cropped up. The changing nature of these islands, and the gradual loss of black residents and black-owned properties, have created a political tension.

Leon Love, chair of the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission, is among those excited by the Daufuskie Endangered Places Program.

"When you say Daufuskie, people think of Hilton Head a long time ago. There's a natural suspicion that someone is trying to take African-American-owned land and turn it into a resort," he says. "What Daufuskie needs is a victory. If they take the Jones home and make it work, it could serve as an example for others."

Love says the impact could even extend beyond the island.

"There's a lot of heirs property and a lot of property people can't afford to maintain," he says. "That's why I think the method they're using on Daufuskie is so creative. You're maintaining ownership even though you're sharing it with a developer."

But Ervin Simmons of the Daufuskie Island Foundation is not so sure.

The foundation continues the tradition of the Daufuskie Day celebration that Jones first held in 1976.

"My concern is land, and the risk of blacks losing land," he says. "I've said it many, many times. We've had a lot of land stolen from the black community or manipulated or swindled or however you put it."

Simmons says while he doesn't know all the deal's details, he is concerned that there are strings that could lead to the property changing hands.

Bedenbaugh says he accepts that the only way to counter such skepticism is to make the program succeed by preserving not only historic homes but also longtime family ownership.

"We'll see if it works. It's better than sitting back and watching them fall back in and rot," he says. "There's no place left like this on the coast of South Carolina."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.