EDISTO ISLAND — Not long after the Civil War, some newly freed slaves on this sea island were able to prosper, to the point where they got the nickname "the black kings of Edisto."
Henry Hutchinson was the son of one of these kings, and Hutchinson's late 19th century home, built next to the island's first black-owned cotton gin, signaled how quickly fortunes were improving for some in the wake of the war.
His two-story home included three dormers and eaves decorated with stylish Victorian detail, while a wraparound porch gave Hutchinson and his wife, Rosa Swinton Hutchinson, a grand view of their field and even of the distant marsh.
The home is about all that's left of this short-lived, not widely understood period of African-American history that soon ended, along with the end of Reconstruction. The home has stood vacant for years and was facing an uncertain future as Hutchinson's descendants, after more than a century of ownership, put it up for sale.
After several months of anxiety and quiet planning, conservationists and preservationists are joining forces to give the home a more secure future, admitting that they still are working to figure out exactly what that will look like.
A sturdy survivor
Soon after John Girault got back to this island following Hurricane Matthew's devastation last fall, he drove down Point of Pines Road to see if Hutchinson's small, dilapidated home still stood.
It did, much to the relief of Girault, executive director of the Edisto Island Open Land Trust.
The trust had the property under contract to purchase, not only because it has 10 largely undeveloped acres but also because the small home is one of the most significant surviving African-American properties here. The $100,000 sale closed quietly a month later, and the trust is gearing up its efforts to plan for the home's preservation and public use.
“The key to this is: Can we get the money raised to restore it, which is what we all want?” he said. "We're the first owners of this property since the family built it in 1885."
Girault acknowledged the trust is not really in the home preservation business, but he already has lined up several potential partners, including the Edisto Island Museum and the American College of the Building Arts.
The trust has done only initial work: a little bracing underneath, pruning back vines and other vegetation. By September, it plans to erect a 40-foot by 40-foot tent overhead to shelter it from the brunt of the rain and sun.
The home currently is so dilapidated that the county hasn't even bothered to appraise it recently for tax purposes. A "No Trespassing" sign is posted at the door, and Girault plans to add more.
Girault said he hopes the upcoming hurricane season will be kinder to the island, giving the trust and its partners a little more time to stabilize the home for many more decades to come.
"Last October, I made the trip over there, and I was was thinking, 'How horrible would it be to lose this just as we were on the brink of getting this turned around?'”
The trust must raise about $100,000 to pay off its short-term loan the Coastal Community Foundation's Lowcountry Conservation Loan Program. It also will need to raise money for work on the house, once it's clear what will be done.
This fall, sophomores at the American College of the Building Arts will begin researching the history of the house and how it fits into Edisto's larger narrative. The students also will examine the building itself to determine what should be conserved and what could be replaced.
The house already is on the National Register of Historic Places, but that nomination only has about three paragraphs about the house, said Christina Butler, an architectural history professor with the college.
“I think there will be a lot of hands-on potential,” she said.
"We don’t really have a restoration plan at this point," Girault said, "so we feel the college will be a huge asset in helping us do that.”
Historical photographs show the early house looked a little different than what survives today. The old wraparound porch was removed and replaced with smaller front and side porches. Girault said restoring the house back to its original condition "would be the ideal scenario."
But questions also remain about how the trust will use the property. While reselling it to a preservation-minded buyer is a remote possibility, Girault said he would hope to find a way to keep it publicly accessible, if not as a museum that opens daily than as a venue for events and special occasions.
"This is one of its kind and the last of its kind," he said. "No one is looking to generate new revenue off of it."
Important African-American site
The significance of the house is compounded by its ties to the slave cabins that once stood just about a mile down Point of Pines Road.
The last surviving cabin was dismantled a few years ago and now stands prominently in the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington.missing something here
Girault said there are family ties between those who once lived in that cabin and the Hutchinsons, and Girault has begun reaching out to African-American community and historians to try to learn more and to interest them in the house project.
While the slave cabin shows the modest living conditions of slaves, this surviving house tells of how quickly things changed. James Hutchinson, Henry’s father, fought for the Union Navy and won his freedom.
According to research from the Edisto Island Museum, James Hutchinson helped Union forces arrest nine planters' sons as Confederate spies, including his half-brother, Townsend Mikell.
After the war, he returned to the island, took advantage of land grants and was able to buy up large tracts of property, including the former Clark Plantation. He served as Republican precinct chairman for Edisto but was murdered by a white man in 1882, the research showed. The suspect never went on trial, and Reconstruction wound to a close shortly afterward.
His son Henry Hutchinson continued on, living in the house until his death in 1940. Other family members continued living there until about 1980, and it began its slow decline soon after that.
"There are so many layers to this story," Girault said. "It's going to be exciting over the years to see how it all comes together."
Butler said she was so excited when Girault reached out to her because the house is so rich.
"The occupants were interesting. The building is interesting," she said. "It’s just a great story, and it’s less depressing than some of the post Civil War narratives tend to be.”