Depiction of local Civil War battle finds new home at restored lodge

Ernest Parks (left) and Michael Riffert, whose efforts helped restore the Seashore Farmers Lodge on James Island and prepare it for use as a museum, look over a diorama illustrating the 1863 Union assault on Battery Wagner.

During a visit to the Statue of Liberty many years ago, Michael Riffert took note of a small diorama depicting the July 18, 1863, Union assault on Confederate forces at Battery Wagner on Morris Island.

Riffert, the Folly Beach resident and general contractor who oversaw the 2009-10 restoration of the Seashore Farmers Lodge on Sol Legare Road on James Island, was surprised last year when the diorama showed up at the lodge.

"The last time I'd seen it, I was standing in front of the Statue of Liberty," Riffert said last week.

The lodge and the horrific battle over Battery Wagner have indelible bonds. The 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the Army's first black unit, had assembled near where the lodge now stands before going into the battle.

The diorama will serve as a centerpiece for the restored lodge's new life: as a museum for the rich but largely unheralded history of James Island, lodge supporters said.

Ernest Parks of the lodge's restoration committee said he rather quietly went about seeking the diorama from the National Park Service, and when he received it, stored it in his garage until the lodge was ready for it.

"He literally showed up one day with the diorama in the back of his truck," Riffert recalled.

The group of volunteers who organized and carried out the restoration of the lodge welcome the diorama and have prevailed upon area residents to return some of the lodge's original furniture and other artifacts. Included are school desks, chairs and tables. and drums and a fife that once were played by the Seashore Farmers Lodge marching band, said Corie Hipp, who serves as the public relations coordinator for the lodge.

The lodge is the ideal site for a museum and special events, she added. Details are being worked out for some type of commemorative event April 12, which is the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, she said.

Built around 1915, the lodge served for more than half a century as the hub of the black community on the Sea Islands. The lodge was used as a schoolhouse, library and community center, and provided crop insurance and burial assistance, hosted political rallies, weddings and ice-cream socials and showed movies. The farmers and shrimpers who formed Seashore Farmers Lodge No. 767 and built the structure held their meetings upstairs. The restored upper floor is being readied so that current lodge members can meet there, Riffert said.

The restoration was made possible by donations of funds and volunteer labor, Hipp said. "At one time, the lodge supported the community, and now the community has come together and is supporting it," she added.

Lodge supporters are networking with local, state and national historic, cultural and tourism-related groups and agencies, including the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

During the restoration, which included gently lifting the building to reinforce its flooring, numerous artifacts were unearthed, including antique bottles, a sewing thimble, a 1915 buffalo nickel and Civil War-era bullets. Many of these also will be on display, Hipp said.

Parks said he pursued the diorama, made up of miniature models of soldiers in battle, while never certain it would be granted to the lodge. He wrote letters and filled out applications when he learned that the park service was looking for a new home for the diorama.

The diorama reportedly was displayed at the Statue of Liberty 1970-90. When a restoration effort began at the statue, the diorama was moved to the Lowcountry and saw duty at Fort Moultrie.

When restorations began there, the diorama was offered to other attractions. "I knew I wasn't going to get it, but I said, 'What the heck?' " he added.