Thomas Williams told himself he'd be gone only about an hour. But thieves needed just a few minutes to cart away a trailer containing a year's worth of Williams' hand-carved wares.
The McClellanville resident has sold walking sticks, tables and lamps from a stand on U.S. Highway 17 near the Isle of Palms connector for 10 years. "I never had a problem," he said.
That was until May 19, when Williams left his trailer at 7:30 a.m. to take his daughter, who lives in Mount Pleasant, for a quick trip to Wal-Mart. When he got back, the trailer was gone.
"It was like somebody dropped a bomb. My daughter yelled. She started crying. I was really in shock," he said.
Inside the trailer were more than 150 walking sticks, about a dozen cypress tables and 20 or so lamps. All his carving tools were lost.
"It took me 10 years to build this company and then, in one day, they really destroyed me," he said.
Some of his sticks sell for $160 a piece, and it can take him to 80 hours to make one cane embellished with a cobra head.
Williams works mainly with oak, cherry, maple and dogwood. The bases of his tables come from cypress knees. He has to boil the bark off the wood.
"There's a lot of process," he said.
Williams learned his craft from his older brother, Charles, who learned it from their father. Charles Williams sells his pieces in McClellanville and told Thomas Williams that if he showed him how he made them, he would have to go as far as Myrtle Beach and Charleston.
A day porter at Sullivan's Island Elementary School for the past eight months, Thomas Williams said his new "family" at the school has kept his spirits up. One fifth-grade girl gave him a card, a bottle of cologne and a pocketknife.
Williams reported the trailer theft to police and made a sign, beseeching passers-by for any information. Then he sat down next to that sign and waited. "Whoever took it, if they brought it back, I wouldn't press charges," he said.
The 6-foot by 14-foot, white Haulmark trailer had two wheels and black fenders.
Williams said the driver's-side fender is missing, and the two doors, one on the back and one on the side, have big, silver hinges.
"There's not a lot of follow-up that can be done, because we don't have any leads," Mount Pleasant Police Lt. Amy McCarthy said.
Left with three pieces, Williams began slowly rebuilding his inventory, which is now up to about 25 items.
"I'll be out there tomorrow (Saturday) with the little bit I got," he said.