HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (AP) — The first planned community on this resort island did not have sprawling homes with pools but instead was a freedmen’s village of shacks built after Union troops captured the land during the Civil War.
Now some Hilton Head residents hope to preserve the original site of the community, called Mitchelville, from encroaching development.
The community, laid out by Gen. Ormsby Mitchel, was once home to about 1,500 people. It had its own government, trash collection and compulsory education.
The town faded after the war, and in recent decades parts of the land have been sold and developed. Although the area was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988, it is signified only by a 29-word historical marker.
Now development threatens the land that remains.
“This was never a crisis until the developers came along,” said Peter Ovens, who wants the town to get more involved in preserving the site. “Now it’s a crisis.”
The center of the effort to preserve the site is Jerre Weckhorst’s house, a wooden replica of a general’s house from Fort Walker.
During the battle of Port Royal Sound in November 1861, Union troops captured the fort after warships bombarded the Confederate fortification.
Weckhorst built the house two decades ago, and it sits on a portion of the old Mitchelville site. Adjacent tracts have been undeveloped since the days of the village.
At the site, Weckhorst has found everything from tools to beer bottles and pottery belonging to former slaves.
Supporters of preserving the site want the town or a preservation group to buy several properties between the house and Fish Haul Creek Park, a large chunk of the Mitchelville site the town already owns.
One idea is that the Weckhorst house could become a black history museum and other structures highlighting black history on the island could be built. Finding the money, however, could be a challenge.
“I think that’s going to be probably one of the major stumbling blocks,” said James Mitchell, president of the Native Island Business and Community Affairs Association.
Weckhorst is willing to sell his property but preserving the larger tract “would take a little bit more than I have means to do,” he said.
“We certainly have an interest in preserving as much of Mitchelville as possible,” Hilton Head Island Mayor Tom Peeples said.
While the town has a program to buy land, officials don’t want to push property owners too strongly to get them to sell, he said.
Russ Marane, who oversees purchases for the town’s Trust for Public Land, has contacted six owners of property making up the Mitchelville site although some are talking to developers.
“If they’re looking for the best buck, we’re not their buyer,” he said. “A willing property owner generally is someone who shares the same interest we do. If it’s all about money, most of the time we’re not competitive with what a developer will pay for property.”
Information from: The Island Packet, http://www.islandpacket.com