Living The Good Life On Goat Island
Three generations of rugged, independent women thrive on Goat Island.
By Stratton Lawrence. Photos by Hunter Mcrae.
If you’ve ever moved to a small town, perhaps you can start to understand Goat Island. Now imagine that town—where everybody knows everybody—is even smaller. Imagine that it’s just one street in that small town. And now imagine that one street as an island.
On Goat, the rules of city life may technically apply, but the real law is simply mutual respect for your neighbors. Party hard. Be nice. It’s a microcosm of simple Southern courtesy and community at its very best.
Newcomers are viewed with friendly suspicion, because if there was ever a place where residents fear change, Goat Island is the poster child. The status quo of unfenced yards and unlocked doors is held dear. The Isle of Palms may be only a few hundred yards away, but it’s a world apart.
Catherine “Cat” Moye may be Goat Island’s most famous local these days, or at least the one most discussed by her neighbors. Her uncle, Tommy Moye, moved to the island in 1983, quickly developing a reputation as the island’s go-to builder and fix-it man. His main project was his own house, a modest wood structure with an eagle’s nest bedroom upstairs. In September 1989, however, that all washed away with Hurricane Hugo. “The house moved about 18 feet during the hurricane,” Moye told the Post and Courier ten months after the storm. “I felt obligated to resurrect it. I figure it will take about 30 years to complete it.”
Sadly, Tommy passed away in a boating accident in 1991. The home sat vacant, exposed to the elements, for two decades, until Cat moved back from her adopted home in Portland, Oregon, to resume the family project.
“For the first six months, I slept on the front porch and cooked over a fire outside,” Cat recalls. “I’d go barefoot outside but put my shoes on to go into the house. It was disgusting, but it was also romantic and magical. I was getting to know my uncle by finding his song lyrics and letters and unique stuff he had collected as I slowly cleaned, room by room.”
Moye found a job harvesting clams for a commercial fisherman in nearby waters and devoted her evenings to a never-ending list of projects, from a rainwater catchment system for the home’s toilet and outdoor shower to the more recent additions of a duck pen and wood stove. But Moye’s style of roughing it is luxurious compared to the island’s first year-round residents, Henry and Blanche Holloway. Known as the Goat Man, Holloway gave up his job as a butcher in downtown Charleston to escape society in the 1930s. He and Blanche lived in the woods of Isle of Palms’ north end (now Wild Dunes) before fleeing across the water to Goat Island, where they’d remain for over three decades, living in a driftwood hut and harvesting oysters, clams, berries and various edible plants.
One account of Mr. Holloway reads, “A long-haired, phantom-like creature, fleeting from bush to bush through the jungle-shrouded island.” Writer Edwin Stone recounted that description in a 1969 story for Sandlapper magazine, revisiting his time on the island in 1956, where he discovered quite the opposite to be true. “Their loneliness and survival had created in them a deep insight into reality,” wrote Stone. “At the same time, an absence of the responsibility and tension of the present-day world transformed their thinking, released their inhibitions and allowed a regression back to youthful ideology.”
“I wanted to find the foundation of peace and I found it,” Holloway told Stone. Holloway died in 1962 at age 86, leaving Blanche behind to persist for another two years, living alone and of the land. She perished during a frigid winter night, reluctant to accept help on the mainland. Blanche was the first of many fiercely independent women to stubbornly build a life on Goat Island.
The Island Matriarch
Named for the herds of goats that roamed the island, left there to eat away at ground level foliage, Goat Island began its modern era in the 1950s, when a real estate investor purchased the small strip of land a couple hundred yards of the west edge of Isle of Palms and renamed it Jolly Rogers Estates, slicing the island into 100 parcels (for sale at one point for $300 each). That’s the origin of Buccaneer Road, Goat’s sole thoroughfare, a dirt double track that bisects the island between the Intracoastal Waterway and the broad marsh vistas facing Mount Pleasant.
Although the parcels were bought up as summer homes and camps, Sarah Sanders, a physical education teacher and basketball and track coach, saw an opportunity for a simpler, freer life.
In 1969, she purchased a cottage and became the island’s only year-round resident. Each morning, she paddled her canoe across the Intracoastal Waterway to get to work. “I’d leave at 6 in the morning and sometimes not get back home until midnight,” Sanders recalls. She never regretted the inconvenience or self-imposed solitude of her decision. “The funny thing is, when you live in an apartment downtown, there are all these people that you see, but you don’t know them. You’re going to work and they’re coming in, and it gets lonesome,” says Sanders. Although her neighbors were seasonal and her interactions few, she came to value and savor her individual relationships that much more, and she romanticized the rugged life the Holloways had lived on her beloved island. “It would make a great Hollywood love story,” she says of her predecessors.
Sanders is known for her Goat Island Treasure Boxes, a collection of ornate keepsake boxes crafted from salvaged wood molding. Her current home (the second on the plot—the first was destroyed by Hugo, forcing her to live for a year in the workshop where she now makes her boxes) sits just three houses down from Moye’s. Her younger counterpart’s willingness to rough it through rainy winters and muggy, buggy summer nights reminds Sanders of her own rugged determination as an independent 20-something woman.
Like Moye’s home—still filled with her uncle’s mementos, books and tools—Sanders’ house is a museum of Goat Island history and art. Her coffee table holds binders full of newspaper clippings about the island, from the days of the Goat Man to the construction of the Isle of Palms Connector a stone’s throw from the island’s southern tip. Tanks to that road and the Isle of Palms Marina, living on Goat Island is now far easier than it was half a century ago. But well before those conveniences, Sanders proved that living on an island inaccessible by car was a viable option for a person with a job and an otherwise normal life. She survived nearly 50 years on the island without a dock (now retired, Sanders only got her first dock two years ago, a gift from her longtime next-door neighbor).
Part of the charm of Goat Island is the improvised fixes for home repairs—it’s simply difficult to get supplies to the island. “You think you’re going to make something, so you go to Lowe’s, buy supplies, put them in your truck, drive them to the landing, carry them to your boat, drive the boat across the water, put everything in a cart on the dock, and then drop it in your yard,” says Sanders. “Ten you might think about getting started.”
Diann and Dennis Clark understand the difficulties of building a home—and running a business—on an island. They’re among the best known Goat Island residents, thanks to the Hope on Goat event they began in 2010 to raise money for victims of the earthquake in Haiti. Apart from private events at their outdoor venue (available for rental), Hope on Goat is the only opportunity for the public to visit Goat Island. During the early ‘80s, the Clarks often spent summer days visiting Tommy Moye on the island. He encouraged them to move down from their native Pennsylvania and settle in Charleston. “It was very desolate, really,” Diann says of the island at that time. “There wasn’t a whole lot going on, and there weren’t many docks, so it was slim pickings where you parked your boat.” The couple bought a lot in 1985 on the far northern end of the island but didn’t move down until ten years later. “We had our third winter in a row being snowed in and we asked the kids, ‘Who wants to move to the beach?’” Diann recalls. “All three raised their hands, so we finished the school year and we were gone.”
The Clarks arrived in the Lowcountry with no job and no house— just a parcel on Goat that had nothing on it except a gazebo—built by Moye—that still stands today (it’s one of the few structures on the island to survive Hugo completely intact). “We moved down on faith,” says Diann. “We rented a house and just started building, floating every two-by-four, every window and every door across the water.” Their children began their commute to school via boat each morning, eventually juggling high school superlatives, social lives and curfews with the added complication of a water crossing to go anywhere. But when their daughter and oldest son each got married, they both chose Goat Island for the ceremonies. Put simply, it’s home.
The Living’s Easy
“Goat women don’t worry about their hair,” exclaims Sanders, as she, Moye and Clark step outside to pose for photographs on a blustery Sunday afternoon in February. Sanders tosses Cheerios to her two goats— Muriel and Blue—while her yellow lab, Callie, looks on with hopeful eyes. The trio are not your average gathering of three women from three generations. They casually swap snake stories and laugh about the “Puppy Pool” on the island, a muddy pond where the local dogs run of to swim. Sanders mentions the way children used to search for Trigger Burke’s treasure, allegedly stashed away by the ‘50s era bank robber who was apprehended on Folly Beach after hiding out on Goat Island.
Sanders gets out a few shelf mushrooms— “Artists Conchs” found on the island’s trees, with sleepy island scenes intricately carved into them. Clark recounts the laughter of tan-skinned children idling away the summer, roaming the woods and floating in the water as single-engine planes landed on the Isle of Palms air strip (now the Wild Dunes Harbor golf course). Moye mentions the scar on her foot, acquired as a five-year running across the mud. “The island is changing fast,” says Sanders. “But it’s changing at a slower pace than the other side.”
The other side is more than just Isle of Palms—it’s Charleston. It’s South Carolina. It’s the rest of the world. An island changes dramatically when we build a bridge to it. By connecting that isolated piece of land to the rest of the world, we inevitably alter its natural identity. That’s not a bad thing. Much of what we all love about Sullivan’s Island and the Isle of Palms involves their people, their culture, their food, their golf, and more. But Goat Island is still very much an island, in the old-school, world-apart kind of way. Because on Goat Island, life is good—in all the simple, complicated, inconvenient, wonderful ways that island life should be.