The Boys Of Sullivan’s Island
From military base to summer resort, from rural village to residential suburb, the evolution of Sullivan’s Island creates lifelong memories for those lucky enough to grow up here. By Delores Schweitzer. Photos by Steve Rosamilia.
Clinking of knives and forks, verbally sparring over stolen sausages, and lots of laughing punctuate the conversation at a table near the back of Southerly Restaurant in Mount Pleasant on a chilly morning in February. The Thursday regulars of the Southerly Breakfast Club gather every week at 8 a.m., keeping to their working schedules, even though many are retired. Here, they intermingle their present lives in the wide world with memories of a childhood, happily contained in a mere 2.4 square miles—Sullivan’s Island of the 1950s.
One this day, the group consists of Emory Brown, William “Pug” Dudley, Richard Ouzts, Jackie Wear and Mike Williams, but other friends drop in as their schedules allow. While they kept in touch over the years, it wasn’t until about two years ago that Mike and Jackie got the idea of a regular meeting time and place.
Most of them met at the Sullivan’s Island Graded School, although Wear and Dudley, through one of those quirks of family, are nephew and uncle. Located at 2302 Middle Street (now Blockaway), the school housed seven grades, with one teacher per grade and 15 to 20 children per class. One teacher also served double-duty as principal, with support staff consisting of a janitor, a cafeteria manager and two cafeteria helpers.
The school provided a solid foundation for these future professionals. Brown became a pharmacist, Dudley was in real estate, Wear retired from Cummings Diesel, Williams was a dentist, and Ouzts is currently the owner of Atlantic Screen Company. Jackie Wear recalls some of the motivational tactics of the teachers, “Miss Kingman said all of us were going to end up criminals and be on a chain gang. Mrs. Truesdale ran the lunchroom, and if you helped, you got extra food, like delicious cinnamon buns and peanut butter and honey sandwiches. And Miss Wise would pick one student each day to run down to the store and buy her a Coke.” And then, there was the motto every child knew: “If at once a task begun, never leave it ‘til it’s done.”
Parents pushed their children to work hard, be industrious, respect their elders, and appreciate the different communities that settled here. It was always a place of transition and diversity. Fort Moultrie ensured a mix of religious and socio-economic backgrounds. Many soldiers met their spouses or brought war brides here to settle when the Fort was decommissioned in 1947, and the town began to sell fee-simple lots for the first time. “Back then, lots cost between $400 and $500,” Williams says. “No one had much money, and it was very economical to live there because taxes were low.”
Of course, not everyone could afford to buy immediately. Many families bounced around rental cottages on month-to-month leases. They were not elaborate, says Wear, just normal for the time. Like the accessory dwellings in Mt. Pleasant today, a property owner might build a small second home on their land for extended family, or to rent for additional income. Many of these homes and cottages were lost to Hurricane Hugo or pulled down to make room for larger homes. They certainly were not up to modern day construction codes and expectations.
Nor were the existing homes of the time. Brown remembers their place at Station 9, which had been the Charleston Orphanage summer home before his parents purchased it. “It was a big, rambling house with 12-foot ceilings, and in the summer time that breeze would blow right through that house, and it was very comfortable. And in the winter time? Tat breeze would blow right through that house, too.” The guys laugh, remembering the lack of insulation, sleeping in full clothes and piling up comforters to stay warm.
If the winters were harsh for the 200 or so year-round residents, the summers were a wonderland of new friends, exciting opportunities and occasional mischief. The Catholic, Presbyterian and Baptist church communities thrived on the Island, while Episcopalian families like Brown’s went to Mt. Pleasant when Holy Cross closed for a time. There was also a small A.M.E. church and several Jewish families who spent summers on Sullivan’s. A microcosm of the nearby Holy City, children of the island learned to coexist with many faiths.
Wear recalls the fascinating inhabitants of Loretto Cottage. “There used to be a lot of nuns on the island because they had a summer house. They were dressed in black year-round, and we were little and didn’t know. So, we’d see them on the beach and say, ‘The witches are coming!’ But our mothers found out and told us they were nice ladies and to leave them alone.” Other groups, like the STAR Gospel Mission, welcomed kids, and there were always fun events and festivals sponsored by churches and civic groups.
The island children rarely went to Charleston except to visit family, watch the Azalea Parade, or shop for clothes once a year. They might go of island to Mt. Pleasant once a week to get major provisions, but if something didn’t make the list, it had to wait. Families were lucky to have one car, and so for the boys, visiting or working meant walking or bicycling.
The crew at Southerly is quick to recount their early friendships, sealed through play, physical sparring, brushes with authority and innocent pastimes. Williams remembers, “Jackie and Pug came up to me—I must have been about six—and they acted like they were my friends before they gave me the old left-right. That’s how I learned to run.” Wear retorts quickly, “Yeah, but you got us back in the dentist’s chair!”
The abandoned buildings Fort Moultrie were the perfect playground. “Mr. Brockington was the town’s only police officer,” Brown says. “His mission in life was to run us out of the forts. And our mission was to hide from him.” Ouzts remembers crawling down the vents to get into Moultrie and building a camp inside. And both Wear and Ouzts laugh when looking at the field between Battery Jasper and the beach. Tinker McInerny was their only friend with a car, and for fun, they would hide in the tall grass, and he would drive through, flushing them out and chasing them.
A little further up Middle Street, in the small brick building next to the Fort’s movie theater, the Sullivan’s Island Township Commission sold lots, managed town growth, and even arranged for state troopers to conduct driving tests once a month. The Fort Theater showed films and across the street, in the current location of the Island Club and Fish Fry Shack, the Community Hall had a playground, a skating rink with two sizes of skates—small and large—basketball courts and a space for special events.
Further east, on the old Fort parade ground between Middle, Poe, stations 16 1/2 and 17, was a young boys paradise. “A group of guys worked at the Navy Yard—Jim McClary, Jimmy Gladden, Ark Chiola, Red Wood, Larry Dodds and Mr. Padgett,” Brown says. “They decided there ought to be recreation for the kids. They made a beautiful baseball field—the finest in Charleston. They got us uniforms. We were the Phillies, Yankees, Giants and Cubs. Those guys donated their time, money and effort. It was spectacular and a big deal.” A News and Courier article from April 17, 1955, testified to the appeal of the East Cooper Little League, when 150 players and 500 fans packed the Sullivan’s Island field for Opening Day, complete with speeches from local dignitaries, a band, the award of “small fry beauty” contest winners, and, of course, some exciting exhibition games.
After the games, the boys would cool off with a drink from the artesian well pumping behind the waterworks at Tompson and Station 17, then make a run for the government docks one block west—a prime spot for swimming, provided they didn’t get stuck in the pluff mud when the tide went out.
Being a boy on the island was all about finding opportunities. They set traps and checked them each morning, selling the captured animals to the local garbage man. You could grab a boat from the landing of Raven Drive and take it out to fish, crab or clam—no permission required. Just bring it back in one piece.
“Summer Housing” was going around and checking the trash at summer homes and rentals for recyclable bottles, which could be returned for two cents a bottle, or five cents if it was Canada Dry. Brown had a gas mower and a grass cutting business. Walking the beach in the early morning was a ritual that yielded all kinds of surprises tossed or lost by passing ships—bunches of green bananas; life jackets; coats; cans of peaches, black pepper, and lemonade concentrate; and once even a bunch of bales of cotton, which Brown’s brother and father claimed. And the boys hustled to get jobs delivering papers, stocking shelves or working at service stations.
Burmester’s (currently Sullivan’s, the Co-Op and Almost Pink) combined a drug store, soda fountain, dry goods, dance floor and a liquor store at the end. Williams worked there, and Ouzts recalls reading illustrated classic comic books for his book reports, sharing ten cent milkshakes among friends and getting run out of there every day. Once, they snuck in the liquor store while the narcoleptic clerk was asleep behind the counter, and they swiped the cash register. They hid it around back before coming back in to ask for change for a quarter, and it took the clerk a while to catch on. They got run out that time, too.
While restaurants and cafes compete now, back then, it was groceries, pharmacies, liquor stores and gas stations. The current BP station was Chippy’s Pure Oil and bar, owned by the Andregg family, but across the street, there was also Godwin’s ESSO and McConnell’s Shell stations, all within one block. Ouzts worked at them all, recounting one memorable time where he stopped an oil change to pump gas for a customer and forgot to put the oil back in.
Hines Barber Shop (now Family Restorative Dental) was run by a Filipino woman married to an Army man. She gave GI cuts to all the boys, with a bonus of Vitalis hair tonic. And Jones Realty was Ferer’s Variety Store, where Williams remembers goods stacked to the ceiling and Dudley got his first bathing suit.
There were three groceries on Middle Street, according to the 1950-51 City Directory—Presto at Station 18, Triangle at Station 24, and Simmons Market at Station 26 1/2. Soon after, the Kalman family, owners of the Triangle Grocery, opened another store at Station 22 1/2 (now Taco Mamacita). The Godwin family owned a liquor store (now Dunleavy’s) in that block, and there were a couple restaurants although nothing fancy— the Breakers and Brownell’s lunch counter, which became Wurthmann’s Pharmacy, then Bert’s Bar, and now Home Team BBQ.
In today’s conversations about the preservation of the quality of life on Sullivan’s Island, it is valuable to consider that the island has always evolved as families, businesses, and even churches come and go. From military base to summer resort to suburb, from rural to residential, from trolleys to swing-spans to gridlock, Sullivan’s Island draws people to come and stay and create lifelong memories. Perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned from the Southerly Breakfast Club is one of gratitude for what was, with the wisdom to understand that things will always change. The best constant of all is friendship.