The Seashore Farmers Lodge was once the heart of an early African American community in the South Carolina Sea Islands. When the Lodge fell into disrepair, the community it once served came together to preserve this historic site.
Sol Legare Island
Sol Legare Island is an approximately 860 acre island located on the coast of South Carolina on James Island just outside of Charleston. The area took its name from Solomon Legare (1797 – 1878), the antebellum plantation owner. The historic Sol Legare community is a rare surviving example of a largely African American community in the South Carolina Sea Islands, where most community members are descendants of its African American Freedmen founders.
Community Volunteers, Seashore Farmers Lodge (2021/2021) by Brandon CoffeyInternational African American Museum
Ernest Parks and Bill Cubby Wilder, 4th generation Lodge members and natives of Sol Legare Island.
The Civil War History of Sol Legare Island
During the Civil War (1861-1865), Sol Legare Island was the site of several camps, artillery positions and battles. At one point, nearly 5,200 Federal troops occupied the island. The 54th Massachusetts Regiment, who were the first African American troops, spent their final night prior to marching to battle at Fort Wagner on the grounds of this very site. Additionally, The Battle of Sol Legare Island (1863) was significant, claiming the lives of 14 soldiers, wounding 17, while 12 went missing. Soon after this battle, The Civil War concluded and at this point, Sol Legare Island as we know it began to take shape.
The Storming of Fort Wagner Lithograph (1890) by Kurz and AllenOriginal Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection
The Storming of Fort Wagner, Lithograph by Kurz and Allen, From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.
Sol Legare at the Turn of the Century
At the turn of the century this small island began to transform into a rural farming community, concentrating on the bounties of both the land and the sea. Truck farming was an extremely popular, growing industry and the long, narrow plats (shown in this aerial photo taken in 1934) enabled this style to foster within the community.
Lodge Provided Insurance for Small Farmers
In the early 1900s there were harvests as far as the eye can see, ending only where the fields met the rivers. The existence of The Seashore Farmers Lodge helped the farming community to thrive and survive, coming to the aid of its members and their families in times of need, providing them with a sense of insurance.
Farm Table, Seashore Farmers Lodge (2021) by Toni CarrierInternational African American Museum
This exhibit in the Lodge's museum area depicts a family farm table that might have been seen in the Sol Legare truck farming community.
Fishing Net, Seashore Farmers Lodge (2021) by Toni CarrierInternational African American Museum
Fishing net used in early 20th century Sol Legare community, where fishing and truck farming were primary economic pursuits. This net is now on exhibit at the Seashore Farmers Lodge museum.
Landmarks on Sol Legare Island
In addition to the Seashore Farmers Lodge, many other area landmarks can be found on Sol Legare lsland. One of the Charleston area’s first African American schools can be found still standing today and is used as a community center. During the era of segregation, Mosquito Beach, a once thriving social gathering spot, was host to African Americans from all over – many being notable figures. The Mosquito Beach Historic District was listed to the National Register of Historic Places on September 23, 2019.
Today's Sol Legare
Today, the island’s emphasis has shifted from an agricultural farming community to one which focuses on its vast history. The Sol Legare community is one of its only kind remaining in most of the South, with most of its residents being direct descendants of the original settlers. With its enticing beauty and through the efforts of The Concerned Citizens of Sol Legare Foundation, the entire corridor is a tribute to Lowcountry African American agricultural communities throughout the South.
The Seashore Farmers Lodge
The Seashore Farmers Lodge 767 is a significant illustration of fraternal orders in the cultural life of Lowcountry African American communities in the early twentieth century. Part of the larger affiliate, IFLUJ (International Farmers’ Liberty Union Justice), lodges such as The Seashore Farmers Lodge 767 were, along with the church, the heart of the community.
Drummers in Lodge Parade (1940/1940) by Mamie ChavisInternational African American Museum
Members of the Seashore Farmers Lodge 767 participate in a Fourth of July Parade, ca. 1930-1940. Photo courtesy of Mamie Chavis.
Drums from Lodge Parades, Seashore Farmers Lodge (2021/2021) by Brandon CoffeyInternational African American Museum
Communication and cooperation with other lodges in the area and annual lodge parades and gatherings helped cement ties with the wider African American community.
Mutual Aid Societies in the Lowcountry
In the 1930s, there were at least 37 mutual aid societies in the South Carolina Lowcountry, and The Seashore Farmers Lodge 767 was instrumental in the founding of several. Seashore Lodge became the “mother lodge” to other IFLUJ lodges on James and Johns Islands - Solomon, Riverside and Seaside. The lodges helped each other as much as possible, and all lodges in the Lowcountry would join together for parades in town.
The Lodge as the Center of the Community
The Lodge provided, as its creed mandated, support for its members and celebration of life with music and recreation. If a member “defaulted” at the end of a growing season or had other problems with a crop, the Lodge would help buy seeds for the coming year. The Lodge provided health and life insurance and current information on farming. If a member or a member’s family was ill, the Lodge members would “nurture” them; they gave money if possible and provided assistance with the home and children.
Assistance, Recreation, and Education
The Seashore Farmers Lodge also provided assistance, recreation and education for the community; they raised money for the local Sunday school, and hosted Vacation Bible School for the area children.When a resident of the Sol Legare community died, a drum was sounded from the Lodge to inform the community of the death. Lodge members would serve as pallbearers for other members and assisted the bereaved in any way they could, including with the Lodge’s death benefit (if the deceased was an active member who had paid.)
The Lodge members were small farmers, bound together by familial and community ties. Members were mostly family members of original Lodge members and were residents of Sol-Legare, though some were from “over the pond.” Members brought their children into the Lodge, creating a bond that would last for generations to come.
Lodge Rituals and Meetings
The Lodge rituals were typical of secret societies and strong ties were representative of these Lowcountry farming communities and the bonds shared. In 1915, through their own sweat equity, the members of the Lodge built a two-story building on land (purchased for less than $30!) belonging to member, Henry Wallace. Lodge members met in the upstairs room of the lodge.
Time Takes Its Toll
The late 1980s found The Seashore Farmers Lodge 767 in disrepair and a series of hurricanes and tropical storms in the 2000s led this structure further down a path of destruction, deeming it nearly condemned from the hope of being inhabited again.
Sol Legare (2006/2006) by Richard C. DavisInternational African American Museum
Sol Legare (1960/1960) by Corie HippInternational African American Museum
History Comes Full Circle
Then history came full circle: the community once supported by the lodge came together to preserve this sacred site. Here, Arthur Wilder and Johnry Walker, both 4th generation Lodge descendants, discuss the renovation project.
In 1998, the Lodge members Bill Cubby Wilder, Art Wilder, Ed Wilder and Johnry Walker (all 4th generation descendants) began focusing on ways to save the structure. Fundraisers were held, but the structure was in pretty bad shape and estimates were astronomical. Although many told them it was an impossible feat, the community of Sol Legare and its volunteers forged onward. In 2006, Bill Cubby Wilder approached James Island native, Richard C. Davis of Trademark Properties who was using the structure as the intro to the hit TV series “Flip This House”. He decided to help Bill Cubby Wilder restore the structure to its original state and feature the project as an episode on the show. Davis appointed Trademark’s then Communications Coordinator, Corie Hipp to work directly with Cubby and the community to get the property listed on the National Register of Historic Places, generate media recognition, look for funding and to begin forming a plan for a full rehabilitation. On October 3, 2007, the structure was placed on The National Register of Historic Places, but it was still a small tropical storm away from complete demise. In 2007, Bill Cubby Wilder started to assemble a group of volunteers from Folly Beach, including Chris Wilkerson and Susan Breslin. They introduced Cubby to Michael Riffert who would later be the contractor and Rick Moutz, who served as architect.
Ernest Parks Joins the Effort
In 2008, all of the stars aligned when then Town Councilman Bill Cubby Wilder facilitated a $55,000 grant from the town of James Island and Ernest Parks (a 4th generation descendant) moved back to town from Atlanta. Ernest was not only the ideal candidate to oversee the project, but also an historian with an avid interest in preserving and presenting the history of his community for others. A plan was formed and the group was finally ready to move forward with what seemed to be near impossible.
Through the grant from the Town of James Island, countless volunteer hours, several other grants, donations, community support, and mostly through the unfaltering dedication of its volunteer committee, it was time to start construction.
A Complicated Project
On February 16, 2009, the restoration began and would involve several intricate steps to ensure the building retained its historical significance throughout the construction process. Local Contractor, Michael Riffert, headed up the restoration initiative, with the help of many community volunteers including 5th generation descendant, Hope Wilder Brown, Sol Legare resident, Vance Sudano (pictured here), historian, Paul Hedden.
Retaining the Lodge's Historical Integrity
During the restoration, the foundation was converted into a continuous footer with several piers. In addition, the original porch (which had blown away during a hurricane) was replaced with like materials. The roof was replaced with similar 5v crimped aluminum to replicate the original. Volunteers carefully cleaned and replaced the original bead-board siding, however for the pieces they couldn’t salvage, a local company (The Timber Shop) milled an exact replica. An ADA-compliant restroom and ramp were added to meet today’s standards. An emergency stairwell and additional restroom were added upstairs.
On April 16, 2011 The Seashore Farmers Lodge Museum and Cultural Center held its grand opening. That same year, the hard work of those who came together to save this sacred structure was recognized with preservation awards from the SC African American Heritage Commission, the Palmetto Trust, the Preservation Society of Charleston and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
New But Familiar Heart of the Community
The Lodge resumed its place at the heart of the Sol Legare community and will serve a new role in commemorating Lowcountry African American agricultural communities at the turn of the century, as they transcend to the present. Pictured here at the Lodge's grand opening are 3rd generation and 6th generation descendants of original Lodge members. Today the Lodge serves as a living history museum. The museum features a diorama of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment’s siege on Battery Wagner, many relics and exhibits relevant to the lifestyle of Coastal African American communities like Sol Legare, oral histories and more.
Many thanks to the Seashore Farmers Lodge and their dedicated volunteers, especially Bill Cubby Wilder, Arthur Wilder, Johnry Walker, Ed Wilder, Corie Hipp and Ernest Parks, for their contributions to this project.
Thank you to Brandon Coffey for his photographs of the Seashore Farmers Lodge.