Hobcaw: Tranquil Sanctuary
To statesman Bernard Baruch, Hobcaw was a coastal paradise.
by Dan Harmon
More than 100 miles of dirt roads lace Hobcaw Barony - which is the main reason unguided tours are not allowed. A newcomer could get lost just trying to find the way between the estate's two grand homes, Hobcaw House and Bellefield, more than three miles apart.
The wildlife refuge covers 17,500 acres of Waccamaw Neck just outside Georgetown. It impresses the first-time visitor today the same way it impressed Ella A. Severin, Bellefield's resident who came here in 1951 from France. "I had never seen anything like it. The vegetation is very different. And I had never seen a house like Hobcaw House, or like Bellefield."
Hope Kennedy, biologist and education coordinator at the Bellefield Nature Center at the barony's entrance, sums up the most amazing things about it: "Its size. And the diversity of habitat. And to have an area this big that's not developed on Waccamaw Neck. . . . Amazing isn't the word. It's a blessing, because the salt marsh is pristine; we don't have any pollution going into the oyster beds. It really is a wonderful place to take children. When I'm out there, I know no one else is going to be there. It's just me and the teacher and chaperones and 30 little ones."
For today's generation, the best news is that in all this time, as Miss Severin says, "it has not changed - except that there are more roads."
Miss Severin is an original trustee and the executive director of the Belle W. Baruch Foundation, a private, nonprofit entity dedicated to teaching and research in forestry, wildlife biology and marine science. She oversees the sprawling legacy established by Camden native and financier Bernard M. Baruch and ultimately left by his daughter Belle Wilcox Baruch for South Carolina universities and colleges to use. The father, who began acquiring the property (originally 11 rice plantations) in 1905, rose to great wealth and power on Wall Street in the first half of this century. The daughter was a world-class equestrienne and sailor who later became widely respected for her charitable work.
On the premises are Clemson University's Belle W. Baruch Forest Science Institute and USC's Belle W. Baruch Institute for Marine Biology and Coastal Research. Both Bernard Baruch and his daughter were interested in higher education. "When he first timbered Hobcaw Barony, he gave the money to Converse College and Wofford," notes Sammy McIntosh, associate executive director of the foundation.
The Baruch Foundation also operates a public education program through the Bellefield Nature Center at the property entrance on U.S. 17. The center provides guided tours of Hobcaw two days a week, field studies for school groups and special programs throughout the year.
Hobcaw's heritage is rich in both natural and political history. At Hobcaw House, Bernard Baruch hosted world leaders and countless less-well-known visitors. There are photographs of him with his two close friends: Winston Churchill, who came with his daughter in 1932, and James F. Byrnes - a full head short-er than the towering Baruch. President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited for a month in 1944. Gen. Pershing of World War I prominence was a guest, as was Mrs. Woodrow Wilson. "When there were elections, both Republican and Democratic candidates came to him for his advice," Miss Severin says.
Baruch's hunting acreage was the talk of high society sportsmen. Field guides were the notorious Caines brothers, who lived on the property and whose carved duck decoys are now valuable collectors' items (see the January/February 1991 issue of Sandlapper). Wildlife was plentiful - and remains so, from thousands of wild hogs to alligators to bald eagles to the small jaguarundi. The famous guests arrived at the Hobcaw dock by barge; there were no bridges from the mainland.
Each year, Hobcaw was Baruch's winter residence. Then one morning in 1955 he came down to breakfast and announced he was leaving Hobcaw House for good. "He was lonely," Miss Severin explains. "All his old friends were gone."
He kept his word until his death in New York 10 years later, although he continued to visit his daughter at her Bellefield home.
Belle Baruch lived here and in New York from 1937 until her death in 1964. She possessed her father's passion for the outdoors - and for preserving Hobcaw's natural beauty.
The directors today are determined to continue the preservation. They resist the temptation to sell beachfront acreage or to allow the roads to be hard-surfaced. McIntosh wants to see a "Friends of Hobcaw" society. He and Miss Severin would like to see other colleges and universities establish a presence at Hobcaw for research.
Miss Severin hopes Hobcaw will "remain the way it is. No roads widened, no trees cut down - except for the wildlife. I hope we can preserve it. I hope that nothing will be changed."
Guided tours of Hobcaw Barony are offered Tuesdays and Thursdays. Advance reservations are required. Call (803) 546-4623.
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