Beaufort Then & Now: Memories of summers at the Sea Island Hotel

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By R. Ray Kearns
The Sea Island Hotel was my summer playground as a child. My grandfather, Normadus M. Polk, known to us as Papa, was the proprietor of the Bay Street hotel from 1924 to 1947. The three story structure with wide covered porches bustled with activity every day. Not only was it filled with guests, but locals used it as a meeting place to pass the time of day. There were cooks, maids and even family members who worked there, but one person I remember in particular was an old black man who we all called Uncle Alfred. Uncle Alfred was the porter who greeted the guests as they parked their cars under one of the old tin sheds lined up behind the hotel. He’d carry their bags to their room then head back downstairs to his shoe shine stand in the registration area where guests would pay him a nickel to shine their shoes.  Every morning he’d start in the parlor then make his way up to each floor ringing a large bell and calling out, “All is for breckus,” which meant it was time to eat.
There was a family dining table and we could sit down at any time of day and order whatever we wanted off the menu.  A player piano in the parlor set the tone as old-timers gathered in the afternoon to visit or play Set Back at the corner card table. While the adults were being entertained, my cousins and I would run up to the third floor porch and climb onto the drainpipe, then slide all the way down to the ground. Sometimes we would climb onto the roof of a tin shed and eat the neighbor’s figs whose fig tree limbs stretched over the property line. Other times we’d race to the backyard where we’d play on top of the coal pile. Many a day, Mama, our grandmother, Mary Youmans Polk, would drag our coal dusted bodies into the nearest bath to clean us up before dinner.
When the weather was warm and the tide was high, we would swim off the McLeod’s dock which was located in front of the courthouse.  The tide would take us down to another dock and we’d run back up the river bank and start all over again.  Back in those days, boys’ bathing suits had a top.  It resembled a tank top and if we got caught not wearing one, the local policemen would send us home to get it or we couldn’t swim anymore.
Many afternoons we would sit on the porch and watch the sailboat races in the Beaufort River. There were two porch swings on either end of the porch, but the one on the right was always occupied by Papa. If he wasn’t already there, we didn’t hesitate to jump up when he did come out on the porch; we all knew that was his spot. But we didn’t mind because that’s when he would give us our sweet treat. Papa walked downtown every day. He’d stop by the People’s Bank, and then stop to buy us candy. He’d make sure the corner of the bag always stuck out of his coat pocket just to tease us.  He’d give one of us a piece, but tell us not to tell anybody.  Of course, we would immediately go straight to the rest of the kids and eat it in front of them. It didn’t take long for the others to bombard Papa for their share.
I looked forward to my summers in Beaufort. The small town lifestyle where everyone knew each other, where you were surrounded by family and friends was exactly what I wanted for my own family. So after I married and graduated college, I came back and settled down in the one place I always called home, Beaufort.

This moment in Beaufort’s history is an excerpt from the book “Beaufort … Then and Now,” an anthology of memories compiled by Holly Kearns Lambert. Copies of this book may be purchased at Beaufort Book Store.  For information or to contribute your memory, contact Holly at lowcountrymemories@hotmail.com or beaufortmemories@gmail.com.