'Little House' gradually transformed into Gullah museum

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'Little House' gradually transformed into Gullah museum

By TOM BARTON
tbarton@islandpacket.com
843-706-8169
Published Tuesday, April 5, 2011   |  816 Words  |  

A daily reminder of Hilton Head Island's Gullah heritage has withstood more than 80 years of wear and tear.

Now, thanks to volunteers, what used to be a crumbling, wood-framed house should last at least 80 more.

Volunteers with the Hilton Head Area Home Builders Association recently finished exterior renovations to the "Little House" at 187 Gumtree Road that will serve as the first piece of a planned Gullah museum.

Louise Cohen, a fifth-generation native islander, began renovating the house built in the 1930s last year, ridding it of termites, replacing the roof and rotted beams, securing the foundation, and transforming it into the first building of the Hilton Head Gullah Museum.

Two local companies, Reclamation by Design and Reclaimed Building Materials Inc., tracked down materials similar to those used when the house was built. Hilton Head Exterminators protected it from termites. The entire project is valued at about $40,000.

"It has the same look from back in the day," said volunteer Don Lee, a member of the home builders association. "We brought it up to today's standards. It'll withstand a hurricane and last as long as a comparable new house would last without maintenance. It gives it some longevity."

The house features a Plexiglas window so visitors can look in to see how islanders lived before a bridge connected Hilton Head to the mainland in 1956.

Workers will move now to the inside of the house for finishing touches, including finding newsprint from the 1940s, '50s and '60s. Islanders used newspaper as wallpaper to seal cracks and insulate their homes, as store-bought wallpaper was expensive and difficult to come by.

Final work to the house is expected to be completed this summer.

Plans include restoring two additional houses on the property -- one-room shacks that once housed migrant workers -- and building a replica of the five-room home Cohen grew up in that was built in 1926 by her adoptive father.

Cohen also hopes to restore the body of the first 18-wheeler that carried lumber to the island, which was later converted into living space for Cohen's aunt after her home burned down.

"That will show what our people had to do to make do. We couldn't throw things away. We had to use what we had to meet our needs -- what was available to us -- because we couldn't afford much and we were somewhat shut off," Cohen said.

Cohen, founder and director of the Gullah museum, was recognized Friday with the Governor's Award for Lifetime Achievement in Preservation for her efforts. The museum received a separate award from the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation.

The museum is on land purchased by Cohen's great-grandfather, William Simmons, after he stole away from a plantation on Lady's Island during the Civil War. He became a Union soldier and eventually settled on Hilton Head in Mitchelville, touted as the nation's first freed-slave village.

The Gullah culture arose from slaves brought to South Carolina and Georgia from West and Central Africa to work the rice, cotton and indigo plantations. But real estate development, evolving job markets and population shifts forced many to leave their traditional family lands. The culture's mix of African, Caribbean and European influences is threatened, national experts say.

Carrie Hirsch, a museum board member, said the Little House renovation is part of a larger renaissance taking place on Hilton Head and nationally over the past four years to develop a plan to preserve the Gullah culture.

Hirsch envisions the island's north end turning into "museum row," with the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn, the Gullah museum and the planned Mitchelville Freedom Park.

"We have an abundance of history and culture on the island. It is rich and it is untapped," she said. "People are hungry for the history of what Hilton Head was like before the Civil War, during the Civil War and after. There were no doctors or hospitals. It was a farming and bartering community. It was a pioneer life where you made do with what you had.

"As a coastal, isolated place, it was a struggle to live. But what I've learned from the Gullah elders was they had happy lives. ... We want to dispel this myth of rampant poverty, because of the amount of natural resources that were available to them."

Hirsch said the museum is also collecting family photos for a pictorial book it hopes to publish about Gullah life from the end of the Civil War to 1956.

"We want to inspire people to jump on the preservation bandwagon on Hilton Head, whether it's our project or others," she said. "We are gaining momentum on this island in that direction."