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Curiosity gnawed at Jim Benford until he broke down and whipped out his tape measure.
The Sea Pines retiree stretched what was his dad's gray, metallic tape around the trunk of a live oak in the overgrown lot at the corner of Squire Pope Road and William Hilton Parkway. His wife held one end, he pulled the other, then gasped at the tree's circumference of 24 feet 11 inches. He divided by pi to get a diameter of almost 8 feet.
"As I looked at it, I wondered how old it is," he wrote in an e-mail to the Packet. "I also wondered if it had a history of interest."
The tree might be the oldest living thing on Hilton Head Island. It's hard to tell how old a tree is, said Sally Krebs, natural resources administrator for the Town of Hilton Head Island. But she said it's one of the biggest trees on the island. A local arborist speculates the tree -- and one just like it a few yards away -- were here long before English Capt. William Hilton "discovered" the island in 1663.
And if local history was carved into the silent trunk Benford measured, every facet of our era would appear. The tales of struggling settlers and Gullah natives, followed by timbering and the wheeling and dealing of investors and developers, would all show up.
A post office, two different magistrate's courts and even a little health department took root at that intersection. It was our sandy version of Grand Central Station before the first bridge was built in 1956. Magistrate and businessman J.B. Hudson lived across the street, and one of his oaks served as a "prison." On the rare occasion anyone was bad enough to have to go the jail, they'd be chained to the tree to wait for the next boat to Beaufort.
These days, you can barely see the abandoned woodframe house beneath the giant oaks. Pat and Wilma Hodge lived there for the better part of 30 years. Pat was one of the first employees of the Hilton Head Co., founded in 1949 by four Georgia families. The Fraser, Hack, McIntosh and Stebbins families came to timber old hunting grounds, buying 20,000 acres for $1,080,000, and ended up as developers.
Pat Hodge was an operations guy, and he later took over as magistrate. Wilma worked in the post office. Ethel Hudson Propst recalls first meeting Wilma when she was a child. They were both working in a tomato field.
Barbara Hudson lived next door to the Hodges when she was growing up. She said children grabbed fat ropes dangling from those oak trees "and it'd seem like you'd swing for 10 miles." Barbara and Gracie Hodge and their brothers built a tree house big enough to hold three kids in the tree that now leans out over Lam's Tailors next door.
"We were Tarzan and Jane," said Barbara, who's now 62.
"Imagination is all we had at that point."
THE BIG DEAL
Two decades later, the oak trees would be swept up in changes that stretched the imagination of every man, woman and child on the island.
It was 1971, and the island stood at a crossroads as the original developers -- known as "benevolent dictators" -- edged into the jerky process of ceding control to others. The McIntosh family wanted to sell its portion of the Hilton Head Co., and a surprise group came to the table at the last minute. Almost overnight, deals involving thousands of acres and millions of dollars left the oaks -- and the island's future -- in the hands of a second wave of Georgia investors.
To this day, the gigantic oaks are owned by the heirs of Jack Pearce Ashmore Jr., an Atlanta legal giant who brokered the deals that saw 4,000 acres that's now Hilton Head Plantation go one way, 1,000 acres that today includes Palmetto Hall Plantation go another, and Port Royal Plantation landing with a Philadelphia financial services company.
The oaks stand on the last 12 acres of island land owned by anyone in Ashmore's group of prominent Georgians -- railroad owners Ben J. Tarbutton Jr., and his brother, Hugh M. Tarbutton, of Sandersville, and investment broker Herbert C. Skinner Jr. of Savannah.
They were known to the McIntoshes as fine people of worth, but they were never high profile here. Ashmore was known as a partner and real estate genius at Troutman Sanders, a blue-blood law firm that at the time included his name. For the most part, the Georgians bought, sold and moved on with a tidy profit. They never lived here, and never developed a thing, but they did facilitate the Whooping Crane Conservancy in Hilton Head Plantation for tax purposes.
The Ashmore heirs ended up with various smaller plots around the island as the Georgians sorted out the details in 1976. They've been good stewards of the land by leaving it alone all this time. With Jack Ashmore's brother an officer in the Cousins Properties development empire based in Atlanta, surely they could have schemed up many a "highest and best use" for their holdings along William Hilton Parkway.
Song birds love the benevolent neglect at the Squire Pope Road corner. They've got the keys to a place where islanders' dreams have swung through the years like Tarzan -- reaching out for everything from tomatoes to real estate investment trusts.
The oak trees are healthy as bird dogs, and they aren't going anywhere.
"No matter what happens to the land, those trees will be preserved," John W. Akridge Jr. of Highlands, N.C., told me Friday. He co-owns the land they stand on, and has represented the heirs of his friend and partner Jack Ashmore since he died unexpectedly in 1979 when he was only 46.
I think the town should buy the land, just as it has previously bought other tracts owned by the Ashmore heirs. Then the town should carefully landscape the corner lot so two of the grandest oak trees in the Lowcountry can come out of hiding. It would certainly be appropriate for them to greet everyone coming onto the island, and say good-bye as they leave.
Akridge said he and Ashmore's wife, brother and two children would like to see that, too.