Marsh tacky at Honey Horn brings Lowcountry heritage full circle

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Marsh tacky at Honey Horn brings Lowcountry heritage full circle

By DAVID LAUDERDALE
dlauderdale@islandpacket.com
Published Saturday, November 17, 2012   |  965 Words  |  

Comet has landed on Hilton Head Island.

How the little star got here is a tale that soars far beyond his humble Lowcountry beginnings.

Comet is a marsh tacky horse -- the breed left in our marshes 500 years ago by Spanish explorers, and recently named the state's heritage horse for helping warriors, hunters and the sea island Gullah survive.

But Comet's story takes a peculiar orbit, flashing over the fabulous wealth of Wall Street in the Roaring Twenties, the electrification of America and the invention of radar. And then it comes back to earth in the simplest of all stories: boy loves horse.

Comet moved in last week at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn. He is a "living exhibit" in the museum's effort to document and explain the Lowcountry's heritage.

He was born 16 years ago on the Ridgeland farm of D.P. Lowther, who helped save the breed by buying them off the fast-developing sea islands and breeding them. Comet is the son of Hacksaw, who came off Daufuskie Island, and a mare whose mother or grandmother came from Hilton Head, Lowther said.

He came from the equestrian center at Brays Island Plantation near Sheldon, where for years he belonged to Landon K. Thorne III. He was used in quail hunts and trail rides until his recent retirement. Now he munches hay in a field beside the Honey Horn barn.

When Thorne was a boy, his grandfather owned Honey Horn and used it as a hunting preserve. He built that barn. And when young Landon arrived by private rail car and then a boat, he always ran to find his own little horse, a marsh tacky named Nellie Belle.

Comet has come full circle.

Loomis and Thorne

Landon Ketchum Thorne Sr. and his brother-in-law, Alfred Lee Loomis, acquired some 20,000 acres on Hilton Head from 1931 until selling to timbermen in 1950. The timbermen then developed the island into a much different place that would eventually have no hunting, and precious few marsh tackies.

Loomis and Thorne were business partners who amassed a fortune on Wall Street by devising holding companies to finance and plan the electric utilities that lit up America after World War I.

They merged very different skills to become so successful they bankrolled their own J-Class entry in the Americas Cup.

"Alfred was the slide rule, and my grandfather was the salesman," said Thorne.

Loomis was a lawyer by vocation, but a scientist at heart. He left Wall Street at the height of his career to develop the best scientific laboratory his money could buy. The story of how he helped the Allies win World War II with the invention of radar is best told in the book "Tuxedo Park," by Jennet Conant.

The complex financial instruments devised by Loomis and Thorne are best explained in a newer book, "740 Park: The Story of the World's Richest Apartment Building" by Michael Gross.

Through it all, the Lowcountry was much more than a passing fancy to a sporting family that could go anywhere.

"We've had a long history in this part of the country for 200 years," Thorne said.

His great-grandfather owned Tomotley Plantation in Beaufort County. Family members were in the Pineland Club in Jasper County and founding members of the Okeetee Club near Ridgeland.

When his grandfather left the exclusive Okeetee hunting club, it was natural for him to buy his own place nearby.

That was Hilton Head.

Wonder horse

Thorne wasn't yet 10 when his family sold their island holdings for a little more than $1 million and left. He often wondered what Nellie Belle was doing. But soon, he was off to Italy, where his banker father carried out the Marshall Plan for President Eisenhower. Thorne's brother, David, is today America's ambassador to Italy. His late sister, Julia, was the first wife of David's roommate at Yale University, U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Thorne believes it's because he was the oldest of his siblings that the Lowcountry was imprinted on him so deeply. It's why he moved his family here from South Florida in the mid 1990s and why one of his first acts in the Lowcountry was to hound D.P. Lowther into selling him a marsh tacky with coloring just like Nellie.

His family had a Labrador at the time, and when they threw the dog a ball, Comet tried to retrieve it. They got Comet his own special ball, which he retrieved. Comet thought he should come in the house when the dog came in; and he peered in windows.

At Brays Island, everyone fell in love with Comet. He sometimes had to lead the larger, fancier, more expensive horses past alligators.

Thorne has worked with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy to help get the marsh tacky stud book in place so the breed can be properly preserved.

All along, Brays Island and Thorne knew Comet would have a proper retirement.

"He's now in a perfect place," Thorne said. "He's come back to his roots. He's on an island on the coast. He's at a place that probably his bloodline comes from, and he's not going to have to work very hard. Certain horses win the Good Luck Sweepstakes and I think that's Comet, the imperial wonder horse. He can now hang out in the splendor he is entitled to with his presumed royalty."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.