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An Author Sees the City as a Study in Contrasts

BY RUTH RAGLAND
FROM "BLUFFTON TODAY"

“The magnetism of Beaufort is the natural setting,” says Alexia Jones Helsley, author of “Beaufort, South Carolina: A History.”  “When you hit Whale Branch you roll the window down so you can smell the mud.”

Helsley moved to Beaufort from Kentucky as a child when her father became pastor of the Baptist Church of Beaufort in 1955.

“As a child in Kentucky, I had never heard of South Carolina,” she said.  “so when Dad told us we were moving, my sister and I burst into tears.

“What I remember at first about Beaufort are the heat and the mosquitoes.  Dad had his office in the parsonage and so we did have one air conditioned room that we sort of fought over who was going to get to stay in.

“The parsonage was on the river and I fell in love with the water and the marsh – you could just stand for hours and look at it,” she said of growing up in Beaufort.

She would go on to graduate from Beaufort High School in the class of 1963 with novelist Pat Conroy.

“I was editor of the high school newspaper and he was one of my writers,” she said.  “We knew he could write and he had a fertile imagination.

“I think we had rather an unusual graduating class, the class of ’63 – it was very bright group of kids,” she said of the class that included sculptor Daisy Youngblood, who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2003.  “Pat just added to the mix.

“One time we had an assembly and he was president of the senior class,” she recalled.  “He was supposed to give a talk about the powder puff football game.

“The senior girls had lost.  He just took a napkin there in the cafeteria and he just wrote a little poem – he could write at the drop of a hat,” she said.

Helsley is an adjunct professor of history at the University of South Carolina Aiken.  She has spent 37 years as an archivist with the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.

She recently taped “Branches,” an eight-part program for SC-ETV on how historians and genealogists can use state records.

Her interest in history began with her father taking her to historic sites and cemeteries.

“In Beaufort you had so many places to visit – the Chapel of Ease, the lighthouse and driving through Penn Center,” she said.  “The churches have wonderful cemeteries, so history was sort of all around.

“The stories that you heard were about the Big Bang – the battle of Port Royal Harbor – and about the hurricane in 1940.

“I was there when Gracie came through and I believe there is this residual memory of that great storm of 1893 which hit at high tide and covered the island with a huge loss of life – they can’t even figure out how many died.

“When Gracie came that was what people said – ‘thank goodness it hit at low tide.’”

Hurricane Gracie hit in 1959.  Its drenching rains and 145 mph winds caused four local deaths, damaged 2,394 area homes, destroyed 12 shrimp boats and wrought $4 million (about $24 million in 2003 value) in damage.

“Gracie was quite exciting because we didn’t know what we were getting into,” Helsley recalled.

“It looked like a battle zone and all of the causeways were washed out around the bridges – you couldn’t get to the mainland.

“All the electric lines were down, there was no running water and they brought the Marines over to try to clean up the streets.

“I remember we had a picture window that looked out on the bay,” she said.  “So many limbs were down it blocked the view of the water from the house.

“Mother had frozen peaches, so we had peaches and Spam,” she said.  “I have no affection for Spam because if you opened a can you had to eat the whole thing or it would spoil.

“My story was the light and the dark, the contrast which I think is so Beaufort, the shadows and the sunlight, and it applies in so many aspects of Beaufort’s history and Beaufort’s life – these contradictions,” she said of her book.

“In a sense I think of the book as a love letter to Beaufort,” Helsley said.  “Moving to Beaufort changed my life and opened up so many different avenues for me.

“If somebody said ‘Oh, they were sure they went through Beaufort,’ we thought, ‘Nope, you haven’t been anywhere near the place.’”