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Bernard Baruch’s Hobcaw Barony

Posted: September 4, 2014 9:02 a.m.
Updated: September 5, 2014 6:00 a.m.

Walk by the First Baptist Church in Camden and you’ll notice a sign marking the birthplace of Bernard Baruch, who went on to earn millions on Wall Street and become an advisor to presidents.

But ask many Camdenites today about Baruch and they’ll have little idea what he did, despite the fact that he’s recently been memorialized by a statue in front of the Camden Archives.

Baruch was an astute investor. He made buckets of money, and in the early 1900s, he purchased a 16,000-acre tract between Winyah Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, near Georgetown, to be used as a winter hunting retreat.

His oldest child, Belle, eventually bought the property from him and upon her death in 1964, it was transferred to the Belle W. Baruch Foundation;  it’s operated today as a nature and research preserve.

I recently toured Hobcaw Barony, which is what Baruch called the property, and it was fascinating, indeed. Officials there were pleased to have someone from Camden on the tour since it’s Baruch’s birthplace.

The massive property -- it equates to 25 square miles -- is home to all sorts of environmental and wildlife research, but much of its attraction, in addition to its great natural beauty, lies in its history.

The plantation house that still stands hosted innumerable dignitaries and celebrities, among them President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Our tour guide, Alen Tuten, was a bewhiskered, molasses-voiced Lowcountry native who delighted in the many stories he told about Hobcaw’s various personalities. He made the preserve come alive with his sparkling anecdotes.

Among the highlights I took away:

• Baruch’s father, Simon Baruch, was a Confederate doctor who was known as “the lucky surgeon” because so many of his patients survived. Only later did they figure out that maybe there was a reason for that:  he was the only surgeon who insisted on washing his hands and his instruments after every patient rather than diving right back into another one.

• There were no state or federal bag limits on duck hunting back then, but Baruch decreed that all hunting had to be finished by 10 a.m.; you could shoot as many as you wished up until then. Baruch once killed 256 ducks in one morning.

• The Baruchs were a tall family -- Bernard being 6 feet 4 inches and Belle standing 6 feet 2 inches -- and the cushions on the custom-made sofas were extraordinarily wide to fit their height. Average people might sit on them and find their feet sticking straight out.

• Winston Churchill, being a short man, eschewed the sofas in favor of a chosen living room chair, which was shorter and had a table beside it for his Scotch whiskey. The chair was placed sat next to the fireplace, so Churchill could blow his cigar smoke up the chimney.

• Belle, according to one biography, “could outride, outshoot, outhunt and outsail most of the young men of her elite social circle -- abilities that distanced her from other debutantes of 1917.”  So did the fact that she lived quite openly as a lesbian in a day when such things were normally kept hush-hush.

• The “big house” was 13,000 square feet and was built only a couple years after the stock market crash of 1929, so Baruch might have lost some of his money during the depression, but he certainly had plenty left.

• A small dirt road on the preserve is part of the original King’s Highway, the first major road built in the United States.

• With both Clemson and USC having research stations at Hobcaw, there’s plenty going on every day. The water quality on the preserve has been tested every single day since 1955, with the exception of the four days immediately following Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

Hobcaw Barony’s a treasure, and if you find yourself anywhere near Georgetown, it’s certainly worth a few hours of your time.


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