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Hilton Head Island: From Lumber Industry to Tourism to a Building Boom

Posted by Bill True on Thursday, July 19th, 2018 at 9:53am.


south carolina lumber

A businessman and his son, descendants of a family tracing its history in South Carolina to 1735, had probably the single greatest effect on the economics of the Lowcountry. His name was James Lide Coker and the Cokers called Hartsville, South Carolina home, over 180 miles from Hilton Head.

james lide cokerIn 1890, Mr. Coker and his eldest son, James, began a search for a way to turn Southern pine trees into pulp for papermaking, and three years later they had perfected the process. Shipping costs for the pulp made this business unprofitable, however, the Cokers being resourceful folk decided to build a paper mill closer to home.

And thus began the industry that would dominate much of the Bluffton, Hilton Head area of the Lowcountry through two-thirds of the twentieth-century.

Initially the paper produced in the Coker plant was used primarily for packaging, one of their earlier successes were cone-shaped yarn carriers. However, the United States was on the cusp of the era of the newspaper, reaching its zenith in the late fifties – early sixties with over 7,000 newspapers including dailies, weeklies, morning and evening editions.

The Coker plant was overshadowed by the massive producers of newsprint that sprouted in and around South Carolina during the first sixty-years of the twentieth century.

newprint plants, south carolina


But all that was about to change and the resilient people of the Lowcountry were about to reinvent their economy and embrace the next wave of economic good fortune.

Television and internet-based technology seriously diminished the demand for newsprint. Thus, lumber or paper companies looked for ways to dispose of their vast landholdings planted with timber. However, simultaneously, developers of resorts and retirement communities looked at the same massive amounts of acreage with visions of a future paradise dancing in their heads.

harbour town lighthouseThe first three of these visionaries were the Frasers, Joseph Bacon Fraser, a timber baron who saw the shift for the Lowcountry from paper to paradise and his two sons, Charles E. Fraser and Joseph B. Fraser Jr. In 1957 the two young Frasers, led by their father, began the process of developing 5,200 acres of woodland on Hilton Head Island that ultimately became the world-renowned Sea Pines Plantation. By 1971 the company had 135,000 acres under development.

The forward momentum for the Frazer family ended with the dramatic rise in interest rates to near twelve-percent by 1974. Over the ensuing 24 years the development and maintenance of Sea Pines changed hands several times, however, during that period all three elements of the ‘New Lowcountry Economy’ can be found in Sea Pines, Resorts, Rental Vacation Homes and the building of permanent homes for families of all ages, newlyweds through retirement.

New developments seemed to come alive every year as Hilton Head and Bluffton entered the 1990s. Belfair, Colleton River, Old Field, Berkley Hall, Moss Creek and Rose Hill, are a few, but the one that has had the greatest impact on the local economy was the brainchild of a national developer, Del Webb. Interestingly, he bought the 5,000 acres that he developed from none other than a holdover from the previous economic boon, Argent Lumber Company, a transaction that reflected the re-purposing of land throughout the area.del webb sun city hilton head, entry sign

Del Webb built a self-contained community, Sun City Hilton Head, that as of this writing has over 14,000 residents, 2 Indoor Lap Pools, 4 Outdoor Resort-Style Pools, a 540-Seat Performing Arts Center, 45-Acre Town Center and Amenity Complex, 12 Har-Tru Tennis Courts, 12 Pickleball Courts, 12 Bocce Ball Courts and three 18-hole Golf Courses.

Needless to say, the revenue brought to the Hilton Head, Bluffton area by this huge community, when added to the dozens of other gated communities, far exceeds the size of the economy during the last use of the magnificent Lowcountry.

The Bluffton, Hilton Head journey of change appears to have been continuously for the better, could it be that we live in paradise and always have a positive attitude?

Interested in learning more about making a home on Hilton Head Island or Bluffton, SC? Please contact Bill True online or call 1-843-384-9088 to get in touch with an experienced and local real estate expert.

-Bill True

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