By Barney Blakeney
As part of initiatives to preserve the historic James Island community of Sol Legare, residents and preservationists are taking a number of steps. October 27, they continue the effort to preserve locally famous Mosquito Beach when Historic Charleston Foundation hosts ‘History Harvest’ 12 noon -5 p.m. at the Seashore Farmers Lodge on Sol Legare Road. The family friendly event is part of the initiatives to preserve one of the community’s primary assets, Mosquito Beach.
The residents of the Sol Legare comprise a close-knit community founded by former slaves. After the Civil War, the 850- acre Solomon Legare plantation was divided and sold to freed slaves. They sustained themselves on the rich farm land and bountiful marine life abundant in the surrounding Folly and Stono rivers and creeks.
Families that include the Richardsons, Walkers, Wilders, Backmans, Wallaces, Browns, Gailliards, Greens, Chavis’, Cromwells and Ladsons could grow enough food and catch enough seafood to feed themselves and to sell, said William ‘Cubby’ Wilder who added that a sense of pride is inherited by Sol Legare residents because it is one of James Island’s few areas where newly freed slaves owned their land.
That communal spirit was a part of the fabric of the community and in 1915 led to the construction of Sol Legare Seashore Farmers Lodge which marks the site of the Massachusetts 54th’s Battle of Sol Legare. The building served as a community center and union hall. Functions at the lodge included community fundraisers that helped families in financial distress, movie shows and teas also were held at the lodge. Most holidays were celebrated with activities at the lodge.
In the early days most commuting was done by boat. Each family whether they had waterfront property or not, had a place where they could dock their boats. The boat docks were called landings and bore the owner’s name. On the Folly River a white businessman leased some property and operated an oyster shucking factory which employed community residents. The factory’s demise in the early 1950s ushered in another phase in Sol Legare history, the advent of Mosquito Beach.
When the oyster factory closed Wilder’s uncle, Andrew ‘Apple’ Wilder, at his landing constructed a boardwalk. On the shore, he opened a waterfront entertainment club. The attractions drew crowds from around the area and became so financially successful, other property owners opened clubs. Eventually the attractions at Mosquito Beach included several clubs, a restaurant and 14-room motel. Mosquito Beach became a popular weekend entertainment venue that drew visitors from around the Lowcountry and beyond well into the 1990s.
And one of the area’s most prominent seafood businesses, Backman’s Seafood, was owned by a Sol Legare family. The family at one time had a fleet of six vessels that fished local waters and the Gulf of Mexico, Wilder said.
The Sol Legare community has received funding from several sources to assist in preserving its cultural heritage. Most recently it received a grant of some $43,000 from the National Park Service to document the community’s history. That money will sponsor the History Harvest event where facilitators will record stories about Mosquito Beach and the Sol Legare community. Wilder said they also have applied for a second grant to be used to restore structures at Mosquito Beach.
Like many predominantly Black waterfront communities, Sol Legare is struggling to survive in spite of development and gentrification. Wilder thinks Sol Legare’s resilience will enable its survival. Mosquito Beach may never return to its former prominence, but businesses like the Island Breeze Jamaican restaurant and the beach’s oldest club, P&J which is in the process of reopening, signal a resurrection. Wilder envisions Mosquito Beach’s return. The young folks just have to hold on to the land, he said.