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An Island Unto Themselves

An Island Unto Themselves

Learn all about Isle of Palms' neighbor, Goat Island.

By: Stephanie Hunt; Photos By: Catherine Moye; From 5757 Palm Magazine 

No waterlines, no sewer, no mailboxes. Just one dirt road – if you can even call it that – that makes up the infrastructure of Goat Island. A wild, two-mile stretch of land a stone’s throw away from Isle of Palms, still, its 29 residents wouldn’t have it any other way.

The road crew – a dozen or so intrepid resident dirt haulers and their “mules” (the four-wheelers most residents use for on-island travel) – is out in full force this crisp fall Saturday morning, during one of two annual ad-hoc “Road Days” on Goat Island. The task: to load fresh sand and dirt from the south end of the island and scatter it over Goat’s main, and only, road. The result: four hours of boisterous camaraderie, numerous off-color jokes and island-insider innuendo, fresh tire tracks on the one-lane road, and two broken-down mules. “One downright split in two,” says Goat Island resident and roll-up-his-sleeves roadies Wilson Smoak.

I’ve ventured out to Goat Island to meet Smoak and a few of his neighbors in order to get a feel for what life on this tiny island with a year-round population of 29 is all about. And to correct one glaring omission of my nearly quarter of a century as a Lowcountry resident: I’ve never been out here before.

“Well, I cannot believe that,” taunts Smoak, as I confess that I regularly bike along Isle of Palms Waterway Drive, enjoying peek-a-boo moments of looking out over to this dock-specked spit of land, but this is my first time ever setting foot on Goat Island. “It’s truly a unique place in the Greater Charleston area,” he says, his voice deep and gravelly and pure Southern, a dirt road kind of voice, the perfect match for his wizened face and signature bandana, which he sports a la Jack Sparrow.

Unique might be an understatement. Just a hop skip and barely a 10 minute boat jaunt from the Isle of Palms marina, Goat Island is a mere two-mile-long stretch of sand and maritime forest along the Intracoastal Waterway. The newly patched road/path, also known as “the leisure trail,” is the island’s only infrastructure, so to speak. A few utility poles with power lines (courtesy of SCE&G) run along it. But there are no waterlines, no sewer, no mailboxes. No big brown trash containers to be wheeled off to the curb – fire pits for burning trash will do just fine. Besides, there are no curbs. All homes are on the east side of that road, facing Isle of Palms and the Intracoastal, and across the road, on the Mount Pleasant side, all land is held in a conservation easement, so it will stay a tangled mess of pines and palms for perpetuity.

Nothing but a “neat jungle,” as Smoak calls it, and wide salt flats with spectacular sunsets where his neighbor, Bea Gindt, enjoys casting a line or two after work, and her energetic mutt, Foster, has run of the forest. Grindt, who ferried me over on her spiffy jon boat, is a 28-year-old avid fisherwoman and soon-to-be certified naturalist who works for The Nature Conservancy and has been renting a cottage next to the Smoaks for two years. If Smoak is the never-met-a-stranger, tale-tellin’, rascally retiree, she’s the island’s reserved, fresh-faced millennial. Yet both are smitten Goatees, and evidence that part of this scruffy island’s appeal is its assortment of colorful characters.

Indeed Goat Island’s modern history starts in the 1930s, with one of the Lowcountry’s most indelible characters, a man named Henry Holloway. A Charleston butcher whose meat shop had seen better days, Holloway and his wife Blanche left the hubbub and poverty of the post-Depression downtown to become squatters on the island, joining the only other inhabitants – a herd of feral goats. Their life was scrappy and primitive – a driftwood hut; food foraged from woods and waterway; tattered clothing (if clothing at all) and long, matted hair – and three decades of this self-exiled Thoreau-like lifestyle made Henry a.k.a. the Goat Man, and his allegedly “crazy” wife the stuff of legend. Boaters en route from Dewees or Capers would offer their leftover picnic supplies. People shook their heads in pity and dismay. Henry died at age 86 in 1962, and Blanche died a few years later, evidently from exposure on a particularly cold night. A real estate investor bought the island in the late 50s and began selling lots.

Today life on Goat Island is far more civilized, thanks to boats and “mules” and the conveniences of a Harris Teeter grocery store just a quick boat ride away on Isle of Palms. Amazon deliveries also go to the Isle of Palms post office. Some of the island’s swankier new homes could be Architectural Digest show houses, and yet there are plenty of bare-boned shacks to ensure Goat’s free-spirited aesthetic remains intact. Cat Moye’s rugged tree house of sorts, just a few doors down from Grindt’s cottage, is one of these iconic island abodes. Moye, a photographer, inherited it from her uncle who built it, or started to, himself. The wood-frame tower nestled among pines and palms has a rustic Swiss Family Robinson appeal. There’s a chicken coop, and hammocks and yard “art” are scattered about; by the road, Moye’s hand-painted “Free Eggs” sign signals the neighborly generosity that bind the island’s close-knit community. 

“People out here more or less look out for each other,” says Smoak, who also reports that only once in his seven years as a Goat Island resident has the sheriff ever been summoned. “And that was over a dog and cat issue,” he says. “It’s amazingly peaceful here.”

That peace and quiet, along with the stellar water views and access, are largely what drew Smoak and his wife Ann, an artist, to Goat Island. A self-described “gypsy” who spent three decades as a real estate developer and builder, which meant moving to whatever new community he was developing – from Columbia to Lake Murray to Hilton Head – Smoak had grown up vacationing on Isle of Palms with his family, and knew these waterways well. His sister, a retired educator, had moved to Goat Island years ago, and encouraged Smoak to come take a fresh look and reconsider their plans to return to Hilton Head.

They were on their way to sign a Hilton Head condo contract when they pit-stopped on Goat to visit his sister. “The next day we bought a lot, and, five months later, I’d built our house,” says Smoak, who was won over by Goat’s raw natural beauty and its equally endearing human element. “People here are definitely, well, unique” he says. And they a sly smile slips across his face, and the tales start spinning.

There’s the islands legendary Christmas parties, a roving “tour of homes” in which four or five neighbors open their homes and host everyone. “One year Santa misbehaved and was banned. And last year’s Christmas party lasted three days,” Smoak claims. And there’s the women’s bible study and wine group, “which is really a gossip club,” he suggests, though I imagine its members (Smoak’s sister included) might beg to differ. “You cannot believe the gossip out here. But the rule is, when you’re talking about people on the island, beware… lots of people are related to each other,” he warns. In addition to Smoak and his sister and brother-in-law, there are few other sibling pairs who own homes, and one resident’s two ex-wives both still live on Goat, “but with other companions,” he winks. Even if residents aren’t’ directly or indirectly related, all Goat Islanders start to feel like family, he suggests.

A former Miss South Carolina, a current state legislator, and several retired doctors, lawyers, and builders are among the island homeowners. Anne Cisa, a pharmacist and owner of East Cooper Pharmacy in my hometown of Mount Pleasant, lives here and commutes to work every day. Goat Island has always attracted adventure-loving souls, and none more believed than Sarah Sanders, who in 1969 bought a cottage and became the island’s first property-owning resident. A former high school teacher and coach, Sanders, who had no dock and no motorboat, canoed to and from the island to school every day. At age 75, she’s still fiercely independent, and still cherishes her simple life on her island home, where, ironically, she owns the only goat, Muriel, a stubborn black and white Grindtuty.

Many residents, like Smoak, have built more than one house on Goat; he added a small cabin adjacent to their first 2,300 square foot home and he and Ann live in the cabin during the summer season and rent their larger home, which has satellite, cable, and all modern amenities. (Seasonal rentals, especially now with platforms like Airbnb, have become increasingly popular on Goat, helping owners defray expenses or earn income.) A few homes on the island, including the Smoak’s and Grindt’s residences, have deep wells with reverse-osmosis water systems, but the majority of residents rely on rainwater cisterns. “Water’s a big deal out here,” Smoak says. Goat Island folks are notoriously thrifty and resourceful, he adds. If there’s a dry spell, people scrimp and share but gardens wither. 

Water, in the form of weather and tides, can also be a big deal in terms of getting on and off the island. “People always ask me what I do when I’m going back and forth and it’s raining. Well, I get wet,” says Grindt. And when the tide is extremely low and your boat is not on the outside of the dock, you can be out of luck until the tide rises enough to life the boat out of the mud. That has happened to Grindt more than once, and to Smoak, who recalls one Mother’s Day years ago, before he’d moved to the island, when he’d brought his 85-year-old mother out to visit his sister for a family lunch. “Mother was ready to leave, but the tide was out and it was raining. When we finally got the boat out of the mud and her in it, she said to me, ‘I think you’re sister’s gone crazy living out here.’ And now I guess I’ve gone crazy, too,” he laughs.

Though the island today sees a steady flow of renters and visitors, including those who attend the annual Hope on Goat fundraising event featuring guest chefs and live music held at the Goat Island Gathering Place, an event space operated by island part-timers Diann and Dennis Clark, its essence remains subdued, gritty, and real. It’s a throwback to a time when squatters could make their own rules and to an ideal when daily routines (or lack thereof) are ruled by tides, not by traffic.

“More and more people know about the island now, but I still had to convince the DMV that is existed,” says Grindt, who proudly has “Goat Island” listed as her driver’s license address. And staying slightly off the radar, serene and unfussy, suits her and her Goat Island neighbors just fine. Besides, for the main part of her daily commute, she doesn’t even need a driver’s license. She just slips a slim rope off its cleat and points her bow toward Isle of Palms.

As Grindt does so this early autumn evening, ferrying me back from my long-overdue inaugural visit to Goat Island, the sunset is like a hot pink fireworks display over the Intracoastal. It may be “rush hour,” but one that entails passing only one other boat gently gliding down the waterway. A blue heron, stealthy against the darkening gray-blue horizon, takes flight off a neighboring dock and soars toward who knows where, her day’s work done. Beneath her big, silent wings, the magenta sky is reflected in the water’s ripples.

No horns beeping, no brake lights from traffic jams, no crazy drivers to dodge, just a cool breeze against your skin and the purr of Grindt’s boat motor. The Goat Island commute, like its low-key lifestyle, is a gentle balm for the modern soul. Thanks to the hard work of this morning’s “Road Day” volunteers, the island may have a newly patched road, but it’s still the Lowcountry’s road less traveled. 

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