Harry F. Guggenheim and Berkeley County’s White Church
Before we consider the story of how the educated, urbane, and internationally famous Harry F. Guggenheim came to preserve an historic church in the sandy backwoods of South Carolina’s Lowcountry, we should address the obvious: Where did the Guggenheims make their great fortune?
In the mineral laden hills of Leadville, Colorado, that’s the short answer.
The two-mile high town of Leadville did not even exist in 1859, the year placer gold was found in the area. But a few years later, when it was determined that the annoying heavy black sand that slowed down gold mining contained valuable silver, Leadville became the richest place on earth, attracting those seeking fortune, including the future “unsinkable” Molly Brown and her husband, the merely curious such as Oscar Wilde, and shrewd investors, such as Meyer Guggenheim.
On a miserably hot afternoon, I took one last gulp of sweet tea, kissed the cool comforts of a downtown Charleston restaurant goodbye, and cranked my car (as we say in the South) for the one hour drive to Berkeley County’s White Church, also known as St. Thomas & St. Denis Church. I parked in front of a metal gate, walked a few steps and then find myself on the grounds once shared by Anglicans and French Huguenots. There were tensions between those two groups, but nothing like the bloody conflicts between whites and blacks in October, 1876.
Majority numbers do not always equate to political power, such was the lesson that blacks would learn in post Civil War South Carolina, and at the White Church. As summarized in the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative:
"On October 16, 1876, Republican Chairman and Charleston County Sheriff Christopher Columbus Bowen agreed to a political meeting in the St. Thomas Church [White Church] at the request of a number of white Democrats. Bowen asked that everyone come unarmed (at this time "unarmed" translated to just pistols, no heavy guns such as rifles or shot guns). Predominantly black Republicans were wary of white Democrats who had instigated violence and killed or wounded black freedmen at earlier political meetings in Hamburg and Ellenton, so they generally disregarded Bowen's request. Dr. Martin R. Delany, a prominent African American leader who supported the Democratic nominee for governor, former Confederate general Wade Hampton, came to speak at the event, which enraged black Republicans. When his speech began, many Republicans walked away or beat drums. As Delany finished, shots rang out...six white men and one black man were killed in the riot that followed, and sixteen men were wounded."
News of the “Cainhoy Massacre” even made its way into the New York Times.
The White Church was listed in the National Register of Historic Landmarks in 1977, an event that might not have occurred without the generosity of Harry F. Guggenheim. But Guggenheim’s interest in the White Church and South Carolina is well beyond that of a distant figure who writes the check and captures the deduction.
It was during the Great Depression that Guggenheim purchased upwards of 10,000 acres on the outskirts of Charleston. He thought the land a good investment, but with an interest in horse racing, he found the area a perfect base for his hobby. He named his property, “Cain Hoy Plantation.” Charleston residents saw him so often they thought he was a “local.”
In 1937, he provided the necessary funds to restore the structure that was part of his land purchase, the White Church.
With a lifelong passion in rocket science and aeronautics, he sponsored Charles Lindberg’s 1927 air tour of the United States.
In 1929, President Herbert Hoover appointed Guggenheim to serve on the National Advisory Committee of Aeronautics, a position he held until 1938.
He founded the magazine, "Newsday" in 1940.
One of his horses from “Cain Hoy Stables” won the Kentucky Derby in 1953. Harry F. Guggenheim died of cancer in 1971.
A couple of decades ago, the Harry F. Guggenheim Foundation sold portions of the 10,000 acres, better known as Daniel Island, for a tidy profit. It is now being carefully developed as an extension of the greater Charleston area.
But there is another reason to remember Harry F. too, and that place is miles from the retail shops and golf courses of Daniel Island. I can always find those places, but I can’t always find such well-preserved history along the less traveled roads of my home state. Thanks to Harry F. Guggenheim, and to the contemporary efforts of the Society of St. Thomas and St. Denis, 1706, those who travel in the rural parts of Berkeley County, South Carolina, have at least one good reason to slow down.