On the Edge: A Lowcountry legend opens up about his past … and his future, Part One
Sidi Limehouse. PHOTO BY LUIS BISSCHOPS
By Patra Taylor
On a hot summer day in 1978, Sidi Limehouse found himself on a dead-end road to redemption. As the banal scenery slipped by outside his vehicle window, the man considered the chaotic turn his life had taken since his arrest on charges of conspiracy, aiding and abetting and possession with intent to distribute that had resulted from a scheme to smuggle marijuana into South Carolina via one of the state’s coastal inlets. Having been convicted of the first two charges, Limehouse was nevertheless swimming upstream against a five-year sentence at the Federal Prison Camp at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
He recalls little of the conversation he had with Louise Bennett, his partner in business and life, who had accompanied him on that 500-mile journey from the familiarity of his beloved Lowcountry to the unknown of life as an inmate. He used the time to settle into his new reality, though letting go of all the anger and bitterness that had invaded his being since his arrest and conviction would take time. That day, he could only guess at what lay ahead, but he was grounded in one certainty … he knew exactly from where he’d come.
J. Sidi Limehouse, III was born December 17, 1938, the 17th generation of his family to bear the name “Sidi” in honor of an Arab man who had jumped into the Atlantic to rescue Limehouse’s four-year-old ancestor who had fallen overboard during his journey from England to America. His father, Julian S. Limehouse, Jr., owned Limehouse Gas Station located on the Charleston peninsula at the foot of the Legare Bridge. The iconic establishment allowed locals to fill up on gasoline, fishing tackle and shotgun shells, 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week. Those with extra time on their hands could stop by anytime for a game of checkers with the station’s other customers or catch up on the latest goings-on around Charleston.
In 1942, Limehouse, Jr. purchased the 1,685-acre Mullet Hall Plantation on south John’s Island for $12,000. The new owner farmed primarily livestock on the site, which qualified him for a deferment from military service during World War II.
“Growing up, I had three interests,” states the now 84-year-old Limehouse. “Crabbing, fishing and hunting. Back when I went to St. Andrews High School, I had an old pickup truck with a gun rack with two guns on it. I’d park the truck right in the school lot and nobody ever said a word. I always carried shotgun shells because a lot of days after school, me and three or four of my classmates would go hunting. That’s just the way it was back then.”
A boy who thrived in the great outdoors, Limehouse loved every moment he spent at Mullet Hall. As time slowly passed, he absorbed the old plantation’s rich history, along with the intricacies of its vast varieties of flora and fauna. Nothing escaped his keen sense of the environment he called home.
With the support and encouragement of his father, Limehouse built a series of ponds on the property overlooking the Kiawah River, planting them with widgeon grass to attract ducks. Today the ducks have to look elsewhere to find a place to eat and rest, but the memories of those days remain vivid in Limehouse’s memory, as well as the memories of those sporting men and women who have had opportunities to hunt and fish those ponds through the years.
After graduating from Clemson in 1960, Limehouse eagerly set out in pursuit of a career in farming, though his interests tended more toward fruits and vegetables rather than the cows and hogs his father raised. He also helped the family business by working at the service station, primarily on Sundays, its busiest day of the week because it was the only retailer open. Limehouse said they parked full Coburg Dairy and Claussen’s Bakery trucks in the lot on Saturdays so they could keep up with demand on Sunday.
“Back then it was not self-service,” recalls Limehouse. “I had to go out and check the oil, clean the windshield, and put maybe five dollars-worth of gas in the car. I got to know a lot of people that way.”
During the 1960s, it was the best of times in S.C. politics, and it was the worst of times, depending on one’s political affiliation. Talk of politics at the station was never in short supply.
“The Republican Party was just coming along, and I leaned toward that party for a lot of reasons,” continues Limehouse. “One Sunday afternoon I was working at the station when Jim Edwards pulled in. He said to me, ‘We’re putting together a slate of candidates to run for the S.C. House of Representatives, and we want you to be part of it.’ I told him I wasn’t interested.”
After an all-out effort to get him onboard and despite his initial hesitancy, Limehouse finally agreed, taking on with zeal and determination the role of a young, up-and-coming Republican in a Democrat-dominated state. At that time, there were no districts, so candidates were required to campaign across the county.
Limehouse put all his effort into the race. On election day, he edged to within 150 votes of beating his opponent. Then one voting machine on Folly Beach racked up all votes for his opponent and zero votes from him, which was inconsistent with the results of the other two voting machines on Folly Beach. Limehouse was furious, to say the least. “I didn’t know whether it was a machine malfunction or flat-out manipulation because the Democrats were in charge of everything,” he retorts.
Despite protests from the county’s Republicans, Limehouse lost the election. He was ready to pack it up and go back to farming full-time, but fate intervened yet again.
“About six months later, somebody on the delegation died and we had to hold a special countywide election,” he explains. “Because I’d come so close to winning in my first election, the Republicans chose me to run for that seat.”
For his second run at the S.C. House of Representatives, Limehouse received help from an unexpected source: the “Southern Bells.”
He was friends with the son of the woman who headed the telephone operators at Southern Bell. “My friend’s mother organized 24 women around two big tables to call people at random to see if they were inclined to vote for me,” he says. “They had a list of thousands of people they called. On election day, there were 100 women making calls, urging people to get out and vote if they hadn’t already. I’d never seen or heard of anything like it before in my life.”
At the end of the day, Limehouse beat his Democrat opponent by 21,000 votes, an amazing victory for the young up-and-comer. The John’s Island farmer was headed to the Statehouse after all.
Limehouse went on to serve four years in the S.C. House of Representative, from 1967-68 and from 1971-72. During those terms, he penned two pieces of legislation that still impact the citizens of the Lowcountry and the state to this day.
As controversy brewed over the development of Kiawah Island, Limehouse was focused on the fate of the two-lane live-oak canopied Bohicket Road, the primary thoroughfare between the city of Charleston and the upscale resort island. How could the state protect the road from developers’ visions of falling at least some of the stately trees to make way for the expected increase in traffic?
Limehouse had an idea. He perused legislation of other states regarding the preservation of scenic highways. Lo and behold, he discovered that Oklahoma had enacted a bill to protect such places in perpetuity. Using the Oklahoma bill as a model, Limehouse drafted a bill to protect Bohicket Road as a S.C. Scenic Highway. Initially, his Democratic counterparts in Charleston County were hesitant to join forces with the only Republican in their delegation. After a dose his persuasive charm and a bigger dose of political theater, the Democrats led by Joseph P. Riley, Jr., climbed on board and worked with Limehouse to pass the bill. Today, the 10.34-mile Bohicket Road is one of 18 scenic byways protected by the state. S.C. is also home to four nationally designated scenic byways.
One day while sitting at a traffic light, Limehouse had another idea. Again, he found inspiration in Oklahoma, a state that had recently passed right on red legislation. Through the young legislator’s efforts, S.C. soon followed Oklahoma in enacting right-on-red laws, which were considered tremendous fuel conservation measures. In 1975, right on red became the law of the land.
Limehouse took one more crack at politics in 1972 when he ran for congress against Democrat Mendel Davis in S.C.’s First Congressional District. One day, he traveled to Hampton, then a quiet town that has since made its way into the national headlines. “I was going because I’d been told Randolph Murdaugh, Jr. was ‘the man’ to see,” says Limehouse. “When I got there, he didn’t have time to see me. Not wanting to waste the trip, I went around to different stores asking people to vote for me. I remember entering one store located right next to Murdaugh’s law office. I walked in, introduced myself to the woman behind the counter and asked for her vote. I’ll never forget her reply: ‘I’m sorry but we have to vote for who Mr. Murdaugh tells us to.’” That encountered defined the uphill climb he faced in a race he ultimately lost.
Julian S. Limehouse, Jr. died in 1977, signalling the end of the man’s 35-year reign as the owner and caretaker of Mullet Hall Plantation. With the historic property now split into eight equal shares, his namesake soon found himself at odds with family members regarding the ultimate disposition of the property.
At the time of his father’s death, Limehouse had another interest keeping him busy — Hutchinson Island, located along the Ashepoo River in Colleton County. In addition to farming, he had joined forces with several friends to purchase this piece of “paradise” and turn it into a hunting club. “We had big plans,” he says. “Unfortunately, my partners didn’t know anything about how to manage the property, so I did it. I built a dock and a small clubhouse.”
The day Limehouse spotted four men approaching the dock, he had no idea that his paradise distraction would turn into his personal and political destruction.
“I see these four guys approaching,” recalls Limehouse. “I asked, ‘What are you doing out here?’ One replied, ‘We’re looking for a place to duck hunt.’”
Limehouse wasn’t buying it. “I can tell by looking at them that they weren’t duck hunters, so I asked what they were really doing out here.”
The men hemmed and hawed a while, so Limehouse finally invited them into the clubhouse for a drink. As liquor is wont to do, the lips around the table soon loosened, and the men revealed their real reason for being in those parts — to find a new place to unload a shipment of marijuana. They’d had a place, but lost access to it when the road was blocked off.
Liquor showing no favoritism, the host joined in the lively conversation. “Maybe I was naïve, or just plain stupid, but I did show them where they could unload,” admits Limehouse. “The spot was on the other side of the river, not on Hutchinson Island.”
Limehouse took a breath to ponder his recollections. “They had an issue with the truck, so they decided to unload on Hutchinson Island. The hunt club had hired a young caretaker who told me he was going home to North Carolina that weekend. When I tried to call him there, I couldn’t reach him, so I foolishly decided to go down there. I boarded a boat at Bennett’s Point, which was about a mile from our dock. When the dock came into view, the DEA was there waiting for me. I wasn’t thinking … I just wanted to get out of there.”
His long-time friend, Cran Ohlandt, once described Limehouse this way: “He’s an artist in the woods and the creeks. There’s no other man I’ve ever seen and spent as much time with who is so quiet and knows so much about nature.” Truer words have never been spoken!
On that cold January day of 1978, the man’s vast knowledge and skills in the great outdoors melded together into driving instinct. Former state legislator J. Sidi Limehouse III was inexplicably a man on the run from the law. To be continued …
A long-time contributor and former managing editor of the Charleston Mercury, Patra Taylor is the author of One Christmas, a novel set during the Great Depression. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .