HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Some would call it the pearl of an oyster. It is a close-knit community that very few people have had a chance to visit - a hidden gem tucked between two rivers, just inland from the Grand Strand.
Sandy Island is about 12,000 acres, or 40 square miles. It is 8 miles long and 5 miles wide, and includes both wetlands and high and dry land.
WMBF News Anchor Christel Bell had the unique opportunity to visit and learn about Sandy Island from the people who make it home, and how the heritage and customs of this secluded island have impacted South Carolina and its history.
It's believed that the merging of the Waccamaw River and the Great Pee Dee River was like a sand bar creating Sandy Island. The creek, which stretches from the mainland to the island, creates a pathway for the residents back in the early 60s to get to and from their homes. Sandy Island has a lot of history, but perhaps what is most deeply-rooted and has shaped the island's history is the Gullah Geechee culture.
It's a place where time stops.
"We have the seclusion, the privacy, and also we have nature that peace and quietness, family, close-knitness," says Sandy Island native Rommy Pyatt.
Sandy Island allows those that will to enjoy a slower way of life.
"You don't get that over there on the mainland," Pyatt says. "I think that is something sometimes people are missing out on because it's always go, go, go."
There are those who have tried to leave.
"Yeah something about Sandy Island that keeps drawing me back," Pyatt admits.
And then there are those who don't want to leave.
"Oohhh I love it, I just love it! I can't tell you why, I just love it!" says 102-year-old Sandy Island resident Oneithia Elliott.
About 50 people live on Sandy Island now, all descended from slaves brought from West Africa to cultivate rice on nearby plantations. The residents are the direct descendants of the Gullah People.
"Gullah was brought from Sierra Leone Africa; it was an area where the British were in control and all the folks that were gathered from different tribes - they had to communicate with each other, they had a different dialect, but English was the main language, so they took the English language and their dialects, and brought it together and formulated this language called Gullah," Pyatt explains.
Once, it also became the coded language to keep a plantation overseer from knowing what was being said. Gullah became not just a language, but a culture all its own.
Traditions of Gullah resonate deep in nature. The trees, fresh water, and plants played a part of their daily lives. For instance, the moss seen hanging from the trees tells the islanders the air around them is clean.
"There are some folklores that were you can actually to get rid of like headaches, some type of ache and pain, just get some moss and put it in the bottom of your shoes," Pyatt says.
On the back side of Sandy Island, on land owned and maintained by the state nature conservancy, are tombstones dating back as far as the 1700s. Researchers from Coastal Carolina University brought sonar equipment to this site and found over 200 graves.
Part of the culture was finding a place very natural, a place where they could put their loved ones?
"The thought was, or the tradition was, to bring them to an area like this, have a path in, put the deceased in," Pyatt explains. "Also any sentimental things they had when they were alive, put that on the grave as well. It was never meant for loved ones to come back and visit the grave, because once the deceased is laid to rest, their body and their spirit go to nature, so they are always around."
In 1882, A former slave by the name of Phillip Washington earned enough money to buy close to 400 acres of land from the widow of a plantation owner, and that land where people still live today has been passed down from generation to generation.
"My daddy…where I'm leaving at now, I'm living on my Daddy property, that was given to him by from the Washington Estate," Elliott said.
Elliott is the longest living resident on Sandy Island, and at 102 years old, she has seen a lot of changes while living her entire life on the island. Like in 1965, when the island was first introduced to electricity.
"That was great because you turn on the light," Elliott says while flipping her wrist, "you switch on the light. Everybody had to pay $15 and turn on the light - that was great!"
The historic school was open from 1932 until 1965. It now serves as a library, and community meetings are held there. If you look closely at the windows and doors of this old building, you see a hint of blue. According to old folklore tradition, blue is the color that kept spirits away.
The island is a place that holds on to its history and traditions.
While the rice plantations don't exist today, if you travel along the island you can still see their remnants.
"So those plants out there with the stalks on it, that is the wild species of rice that is still growing today," Pyatt says.
In 2005, Pyatt came back to start "Tours De Sandy Island," to share with others the story of his home. He also plans to teach the youth on the island about their heritage, so when they are older they will recognize the opportunities of Sandy Island.
"They need to know exactly how the community was formed and what our ancestors went through to actually obtain the property and hold on to the property," Pyatt says.
Elliott says her generation preserved Sandy Island, but the younger generation has made it better.
"The older people, died and gone, but the young people that's here, they improving Sandy Island a lot," Elliot says. And at the end of the day, it's the only place she wants to be.
"No place like Sandy Island!" Elliot says. "And today I don't care where I go, I want to come back to Sandy Island. This is what I tell them now, I'm telling you now, I want them to know that Sandy Island is a great place to live to me, not to everybody, but to me it's a great place to live I enjoy living here, I don't have long to live, and I don't know how long I have, but I enjoy living on Sandy Island - nowhere else but Sandy Island."
Now the folks of Sandy Island say you are more than welcome to come and visit, in fact, some of the families offer bed and breakfast cottages for weekend stays.
For information about the Tours De Sandy Island, you can call (843) 408-7187 or click here: http://www.toursdesandyisland.com/