As I completely unwound at a newly discovered resort - Litchfield Plantation on Pawley's Island in South Carolina - a chance remark by a dinner companion alerted my ethnic antenna: "Did you know that Bernard Baruch's estate, Hobcaw Barony, is just minutes away?"
Pawley's Island is located on the southern tip of South Carolina's famed Grand Strand in the Low Country, just 30 miles south of Myrtle Beach and 65 miles north of Charleston. The picturesque, laid-back island with its mild coastal temperatures, boasts four beautiful seasons with especially long fall and spring periods.
Of course, I wanted to visit Baruch's estate, nestled in the historic village of Georgetown, just 12 miles south of Pawley's Island. I was somewhat surprised to learn that a dynamic advisor to six presidents would choose this bucolic, but off-the-beaten track locale, for his winter retreat and residence.
Hobcaw is an Indian word meaning "between the waters," and "Barony" refers to a large tract of land consisting of at least 12,000 acres granted to a titled land owner. The Waccamaw Neck was originally inhabited by the Waccamaw Indians, and is thought to have been the site of the first attempted European settlement in North America in 1526.
After changing hands several times, the land was eventually divided into 14 plantations that flourished on this fertile peninsula; 3,000 acres of tidal swamps were converted into rice fields in order to cultivate Carolina Gold rice - so named because of the golden color of its husk.
Georgetown became the center of America's colonial rice empire, but after the Civil War, cultivation began to diminish. Without slave labor, strong competition from the West and a series of devastating storms, the area experienced the decimation of rice production.
Bernard M. Baruch was born on Aug. 19, 1870, in Camden, S.C. His father, Simon, a German Jewish immigrant, had become a renowned surgeon chief on Robert E. Lee's staff during the Civil War. After graduating from City College of New York in 1889, young Bernard got his first job at $3 a week as an office boy running errands in the Wall Street financial district. At age 25, he was a Wall Street partner and, before he turned 35, had become a millionaire, amassing a fortune through stock speculation in raw materials.
He had also earned a reputation as one of the most powerful and respected personalities in politics - in both parties.
In 1905, Baruch returned to South Carolina in search of land for his Southern retreat. One mile north of Georgetown, the 17,500-acre wildlife refuge, Hobcaw Barony, attracted the financier and he purchased the land. He also bought additional property to add to the estate, providing employment and a school for ex-slaves who were still living on the old plantations.
He established his second home on the property, a handsome red brick Georgian-style house, completed in 1931, sitting on a bluff overlooking Winyah Bay. With his wife, Annie, he entertained some of the world's most important figures, including Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
Baruch was greatly respected as economic advisor and political strategist to presidents from Woodrow Wilson to John F. Kennedy (particularly FDR, who considered him one of his "Brain Trust"). Because Baruch loved to discuss world affairs while sitting on a park bench near the White House, many people have referred to a bench near the White House in Washington as Baruch's office, calling him the "park-bench statesman."
After the death of his wife, Baruch closed his home at Hobcaw in 1956, eventually giving the property to his daughter, Belle, who was most interested in the nature preserve (her two siblings were Bernard Jr. and Renee).
Baruch died in 1965 at the age of 94.
An internationally known horsewoman, a sailor and pilot, Belle thoroughly enjoyed the plantation. Before her death in 1964, she created a trust to protect her beloved Hobcaw.
Today, the Belle W. Baruch Institute for Marine & Coastal Sciences, established in 1969 through the joint effort of the Belle W. Baruch Foundation and the University of South Carolina, is a little-known gem. Rich in biological diversity, the center provides historical exhibits on rice growing, as well as nature exhibits about the marsh and marine life in the area; it's open every day to visitors.
There is a small interpretive museum offering exhibits and a 20-minute video shown upon request. Part of the institute is used for research; it's only open to the public by appointment or on scheduled tours.
George R. Askew, a director of the research program, said, "When you drive down the coast from North Carolina to here and look at the development, you wonder where the green space is going to be 50 years from now. One place you can be sure it's going to be is right here at the end of the Waccamaw Neck."
The area offers a haven for a small Jewish community. In Georgetown, at Temple Beth Elohim, Seymour Birnbaum, who moved here from New York this past year, said, "There are 45 families here, and we have services every Friday evening," which they take turns conducting.
"There's a wonderful communal feeling in this gentle Southern city - you have time to relax and enjoy life."
A few blocks away, the Jewish cemetery, which dates from 1772, has two Baruch gravestones. "This was the first cemetery to bury Jewish soldiers who died during the Civil War," noted Birnbaum.
Also in Georgetown, visitors can tour the Kaminski House Museum, built in 1769 and home to Georgetown's first mayor.
Returning to Litchfield Plantation to digest all I had seen that day, I drove down the beautiful quarter-mile Avenue of the Oaks with its ancient moss-draped towering trees, the picturesque entrance to the resort. Just ahead was the Main House, looking like Tara from Gone With the Wind.
For more information, call 1-800-869-1410 or 843-237-8558; or log on to: www.litchfieldplantation.com .