mckenzie beach

McKenzie Beach

If you’ve driven South Carolina’s Ocean Highway (Hwy. 17), perhaps in hurrying from Georgetown to Myrtle Beach, you’ve probably noticed the ruins of old buildings on the east side of the road catercorner to the Fresh Market in Pawleys Island.

The mouldering, vine-tangled ruins look like the setting for a Tennessee Williams play or a novel by William Faulkner. The whole property, in fact, has the look of a long-ago Southern yesteryear, or as black poet Langston Hughes might have put it: the look of a dream deferred.

McKenzie Beach“McKenzie Beach is a most unusual property,” said Gordon Berl, a real estate agent who lists part of the land for sale.

“Unusual” is right. In the 1930s and ’40s, it was the site of a popular beach resort owned and operated by blacks. Only one other beach for black vacationers was anywhere nearby, Atlantic Beach, some 30 miles up the road in North Myrtle. In the American South of that era, beach access for blacks was rare. Beach ownership was rarer still.

The few hard facts about McKenzie Beach say that it began in 1934 as a partnership between Frank McKenzie and Lilly Pyatt. In its heyday, it featured cabins, a causeway (one of only three) connecting the mainland to the island, a foot bridge to the beach (toll: 10 cents), a restaurant, and a pavilion, where legend has it that big-name recording artists like Little Richard performed.

If in America music is indeed the soundtrack of our lives, the tunes most likely wafting from the pavilion back then were the big-band sounds of, say, Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” (1941) or Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump” (1937), in other words sophisticated jazz, not Little Richard’s “a-wop-mop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom.” That primal (and, admit it, toe-tapping) scream is from “Tutti Frutti,” his first hit, which didn’t come until 1955.

Alas, by that time, the McKenzie Beach Resort was, one might say, gone with the wind. Hurricane Hazel, a category 4 sea monster, blew the place to oblivion in October 1954. Today a fence bars entry to the property, a no-trespassing sign underscores the meaning of the fence, and big for-sale signs beckon to prospective buyers.

Want to make an offer? Bring lots of money.

“It’s expensive,” Berl said. “But I don’t know of another property around here that stretches from the Ocean Highway to the sea.”

Or one that attracts more attention from Grand Strand vacationers. After you finish reading this story, Google “McKenzie Beach, SC” on your computer; you’ll see how much interest the property has aroused in passersby over the years, some even suggesting that the state erect a historical marker there. But most are simply captivated by the storybook look of the place, often mistaking it for the site of an antebellum home gone to seed long ago.

McKenzie Beach“The whole property, including the marsh, is 23 acres,” said Berl, who represents three of the eight people who together own 40 percent of the site. “They’re asking $4.95 million.”

The asking price for the whole property? That’s hard to pin down because the land’s numerous owners include some who don’t want to sell, others who might sell but are not eager to, and still others whose basic position is: “Well, it depends.”

Further complicating matters, the site is two contiguous properties — with different sets of owners.

Berl’s clients include Dr. Gladys Manigault Watkins, a retired educator and writer who now lives in Washington, D.C. In the 1950s, her family had a summer residence at McKenzie Beach, and in 1963, her father, Walter Manigault, partnered with Modjeska Simkins, the civil rights activist from Columbia, SC, to buy the property to save it from bankruptcy.

Most residents of Georgetown County have a pretty good idea where McKenzie Beach was located. But for those unfamiliar with this neck of the woods, the beach was between the northern tip of Pawleys Island and the southern tip of Litchfield Beach — and might even have been the southern tip of Litchfield Beach before Hazel carved a new shoreline there.

No matter where exactly it was located — or where you’re from — you’re likely to agree that there’s something sad and maybe even haunting about an Old Beach Road in the Carolina Lowcountry that has become a geographical non sequitur: it no longer has a beach to run to.

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Images: all of the images of McKenzie Beach in this story were taken by the author, © Robert Lamb.
Robert Lamb

Robert Lamb

I grew up in Augusta, Ga., where I attended Boys' Catholic High. After service in the Navy, I attended the University of Georgia, majoring in English, and then began a (wholly unexpected) journalism career on the old Augusta Herald, an evening paper, and ended years later in Atlanta at The (great) Atlanta Constitution, which I left in late 1982 to write The Great American Novel. That goal has proved remarkably elusive, but my first attempt (Striking Out, in 1991) was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award. My second novel, Atlanta Blues, spent a few minutes on the best-seller list in (at least) Columbia, S.C., and was described in one newspaper’s year-end roundup as “one of the three best novels of 2004 by a Southern writer.” My third novel won no honors but at least didn’t get me hanged; titled A Majority of One, it is about a clash between religion and the Constitution over book-banning in the high school of a Georgia town. For my next novel, And Tell Tchaikovsky the News, I returned to an Atlanta setting for a story about the redemptive powers of, in this case anyhow, “that good rock ’n’ roll.” I've also published a collection of short stories and poems: Six of One, Half Dozen of Another. One of its stories, “R.I.P.,” was a winner in the S.C. Fiction Project in 2009. Before retirement, I taught creative writing and American literature at the University of South Carolina and its Honors College, and feature writing in its School of Journalism. I maintain a now-and-then blog at boblamb.wordpress.comand I walk my dog on the beach a lot at Pawleys Island, S.C.