Kister Beach: Remembering life as it used to be

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(The following story was written by Fran Heyward Marscher for her book, Remembering the Way it Was. Kiss Beach was the father of Ruffin resident Lonnie Beach.)

Despite never learning to read or write, he made a good living for his family and managed to put some dollars aside for his old age. He did his own thinking and much of his own work.

With the strength of a mule and the gentle nature of a butterfly, Albert Kistler “Kiss” Beach became a Lowcountry legend and well as a real-life family man, trapper and farmer in the Bluffton area. Rumors around the region said Kiss could walk around all day carrying 200-pound sacks of fertilizer without breaking a sweat. Not a fellow to brag, he said he did not remember doing that, exactly. Actually, he said, he did astound everybody in the oyster factory at the end of Bluffton’s Wharf Street one day by lifting a 500-pound chunk of iron behind the process kettle to get it out of the way. And thankfully, he said, at least one time he put a 100-pound sack of grits on one arm, a 100-pound sack of meal on the other arm and a 100-pound sack of rice on his head and then walked up the hill at Savage Island “as pretty as you please.” When he got to the house, he nodded his head and dumped the rice off. “I could have toted more,” he said many years later.

“I was always strong. I came from a strong family. A lot of people said I was the strongest man they’d ever seen,” he said.

A physical phenomenon when he was born in Walterboro in 1892 weighing 14 pounds, as a child, Kiss was nicknamed “Sampson.”

Savage Island

The eighth child in a family of nine children, Kiss moved with his family from Colleton County to Montpelier Plantation on Palmetto Bluff in about 1896. His father rented farmland there before buying 500-acre Savage Island in about 1904 for $1,050. Savage sits in the middle of a vast expanse of salt marsh between May River and Cooper River, just south of Bull Island, accessible by a narrow creek. A few black families lived on the island as tenants and stayed on as workers when the Beach family bought it. For more than half a century before becoming part of a private hunting preserve, Savage Island was the Beach family home, its resources their livelihood.

Following his father around in the woods, marshes and fields, young Kiss never attended formal school a day in his life. Instead, he was “raised up working” and “never minded it.” By the age of 16, he had learned enough about farming, fishing, timbering and hunting to take over the family business.

“When I was young, I felt good and never got tired. My daddy knew I knew ho to do it all, and he promised if I ran the fam and paid off the mortgage, he’d give it to me because I’d be the only one who ever paid anything but interest on the place. I paid off the mortgage the first year and had money left over.”

Cotton prices were good in the first of decades of the 1900s, and cotton was king on Savage Island. Nothing is easy about cotton, though, from the plowing to the planting to the hoeing to the picking and baling. And after the cotton was baled it had to be loaded onto a sailboat and hauled to the cotton gin. With the help of Lowcountry breezes and the tide, the sailboat had to be coaxed out of Savage Creek, into Bull Creek, into May River, around Myrtle Island and into the cove. The going price was $3 per bale.

“We could have gotten it to the gin faster,” Kiss said later, “but we couldn’t get the boat into that little cove except at high tide.”

Kiss also grew the other traditional Southern crops — corn, peas, sweet potatoes, sugar cane — and raised cows and hogs; cut trees and hauled the logs to sawmills; trapped and shot mink.

In the fur market in Savannah, a good mink skin would go for $8 or $9, a lot of money in the 1920s. A savvy trapper, Kiss knew how to find mink nests and how to figure out where they would run when chased.

“Mink make beds by tying up the marsh up. One mink thought he’d really outsmarted me one time. He dived in the water under his bed, and I couldn’t find him to save my neck. Then I saw the tail going back and forth. You know, that mink had hold of a marsh root with his teeth, and when I pulled him out of the water, he yanked that marsh root out of the bottom of the creek. He’d drowned holding onto it.”

In addition to hunting for a living, Kill and his contemporaries hunted and fished for recreation. There were not a lot of options. “We’d work all day and hunt all night. Or sometimes in the winter, we’d hunt all day and fish at night. It was a pretty good life.”

Big Family

Kiss Beach’s “good life” was enhanced, he said with a smile, by the two good women who shared it with him, one at a time.

He met his first wife at a political gathering. In those days, when a stump meeting was a big occasion, an excuse for rural folk to get together, the youthful Kiss Beach paid more attention to the girls in the audience than to the campaign speeches. He thought Bridie Hudson, the daughter of a farmer from a neighboring island, Barataria (called “Barry Tarry), was really pretty. “That old bug bit both of us that night,” he said. “As soon as she was 16, we got married. I was 24 by then.”

Bridie and Kiss reared eight children on Savage Island — James, Raymond, Lonnie, Isabelle, Bernice, Mary, Louise and Annette. But unlike his father, Kiss made arrangements for his youngsters to get a formal education. “I meant that my young’ens weren’t going to be kept on Savage Island like I was and not know anything but farming and hunting and fishing,” he said.

So for a few years, the family’s home based remained on Savage Island, but Kiss rented houses in Bluffton during the school term for Bridie and the children. With rental property in Bluffton hard to find, one winter he kept the family on Savage and ferried the children back and forth by boat every school day. I can be chilly, windy and wet on winter mornings on the water in an open boat, though. Eventually, Kiss and Bridie bought a house in Bluffton, and he began commuting back and forth to Savage to work.

Never a debtor for long, he paid $100 down for the Bluffton property, he said, then cleared the mortgage by selling a load of cattle the next week.

The farming, logging and trapping on Savage paid off. Despite never learning to read or write, Kiss Beach did his own thinking and much of his own labor, made a good living for his family and managed to put some dollars aside for his old age. Only for brief periods did he work for anyone else.

‘Hired Out’ Only Briefly

The year the boll weevil ruined the cotton, he picked oysters.

When Portuguese fishermen began trawling the Lowcountry’s creeks and sounds and pulling in shrimp by the tons, the L.P. Maggioni and Co. opened shrimp-canning factories on the region’s islands. Kiss got a job on Jenkins Island once — keeping the boiler going.

“You had to shovel coal into the furnace and keep water in the pot. There weren’t many men who could handle it. I tell you it was the hottest, hardest job I ever had, and it didn’t pay but $2 a day. I was a happy man the day I told then I didn’t have to do that anymore.”

Even out on the “hottest, hardest job” Kiss ever had, he savored a valuable memory.

He would get to work at about 3 a.m. to get the boiler going, and when the team was almost up and it was almost time for the shrimp headers to come to work, he’d blow a whistle that would be heard all over Hilton Head Island, across Calibogue Sound and all the way to Savage when the wind was right. It was a signal for the factory workers to begin moving. At about daybreak they would begin pouring into the factory, many having walked or rowed a boat several miles to get there to head shrimp all day long. For many Lowcountry families, that whistle, followed by the pre-dawn parade of walkers on their way to the shrimp factory, created unforgettable sights and sounds.

But Kiss valued his independence. Treasuring the authority he had over his own varied enterprises, he managed again to get back to farming, timbering and trapping on Savage Island.

Five years after his first wife died, Kiss set out for find another woman to share his life with him. Not far from his house in Bluffton, he spotted Vivian Thompson, a young widow who had come to Bluffton from the little farm town of Honea Path, S.C., to teach school. It bothered him that she had a college education, and he had no schooling at all. She admired him for his common sense and his attitude, though, and they built a relationship that lasted until he died more than 30 years later.

Married in 1954, together Kiss and Vivian continued to run the Savage Island operations while living in Bluffton, and together they had one son, Albert.

In the 1960s, Kiss sold Savage Island to Lee Loomis, who also bought Bull Island and Baratara. Then he retired from farming, but took up a “fun” job, a job he said he “probably enjoyed more than any other” he ever had. As a gamekeeper for Pinckney Island, at the time a private hunting preserve, Kiss raised quail chicks. He would put out hundreds of a time in a pen under a pomegranate tree behind his house on Lawrence Street in Bluffton. He fed and watered the little birds every day and protected them from predators.

Once the quail were large enough, he would put them out on Pinckney Island with food and water for a few days, then wish them well and imagine how excited hunters would be when they flushed covey after covey on sunny winter days on Pinckney Island.

Interviewed in 1981 at the age of 89, Kiss Beach stood erect at six feet, his shoulders unstooped, his hand gigantic enough and careful enough to hold a dozen quail chicks at a time. By then, belying his impressive strength, he had a reputation as a consciously gentle giant of a man for many decades. He explained that in a fight with another teenager in his youth, he had hurt the boy until he cried. When he saw “big old” tears rolling down the boy’s cheeks, he made up his mind never to fight anybody again.

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