Laura Herriott: Heritage & Hope (Wilma’s Cottage, Sandy Island)

By Leslie Moore

Laura Herriott: Heritage & Hope (Wilma’s Cottage, Sandy Island)

Tucked between the Great Pee Dee and Waccamaw Rivers lies Sandy Island, a 9,000 acre island named for the prehistoric sand dunes that comprise much of this wildlife refuge and small community. Through a joint effort of the island’s residents, the Coastal Conservation League and SCDOT, the large undeveloped portion now belongs to the Nature Conservancy and the people of South Carolina. It is the largest freshwater island on the East Coast and certainly one of the most beautiful. The island is also the home of many rare plants and animals, most notably the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

Currently, about 100 people live on this peaceful island, most the direct descendants of enslaved Africans brought to Georgetown County to work on the areas’ rice plantations. Accessible only by boat, a trip to this unspoiled area almost feels like a trip back in time. Sasee was able to visit Sandy Island with one of its lifelong residents, Laura Herriott, and learn more about this secluded paradise. Laura owns and operates Wilma’s Cottage, a charming 1950s-era guest house tucked among the towering long leaf pines and live oaks.

Sandy Island Landing is located just south of Brookgreen Gardens, on the Waccamaw River, and is used by residents who travel back and forth from the mainland. We were met at the landing by Laura and her nephew who graciously piloted us across the tidal waters of the river to one of the two public boat landings used by residents. It is also where the island’s children meet the school bus after travelling across the river on the state’s only school boat, the Prince Washington, named for the community founder’s great-grandson. During the short ride, I asked Laura about the history of her home. “My family has always lived on Sandy Island,” she said. “But, I never really knew much about how we got here. I think people just didn’t want to talk about the past.”

Residents keep four wheel drive vehicles on the island for transportation, and after we arrived, Laura took us to Wilma’s Cottage in her Jeep. The roads are unpaved and sandy, but she drove with confidence and ease. When I asked Laura about the cottage’s name, she explained. “This cottage belonged to my grandparents, and I opened the guest house to help preserve it and give people a place to come and visit the island. Their names were William and Mary Collins, and I combined their names for the cottage.” Laura’s grandparents built the home in the early 1950s. “My grandfather was a WWII veteran and went blind while they were building this house. It never slowed him down though.”

Spotlessly clean and filled with quaint furnishings and antiques, Wilma’s Cottage has five guest rooms; four with double beds and one single bed room. Currently there is only one bathroom, but Laura has plans to install another one soon. Guests have the house to themselves, as Laura’s home is a short distance away. Guests may either bring their own food and prepare it in the fully equipped kitchen, or Laura will cook for them and bring it ready to eat whenever they like. Some guests only come for the day, enjoying Laura’s delicious southern cooking, walking the island with Laura as their guide, and learning about this special place. “I had a group of birdwatchers visit recently, and they walked a lot,” Laura laughed. “I got plenty of exercise that day!” Next month, a group of 5th graders from a local school are visiting this island, and Laura will serve as tour guide and prepare the students’ lunch. For guests without their own boat, Laura provides transportation and can accommodate most any size group.

When asked about her childhood on the island, Laura painted an idyllic picture. “I was one of nine children, and back then there were more people living here. We played baseball, swam, jumped rope and as teenagers would play music and have parties. It was lots of fun.” Modern conveniences were slow to come to the island. There was no electricity until 1965, and Laura remembers using oil lamps and her elders cooking on wood stoves. One of her grandmother’s original oil lamps still sits on a bedside table in Wilma’s Cottage. Today, residents have access to the same services as those on the mainland. Laura laughed and told us, “Recently, one of my guests said her cell phone worked better here than it did at home!”

Laura attended the tiny island school through 6th grade and graduated from Howard High School in Georgetown in 1971. Originally built by Archer Huntington, founder of Brookgreen Gardens, the structure is no longer used as a school; the building now serves as a community center for residents. After receiving her degree in data technology, Laura worked first at Wal-Mart, then Grand Strand Hospital and Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Today, she has several part-time jobs and is always busy. In addition to running Wilma’s Cottage, Laura sells Mary Kay Cosmetics and works part time on her cousin’s farm. She is also custodian of her church, New Bethel Baptist, located on the island. I asked Laura how many people attended each Sunday and was surprised to learn that between 75 and 100 worshippers gather each week. “We have a boat that brings people from the mainland; most are people who used to live here,” she said.

This fiercely independent woman raised her three children on Sandy Island as well. Manatha Young, Laura’s daughter, lives in Charlotte and works for Duke Energy, as well as serving as a minster in her church. Her son, Craven Funderburke, also lives in Charlotte and works for FedEx. Both are married with children. Her son Calvin Funderburke, who works at Blue Cross/Blue Shield, lives on the island and has two children.

After seeing the cottage, Laura took us on a tour in her Jeep, and we were able to see how large an area Sandy Island covers. Public nature trails through the undeveloped areas have been put in place by the Nature Conservancy and anyone may use them. A modern fire department is manned by volunteers, all of whom have alarms installed in their homes to alert them when an emergency occurs. There is a small store on the waterfront and the old school has a playground area with modern equipment for the island’s children. The homes are modest and well kept, many of them occupied by generations of families. “The property on Sandy Island is mostly heir’s property,” Laura told us. “Families move away, but they keep up the tax payments and can return anytime they like.” Laura went on to tell us that over the past few years, quite a few residents who had moved away from South Carolina years ago for college and better jobs have come back home to Sandy Island. “They have family here. All of us are related in some way, plus there is a lot of love and support throughout this community.”

Laura became less animated as she told us about her struggles to maintain Wilma’s Cottage. Repairs are expensive, and she’s had to get creative to make ends meet. Her immediate need is a new roof, and she is raffling off a hand-knitted bedspread and a dinner for eight at Wilma’s Cottage to help meet this expense. Opening her grandparents’ home gives Laura a way to share the beauty of Sandy Island with visitors and preserve an important part of the island’s history – it is her passion. “This is the perfect get away. It’s quiet and surrounded by nature.”

For more information about Wilma’s Cottage or Laura’s raffle, call 843-237-9252. Tours of the island are available through Tours de Sandy Island, operated by island resident, Rommy Pyatt, and include lunch prepared by Laura. For tour reservations, call 843-408-7187.

About this writer

  • Leslie Moore Leslie Moore is the editor for Strand Media Group. A 25 year resident of Pawleys Island, she is blessed with a life filled with the love of family and friends and satisfying work to do every day.

You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

One Response to “Laura Herriott: Heritage & Hope (Wilma’s Cottage, Sandy Island)”

  1. Craven Fundereburk IV says:

    grandma you better have my phone and you better give it up.

Leave your mark with style

Comment in style

Stand out from the crowd and add some flare beside your comment.
Get your free Gravatar today!

Make it personal

avatar versus gravatar Close