Arts & Entertainment

Bachelor & Bachelorette




Food & Drink

Health & Wellness



Mayoral Thoughts



Women in Business

<   Swipe left or right   > 

Apr 29, 2024

Musings from Across the Creek: The Birth of Harbour Town

Margaret Crenshaw

Photography By

Supplied by the Charles E. Fraser Library
On the days when I am overwhelmed by traffic and tourists, the ever-recurring questions of where to go, what to do, and where to eat, I focus on my memories of a place that captured my heart 50 years ago and how grateful I am to be a part of it all. Gratitude is at the very core of these stories and the reason I tell them.

Continue Reading

As a Realtor, when I am showing property in Sea Pines, I am often asked why homes and property there are so much more expensive than the rest of the island. I am quick to respond that Sea Pines is the flagship community of its kind in the world.

Simply put, other resort communities around the world have used Sea Pines as a blueprint from which to build their own. The community that Charles Fraser dreamed of and built has become endeared to millions of people who come to visit our special island. That fact holds great value. 

Charles Fraser on the left and his brother, Joe, on the right, who was instrumental in overseeing the construction of Harbour Town. Joe’s contributions to Charles’ vision for Sea Pines are extraordinary. Here, they view the scale model for Harbour Town with Mr. Durham of the American Institute of Architects.

If you want to own in Sea Pines, it comes with a higher price, based on the laws of supply and demand. Everyone who sees it yearns to be a part of this unique place. 

That answer seems to satisfy my clients. They lean into my stories of the early days as I paint the picture of how things evolved over the years. They are hooked. They sell stocks and cash in on other property just to have a piece of paradise. The past three or four years in particular, the island has seen record home sales and record demand for real estate. 

Of course, there are many other factors that come in play here, such as the low interest rates we were seeing and the pandemic creating a desire for mankind to work from anywhere in the world that they chose to be. And many chose to be on Hilton Head Island. Our permanent resident population has increased heavily and with that, our service providers and vendors have expanded their businesses to meet the demand of a growing flock of new homeowners. 

What I am seeing, too, is that many new people don’t know or understand the island’s development history. I have taken it on as my job to tell the story.

Charles envisioned his new development as a resort as well as a permanent residential area, and he made tremendous strides to place its foundation in its first decade. He dreamed of “something” that would be the heart of the development, so he and his wife, Mary, had meaningful conversations about what that would be. 

A closer view of the Harbour during the construction phase

Ten years into his development, Charles was able to raise enough capital to build what would become the heart of Sea Pines. But what would that look like? What would it be? He had spent much time with his team in years prior brainstorming the concept. A swampy location had been chosen for the site and he spent hours upon hours of time stomping around in snake boots to survey the area and discuss the possibilities with his team. 

Charles and Mary traveled to other communities, such as Williamsburg, Virginia, to get ideas. Nothing seemed to be just right for Sea Pines. Other communities weren’t an island like Hilton Head. So, whatever it was to be, it had to be natural for an island with water all around.  

Charles had only one recreation and that was sailing. One day, with all the flair and personality that Charles was known for, he said to Mary, “I’ll build a harbor. A harbor town.” And Mary said, “That’s it!”  

Now, if you knew Mary, you know that she possessed an incredible talent for doing just the right thing in any given situation. And Charles knew this. He knew it was just the thing that was needed as the heart of his development. 

Early critics thought that the harbor was unnecessary and whimsical, referring to it as “Fraser’s Folly” instead of “Harbour Town.” Those same critics changed their tune later, referring to it as a stroke of genius when Fraser’s creation came to be a huge success. 

The inaugural Heritage Golf Tournament was held at Thanksgiving in 1969, before the famed lighthouse in the background was complete.

Charles and Mary needed design inspiration for their newly envisioned Harbour Town, so they loaded up the company architect, several of the company’s top executives, and their wives, onto a chartered plane bound for the Mediterranean coast. The tour lasted a month and, in that time, Charles and Mary and the development team studied ports and their surrounding villages, taking notes on what inspired them most. 

All the while, Charles was soaking in the themes of the European landscape and honing in on how that would look in the Lowcountry. Most of what came to fruition for the design and style of Harbour Town was inspired by the seaside village of Portofino, Italy. It is still evident today by the exterior colors of the shops and restaurants, blending in with the look and feel that had been created as the Lowcountry “vibe” – a style that embraces its natural surroundings.  

Charles knew that a proper harbor would need a lighthouse. It wouldn’t be complete without one. In his brilliant wisdom and vision, he knew the exact spot where it should be built. However, no working lighthouse had been privately built since 1817. He hired an engineering firm to come up with the design. He rejected plan after plan they created, eventually settling on an octagonal shape. 

According to his daughter, Laura Lawton, this process was the easy part. The difficulty was in deciding what color to paint it. Charles consulted with numerous designers, one of which suggested painting it a series of colored triangles, circles, and squares. 

Charles settled on the idea of painting it red and white. But then, what shade of red? Here they go again!

The lighthouse was nearing completion, the stucco still needed to be applied, but no decision had been made about the specific red that seemed right. Charles’ brother, Joe, found the solution. He pointed to some rusty red steel framing that was located adjacent to the structure and suggested that be the color. Charles agreed, and that is how the Harbour Town Lighthouse became the internationally recognized symbol that we all love and admire. 

Do you know how many steps lead to the top of the lighthouse? As kids, we ran up and down those steps a million times, so I know how many there are. I encourage you to go visit the lighthouse, walk the steps, and count. There is an entrance fee that goes towards maintenance expenses and there is also a gift shop at the top. 

The prize for your climb is a spectacular ariel view of the Harbour, beautiful yachts and sailboats, Daufuskie Island across Calibogue Sound, Bull Island in the near distance, and the 18th green of the world-famous Harbour Town Golf Links, home of the PGA tour RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing.

The development of Harbour Town was simultaneous with the installation of the Harbour Town Golf Links and creation of the Heritage Golf Tournament, as the event was then known, which has now brought millions of visitors to our island. As you might have guessed, Charles was the motivating force behind creating a golfing event. 

Charles had discovered that the genesis of the game of golf had been founded on the coast of South Carolina in Charleston, a port city founded in 1670. In 1980, Charles, through the Sea Pines Company, published a book about this, entitled The Carolina Lowcountry, Birthplace of American Golf 1786, to educate friends about how golf began and became one of America’s favorite sports. The details of the creation of the Heritage Golf Tournament is another story for a future date. 

In the building of the Harbour, as the site was cleared and dredging began, Charles came upon a beautiful old live oak he had not noticed before. By now, it was common practice in Sea Pines to build around big trees. The winding roads and the unusual architecture all pay homage to the concept that nature and the environment come first here. Charles never wanted to offend the landscape by cutting out perfect squares and blocks. He encouraged everyone to meander, not rush. 

He insisted that this live oak be saved. But to do that, the Harbour would have to be redesigned. He was told this was a financially crazy idea, but Charles didn’t care. It cost an additional $50,000 to save that tree – and that was in 1969! Imagine the price tag to do something like that now. 

The tree was named the Liberty Oak and has become the second-most recognizable symbol of the heart of Sea Pines. Eventually, in his infinite brilliance, Charles realized that some entertainment would be needed here to bring visitors together to enjoy our hot summer nights by the water, while strolling the Harbour, visiting the shops, and enjoying a dining experience or an ice cream cone. There must be ice cream! Charles’ favorite flavor was chocolate. 

After the Harbour was built, Charles purchased a sailboat, named her The Compass Rose, and hired Capt. Peter Ovens. Charles and Mary entertained guests every Sunday afternoon after church, hosted numerous dignitaries from around the world, and delighted their daughters as well as their friends with tours of Calibogue Sound and neighboring uninhabited islands. 

I often tell my clients and friends the stories of those amazing days and nights out on the water, soaking in the sun, wind whipping at our faces or gazing at the stars, counting the constellations. We would hang from the bow of the boat and try to touch dolphins with our bare feet. Capt. Peter taught us how to help raise the sail and gave us each a turn at the wheel. 

The Liberty Oak became the stage area where thousands upon thousands of families have come nightly for nearly five decades to watch and participate in a live music show performed by Hilton Head’s most popular and famous entertainer, Gregg Russell. In addition to the beach, golf, tennis, biking, world class dining, and miles of nature trails in the Forest Preserve, Gregg’s family-oriented show is among the island’s most beloved attractions, and it endears people to the community of Sea Pines and the legacy that Charles built for us all to enjoy. 

Inviting children to come up on stage and sing, Gregg came to be loved and admired by everyone who watched him, including me. My besties Laura Lawton, Ria, Nicole, Cyndi and I would raise our hands and Gregg would invite us to the stage to sing. It was a chance for us to show off our chorus skills and three-part harmony that we were working on in music class at Sea Pines Academy. 

Gregg wrote and recorded a song titled “Come Away Home.” Do yourself a favor and google that. Take a listen. It beautifully encapsulates the love that millions of us share for this special place. 

So, that is how the Liberty Oak became the heart of Harbour Town, which was itself the heart of Sea Pines. But most dear to the Fraser family, according to Laura Lawton, is the place where her father is buried – right there beneath the Liberty Oak. That was his desire. A beautiful bust statue and commemorative plaque accompany his gravesite. 

I visit him often. I go to the Cinnamon Bear, grab a scoop of chocolate ice cream, and go sit there with him. I tell him how proud he would be of all that he created and tell him how much I appreciate him for all he has done for all of us. I tell him about how proud he would be of Laura Lawton for all she has done to preserve his name, his memory, and the incredible contributions he has made to our island, to the world. I tell him about his grandson, Samuel, and how he would be so proud of him. 

But mostly, I just listen to the wind and the sea, and the random sounds of halyards clanking on the sailboats’ masts. And I play back the video of my life’s memories of this Harbour, all the amazing people I met who became lifelong friends. All of us, pulled together by a thread in the fabric that was woven by a genius developer who knew that people needed a place like this.

While I do not want to disparage the droves of people who come to Hilton Head or what is seen as overbuilding by some of us old-timers, I realized long ago that something as good as being on a barrier island off the coast of South Carolina must be shared and expanded. And I know for a fact that Charles would have wanted it to be shared too – that’s why he built it. 

On the days when I am overwhelmed by traffic and tourists, the ever-recurring questions of where to go, what to do, and where to eat, I focus on my memories of a place that captured my heart 50 years ago and how grateful I am to be a part of it all. Gratitude is at the very core of these stories and the reason I tell them.

As I sit here at my desk across Broad Creek, I pause to give thanks to the countless souls who have reached out to encourage me on this journey of literary discovery, all of whom have thanked me for bringing this history to the page. It’s for your enjoyment, it’s for your pleasure. It’s to make you feel even more connected to our longitude and latitude. But my deepest thanks are given to a high school English teacher from the 1980s at Sea Pines Academy (now Hilton Head Preparatory School) who recently reached out and inspired me to embrace the Hilton Head of “now” through the stories of the Hilton Head “then.” He knows who he is. Thank you. Wink. 

Related Articles


Hilton Head Dance Theatre will present Terpsichore, an exciting program of classical and contemporary dance featuring company members and distinguished guest artists Saturday, May 11 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 12, at 2:30 p.m.  The program takes its name from...

read more