THE PONDS CONSERVANCY
Summerville Community Embraces Its History
by JG Walker
Thousands of years ago, in a region now known as The Lowcountry of South Carolina, Native Americans discovered a paradise. The abundant woodlands offered easy hunting, the sparkling ponds teemed with fish, and the moist, sandy soil was ideal for growing Indian corn and the vines of squash and beans that spiral up its stalks.
Europeans exploring the nearby coastline in the 1600s sheltered from the sea along the banks of a gently flowing river. Englishmen in 1670 established a settlement there, called Charles Towne for their monarch, on the river named for fellow nobleman Lord Ashley. A decade later, the town was moved downstream to a strategic peninsula, and the rest is Charleston history.
Other settlers went upstream to the Ashley River’s headwaters, a network of large freshwater pools amid vast wetlands dubbed the Great Cypress Swamp. In 1682, the Lord Proprietors—without consulting the longtime residents—granted to another royal friend the surrounding 2,000-acre tract already known by the name of “The Ponds.”
Red and white people initially lived there together, and a trading post was established, which was later fortified when cooling relations resulted in the Yamassee War of 1715. Then, the land was found to be perfect for rice cultivation, which was accomplished with the know-how of enslaved West Africans, whose forebears had farmed it for centuries at home. When Eliza Pinckney discovered how to profitably grow indigo in Lowcountry conditions, that valuable blue-dye-producing plant was added to the agricultural mix, along with other imports like sweet potatoes and cotton.
For most of the 1800s, the Schulz family tilled the soil and raised livestock, building themselves a new two-story central home around 1850. After a generation of ownership by the Lotz family, James Simmons acquired title to the land in 1911. Farming continued for a time, supplemented by timber harvesting and sand mining, plus hunting and fishing forays with neighbors in the countryside that everyone called “the Ponds.”
By the 21st century, however, booming Charleston was expanding its urban reach with new bedroom communities in nearby Summerville. For some historic properties, the tide was overwhelming, but the Simmons family chose their buyer wisely: all 2,000 acres were purchased in 2005 by Greenwood Development Corporation, a South Carolina builder of golf resorts and residential communities. To their credit, the company decided to set aside more than half of its acquisition as a permanent nature preserve to plan for homes and amenities on land previously farmed and timbered and to respect the site’s heritage with a long-familiar name for the new community: The Ponds.
Greenwood then donated an entranceway parcel for a county fire/EMS/sheriff’s department substation and another for a new Summerville YMCA, along with substantial start-up funding. The company also retained Brockington and Associates, an Atlanta-based cultural resources consulting firm with Charleston-area offices, to intensively survey the property.
“With the wetlands already protected,” says Brockington historian Charlie Philips, “our primary work at The Ponds has been to ensure compliance with historic preservation regulations. We’ve identified 10 Native American sites there and recovered numerous artifacts from that time, and the Colonial and antebellum eras as well. Remnants of the old rice fields have been preserved, too.
“The most significant surviving structure was the house originally built by the Schulz family in the 1850s,” Philips says. “It had fallen into substantial disrepair—it had last been used as a hunting lodge—so Greenwood spent about $1 million to make it their new community center, moving it to a better location with a new foundation, rehabbing the bricks and boards, and even retaining the original rope-pulley windows. It’s called ‘adaptive reuse,’ and they did a great job.”
Formally known as the Schulz-Lotz Farmhouse, The Ponds’ residents today enjoy The Farmhouse as their hub of social activity, with spacious meeting rooms, homeowners association, offices, and museum-style displays about the property’s history that include artifacts recovered on-site. In 2008, The Ponds Conservancy was established as a non-profit organization, not only to maintain The Farmhouse and the 1,000+ acres of nature preserve, but also to build community spirit within The Ponds and in the Summerville area by sponsoring educational-enrichment and outreach programs.
Therese Munroe was among the development’s first employees and is now a resident herself. “The Ponds Conservancy was modeled on a similar Greenwood program for The Reserve at Lake Keowee,” she says. “We have over 20 miles of community walking trails with paths in the preserve where people can enjoy a genuinely natural experience every day. We also have many songbirds, turkeys, storks, herons, deer, and other wildlife on the property—including even three bald eagle nests. And, with the waterways throughout and over 30 species of fish in Schultz Lake [largest of the original ponds], kayaking and fishing are among our most popular resident activities.”
National developer Kolter Homes bought The Ponds in 2013 to add the active-adult Cresswind Charleston community to the site, but any apprehension about changes by the new owner was quickly dispelled. “The Kolter folks really liked what we had done with the Conservancy and even wanted to expand its mission,” says Munroe, now Executive Assistant to Project Director Jeff Vandewiel. “One early test was an area designated for new homes that turned out to be a significant archeological site. So, Kolter changed their plans to protect the site, and now it’s a neighborhood park.”
Such good work did not go unnoticed by The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, which honored The Ponds Conservancy with its prestigious 2015 Stewardship Award for the restoration of The Farmhouse and preservation of the surrounding grounds. Equally important are the organization’s educational programs that include monthly lectures by historians from Brockington and local museums, as well as Schulz, Lotz, and Simmons family members who still live in the region. The Conservancy also hosts guided nature walks through the wildlife refuge and former rice fields, music concerts and movie nights at the outdoor amphitheater, arts-and-crafts workshops and fairs, and annual charity fundraisers like a 5K race and a Miracle League BBQ competition, plus youth events like a fishing rodeo and a triathlon co-sponsored with the YMCA. All of the activities are designed to include Ponds and Cresswind residents, as well as other neighbors from the greater Summerville area.
“The Ponds Conservancy is an outstanding showcase for what can be done,” says Philips, “when you combine good development strategy, historic preservation, environmental conservation, and community involvement.”
“It all just makes you proud to live here,” Munroe concludes.
At least three bald eagle families seem to think so, too.