New life for historic schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island

The historic Mary Field's School sits on a quiet part of Dafuskie Island.
The historic Mary Field's School sits on a quiet part of Dafuskie Island.(source: WTOC)
Updated: Mar. 18, 2020 at 10:23 AM EDT
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DAUFUSKIE ISLAND, S.C. (WTOC) -Daufuskie Island has a long, rich and unique story to tell. One of the best-known chapters of that story involves one of the South’s most famous authors.

Before Pat Conroy wrote classics like “The Prince of Tides” and “The Great Santini,” he taught at Beaufort County Schools, including the Mary Fields School on Daufuskie Island. What he experienced there inspired his 1972 memoir “The Water is Wide.”

Years after the schoolhouse closed, Rhonda Davis moved to this tiny island to start her retirement. With a background in the corporate world, she did not plan on starting a career as an artisan. That changed when a new friend came calling.

“Rhonda had just moved here, and I said 'Hey, do you want to go up to Asheville? They’re teaching a class on how to build this particular fructose vat," Leanne McJunkin Coulter, artisan and co-owner of Daufuskie Blues, said. "She thought for about one second, and she said sure.”

The two ventured headfirst into the world of indigo dyeing. When they decided to start a small business, they ran into a big problem. No space.

“The thing with Daufuskie, as you drive around and as you’ve noticed, there’s just not a lot of building stock,” McJunkin Coulter said.

Then, the two heard about a shuttered building looking for new life. That building was The Mary Fields School.

“People had an interest in this building, just because of it being where Pat Conroy taught and the history of it," Rhonda Davis, artisan and co-owner of Daufuskie Blues, said, “And they could go read the sign, but they couldn’t come in. And would you believe that a wild indigo patch, one of them, is right across the street?”

Soon, another couple of entrepreneurs became interested in the schoolhouse’s remaining space. When Pam and Brian Cobb arrived in Daufuskie, they saw a need for coffee on the island. The two opened up School Grounds in the former lunchroom of The Mary Fields School.

Now, the tenants make it a priority to keep the story of this building, and the people who have passed through it, alive.

“We’re just trying to pay tribute to those who were here long before many of us even heard of Daufuskie,” School Grounds proprietor Brian Cobb said.

Davis says the coffee shop has become a community hub. The classroom where Conroy once taught also has become a meeting place for the community once again. Islanders go there to vote and attend town meetings.

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