Saturday, March 1, 2014

2/28/14 Beaufort SC walking tour

Jon Sharp

     Every once in a while, you meet one of those characters that is larger than life and is doing exactly what they are suited for.  Such is the case with Jon Sharp, who conducts walking tours through the historic section of downtown Beaufort.

     Jon was born in the Fort Edward area of upstate New York, and after a stint in the Air Force moved to Hollywood California where he did some acting.  22 years ago, he decided he was going to sail around the world, so he got a sailboat in Beaufort North Carolina and headed south in the Atlantic.  But Jon hadn't sailed out into the deep seas, and he got violently sea-sick after a few days.

     A call for help brought the coast guard who flew him by helicopter to the hospital in Beaufort South Carolina and towed his boat to shore.  When Jon first became aware of his surroundings he saw he was in Beaufort and thought he hadn't made it anywhere.  But slowly he came to realize he had made it to a different Beaufort - and he has never left.  

      He decided to become a walking tour guide over a decade ago, and he plays the role to the hilt.  He works every emotion of his audience as he energetically shepherds you through the city.

     You are just positive he is going to weep as he tells the tale of a woman who lost five children as infants - two of them in a span of two days as a 19 month old died the day before she gave birth to another that died the day it was born.

     He makes grand, sweeping gestures as he speaks with awe of the mansions built as summer homes for the plantation owners in the surrounding areas.

     He trembles as he describes huge waves that came in during a hurricane and wiped out the local phosphate industry over a century ago.

     He presents the archways of live oaks festooned with Spanish moss as though they were the most ancient and precious jewels. 

     He slips into his "professor" mode as he prances down the street explaining the various types of architecture and building techniques.

     You would think he had a dog in the fight as he lectures on the various battles that were fought and lost here since the 1500's.

     But his most passionate story - and one that bears telling from Beaufort is the story of Robert Smalls.  Robert was born in 1839 to a cook who was a slave owned by Admiral Henry McKee.  He was a very bright boy, and McKee's wife took such a liking to him that she taught him to read and write.  But the fortunes of the plantation owner's waned, and they had to let Robert go to work as an indentured servant in Charleston.

     Robert found his way to the wharves, where at age 12 he began working as a longshoreman.  He worked his way up to being a boat pilot, almost unheard of for a black man in those days.  In the spring of 1862 during the height of the civil war, he posed as the captain of the USS Planter, a confederate boat and maneuvered it  through the harbor defenses where he surrendered to it to the Union ships that were blockading Charleston.

     He was given a reward for the boat, which he later used to buy the mansion in Beaufort where he had grown up a slave.  Years later, he saw Mrs. McKee on the streets of Beaufort, where she was living impoverished in the poor section of town.  He brought her back to the mansion, and she was treated as the mistress of the house until she died in 1905.

     Robert established scores of schools in South Carolina, was the first black United States congressman and has many other merits to his name.  

     So if you make it to Beaufort, don't miss the opportunity to watch Jon's performance.  But he retires this May - so if you are, you need to make it soon.

Have a great Saturday all !!

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