After 28 years, beloved local landmark is on the move again

By Lorne Chambers | Editor

While the buzz on Folly over the last several weeks has surrounded the disappearance of our beloved Folly Boat on Sept. 11 when the high storm surge from Hurricane Irma floated the boat away like One-eyed Willy’s treasure ship at the end of The Goonies.

It almost seemed as if the boat was heading back toward the docks from which she came 28 years earlier when another hurricane, this one by the name of Hugo, relocated her from Backman’s Seafood Company on Sol Legare and placed her on the side of Folly Road where the boat became a community canvas, painted regularly with well-wishes and inspiring messages. Occasionally the Folly Boat would get painted with a controversial or provocative message, but was usually brushed over quickly by the good folks of Folly, who became adoptive guardians of the boat.

Thomas Backman Jr., the patriarch of Backman’s Seafood, died in 2015 and in the two years following his passing, it became harder and harder for the local seafood company to keep its doors open. But a couple of years before Backman passed, he told me (while working on a piece for the now defunct James Island Messenger) that while Hurricane Hugo was indeed responsible for placing the old boat’s metal hull on Folly Road, it was actually a tornado that was spawned by Hugo that lifted the vessel from its mooring and plunked it down where it sat for the better part of three decades.

Starting in June, the South Carolina Secessionist Party repeatedly painted the Confederate battle flag on the boat in protest of the removal of the flag from the South Carolina State House grounds in 2015, following the racially-motivated murder of nine black parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME church in downtown Charleston.

The Folly Boat, which had stood as beacon of positivity over the last three decades, suddenly became a battleground, as folks would paint over messages such as “Love. Peace. Unity” with “Dixie, Love it or Leave It!” or “Folly Beach is Southern Soil” or “Yankee go home!” It would then just be painted over again with happy messages celebrating children’s birthdays, anniversaries, and tributes to loved ones who have passed on.

About the same time a nation-wide movement to remove confederate monuments from prominent town squares took root. Many became outraged and some saw the Folly Boat as a place where they could reclaim a public monument by hijacking a beloved local landmark, just as statues of Confederate generals were ordered to be removed in states all the way from Louisiana to Ohio.

Ironically, shortly after the Confederate battle flag paintings started to show up on the Folly Boat, that monument was also removed … but not by government order. Mother Nature did it all by herself.

Surprising many, the old metal hull, caked with hundreds of coats of paint, still floated … or at least was buoyant enough to bounce along the bottom of the creek as it worked it’s way back towards the now-neglected docks of Backman’s Seafood Company. But before she could return home, the Folly Boat crashed into a residential dock, where it was secured by the homeowner Chris John and his friend Ryan Godbout, but not after doing significant damage to the already weathered dock. John posted a video of the ordeal on the Internet.

Social media exploded.

While south Florida and much of the Caribbean were just starting to grasp just how bad the destruction was from the largest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history, many folks on Folly were taking to Facebook and Twitter. They lamented, bickered, and raged over the loss of the Folly Boat. Many took it out on Chris John, the dock owner, who did not ask for the boat to crash into and damage his dock.

“Give the guy a break,” said Folly Mayor Tim Goodwin, who feels that the collective energy expended following the boat’s departure could have been better directed towards a more-worthy cause in the wake of the devastating storm.

“If you want to get passionate about something, get passionate about helping people on the beach who were affected,” he says. “There are people whose homes were damaged, whose cars were completely flooded.”

Goodwin knows that despite the damage Folly did endure, it was still nothing compared to other coastal communities in South Florida and the Caribbean. “Sometimes we forget how blessed we were,” said Goodwin, who despite having four feet of water under his home during the storm, did not sustain serious damage as a result of Irma’s surge.

Right on the heels of Irma, Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc, leaving many in Puerto Rico without homes and even more struggling to find drinking water, food, and medication. “If you want to be upset about something, be upset for those guys,” said Goodwin. “The boat will take care of itself … or not take care of itself.”

Still there are many who would like to see the beloved landmark returned to its location along Folly Road. But that might prove tricky warns Goodwin. Because the boat sat on the edge of the marsh and in the Folly Road right-of-way, there are multiple agencies that would need to be involved, and the City of Folly Beach is not one of them.

Eric Draper, who co-founded the website and who has served as the unofficial custodian of the Folly Boat site, said getting the licensing to get the boat back to it’s location along Folly Road is unlikely. “It didn’t need a permit to get there. Last time it just showed up,” said Draper. “It was partially in DOT (South Carolina Department of Transportation) jurisdiction and partially OCRM (Ocean & Coastal Resource Management). Neither one wanted to be the bad guy and no one wanted to pay to move it.”

A small group of private citizens, which includes Draper and John, who currently is housing the Folly Boat on his property, are working to find a proper home for the boat, where it can still be a part of the community. But first, there is the issue of who actually owns the Folly Boat, which may get into some sticky maritime salvage law.

It was originally the personal property of Backman’s Seafood but now it sits in the marsh along John’s property. “Right now, the best as I understand it, the owner of the property that it sits on owns it,” said Goodwin.

“We’re planning to create a small board of people that will sort of be the mouthpiece for the boat, but we’re definitely going to want full support and input from the community,” said Draper, who met with John, the mayor, and city council on Tuesday, Sept. 26 about the matter. He says he would like to see concerned citizens of Folly Beach and neighboring Sol Legare on the board.

“What we are hoping to accomplish is to create a non-profit, the way Save the Light was set up,” said Draper, who explained they would first have to create an LLC, which would take quasi-ownership of the boat, and then donate it to a non-profit they create. At that point the non-profit would take liability of the boat. “It will be their boat.  Then over the course of 2-3 years, we will cycle off the board and other people can cycle on,” said Draper. “So no one really owns the boat and people that are from the community who want to get involved can get involved.”

Goodwin says he would like to see it end up on someone’s private property so there would not need to be the licensing issues with OCRM or SCDOT, which he says are unlikely to grant permits to put it back where it was due to negative environmental impacts the paint has on the marsh and safety issues along the side of a busy thoroughfare.

Draper agrees but cautions that the process is going to take time and it’s going to take money. He says some people have offered their services for free, including a local crane operator. But even if an appropriate location can be found to house the boat, there are still many hurdles to cross and expenses involved. “We’re trying to do the right thing. But we know no good deed goes unpunished,” said Draper, who knows there will be some who will be critical no matter what happens.

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