Charles E. Fraser
Course developer and conservationist
The father of Charles Fraser (Yale Law School Class of 1953) was in the timber business, and, in 1949, he bought 5,000 acres on the southern tip of the forty-one square-mile Hilton Head Island, South Carolina for logging. Son Charlie Fraser worked in the island logging camp during the summer of 1950, after he graduated from the University of Georgia and before he entered Yale Law School. At the time there were only about 500 people living on Hilton Head. They were mostly farmers and oyster workers who traveled by boat to Savannah to sell their products. Fraser was entranced by the island and saw its potential to attract many more people to its beautiful beaches, virgin pine forests and rich groves of great live oaks. He convinced his father to give him a twenty-year note on the land and complete legal control. Fraser entered law school in the fall and made the development of a master plan the focus of his education.
“I started talking to my Yale professors about land-use covenants, tax law, and other things about Hilton Head Island and got a graduate student at YaleArchitecturalSchool to do his master’s thesis on the south end of Hilton Head,” said Fraser, who earned his law degree in 1953. “I spent six years researching every conceivable source on resort development.” It was all information he would need to convince investors, banks and various other skeptics that the project could work. “I was probably told 50 times between 1954 and 1956 that the era of beach resorts was over. The belief was that, with improved highways, all the important families of Savannah and Charleston—who considered themselves the only market that mattered for these beach places—were going to the mountains for the summer.”
Two other challenges that could have kept people away were heat and mosquitoes. But timing and the time he spent researching eventually paid off. The first bridge connecting Hilton Head to the mainland was built in 1956, a year before construction began at Sea Pines Plantation. Fraser found ways to battle Hilton Head’s summer elements. He employed a then-revolutionary process to fight mosquito and other insect infestation, using a light aerosol spray along the marsh’s edge during the full moon. And he made Sea Pines the South’s first totally air-conditioned resort.
Fraser’s plan was to develop the island for the enjoyment of the new resort residents without destroying the local environment and its natural beauty. He mandated that the large populations of herons, egrets, otter and deer were not to be harmed by Sea Pines’ development and that the fewest possible number of trees were to be removed during construction. To complement rather than overpower the surroundings, he also wrote into community bylaws that homes had to be approved by an architectural review board and use only muted colors and lighting schemes. No home could exceed three stories, and no tree wider than six inches in diameter could be cut in the entire community. The homes and streets were designed around the trees. He was among the first to use the covenants and deed restrictions that he had studied at Yale Law School to protect the environment.
In 1959 the first of two courses was built in Sea Pines. A third course was completed in 1969, just in time for the Sea Pines Heritage Golf Classic at Harbour Town Golf Links. By then, the year-round population had grown to 2,500. Arnold Palmer won that first Heritage, and enthusiastic galleries and television audiences inspired a growth in tourists and permanent residents that continues to this day.
Interestingly, Charlie Fraser never played golf, and he knew nothing about the game, but he understood trends and tastes and was a great salesman. By hiring Jack Nicklaus and Pete Dye to design Harbour Town, he was able to attract a PGA tournament. The free publicity it generated for the growing number of golfers of the 1960s and 1970s was a salesman’s dream. As proof of how little Fraser really knew about golf, Pete Dye likes to tell about what he saw Charlie doing on the first day of the tournament in 1969. “We really didn’t have the course ready. I was still putting sand in the bunker on the 18th hole when the first group on Thursday was coming up the 14th. A PGA official came running up to me and wanted to know, who that guy was that was going around the course removing all the red, yellow, and white stakes. Of course it was Charlie, who thought they were construction stakes and had to be removed when the job was done.”
Charles Fraser sold Sea Pines Plantation in 1983, but he continued to live on the island. He remained active in other developments and in consulting. He received many community-planning awards, including the Urban Land Institute Heritage Award, which had been given out only five times in seventy-five years. He died in a boating accident in 2002.