COLUMBIA -- With little fanfare, in 1977 South Carolina received one of the most beautiful gifts in its history.
The public only now is discovering what was wrapped in that big bow 4,630 coastal acres with moss-draped live oaks, sunflower-filled farm fields, an expansive lake, the ruins of an 1800s plantation house and slave quarters, a couple of exquisite, intact 1840s outbuildings and two miles of beach.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources opened Botany Bay Plantation to the public July 1, more than 31 years after it was given to the state.
The long delay hearkens to the original gift from a wealthy Birmingham, Ala., philanthropist who wanted to protect a place rich in wildlife and history. But he also wanted to ensure that if he died before his wife, she could continue living at a place she loved as much as he did.
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When John Meyer died Jan. 1, 1977, at age 58, his will bequeathed Botany Bay to the state as a wildlife preserve. Meyer built his fortune in the hotel industry, and his real estate holdings included not only Botany Bay, in Charleston County, but also White Hall Plantation near Green Pond, in Colleton County, and an 800-acre farm in Connecticut.
Meyer donated Botany Bay to the state in part to settle a permit violation he faced after building a dike on the property, said John Frampton, director of the Department of Natural Resources. A man as wealthy as Meyer easily could have paid the fine. He and his wife, Margaret Morgan Meyer, had been considering setting aside the property as a wildlife preserve anyway, according to Grace Whitman, Margaret Meyer's daughter from a previous marriage.
Such a move wasn't out of character for John Meyer. His obituary in a Birmingham newspaper described him as "the greatest single benefactor" to Birmingham cultural and health organizations. A library at the University of Alabama Birmingham bears his name. His art collection went to the Birmingham Museum of Art.
The gift of Botany Bay was a little more complicated. A supplement in Meyer's will gave his wife access to and control of the homes and the cultivated fields at Botany Bay for the remainder of her life.
In March 1977, the State Budget and Control Board approved an agreement allowing Margaret Meyer to have the run of the entire 4,630 acres as long as she made improvements in the property in excess of $50,000.
That ended up being a sweetheart deal for South Carolina.
Later remarried, Margaret Pepper "pumped hundreds of thousands of her money into making Botany Bay the treasure it is today," Whitman, her daughter, said.
She preserved the island's natural integrity, while clearing undergrowth and ponds to make it more inviting for deer, quail and waterfowl. She also built her own tradition of philanthropy, donating to land conservation efforts in the Lowcountry. Margaret Pepper died Dec. 28 at age 85.
"She described Botany Bay as her second heart," Whitman said.