February 2007

Memories of the Golden Rose Park

Author: Natalie Daise

The juke box was playing Marvin Gaye and Wilson Pickett. The salt breeze eased in gently from the marsh, and overhead, the Atlantic Ocean forever waved, upside down on the hand-plastered ceiling. The beer was cold. The ribs were spicy. The company was warm and wise. It was the good life. It was the Golden Rose Park.

For more than three decades, Gene and Clothilde Wiley’s Golden Rose Park was legendary on Hilton Head Island. Everybody went there, from white boys looking for cool music and a good time to island natives and world-traveled musicians. It didn’t matter. Sophisticates and innocents, black and white, old-timers and newcomers mingled beneath the large, old oak tree, under which Gene Wiley claimed to have been born and kicked back.

“That place was like home. We lived there,” said Virginia Beach businessman, Isa Saunders. “Man, we had some good times there. It was like ‘Cheers,’ ya know? Everybody knew your name.”

Yeah. It was like that, but better. As the memories pour fast and warm from the many patrons of the Golden Rose Park, everyone, regardless of age or current place says in one way or another the same thing: It was like home. And Gene was the reason.

Eugene Wiley was born under or near the great oak in the community known as Grassland. Some folk call the area off Union Cemetery Road “Grass Lawn” these days, but “binyah’s,”—folk who have always been on the island—set it straight. It was Grassland then and it still is.

It certainly was when Gene was a child, playing, hunting and working in the marshy fields and woods. At age 15, eager for adventure and to see what lay beyond Hilton Head’s edges, he ran off and joined the Navy, lying about his age. And Uncle Sam kindly picked him up and took him along. World War II was in swing.

Gene kept his eyes and ears open, did his part and stayed alive in different places around the world. When his time was up, he settled in Brooklyn, New York. It was there he met Clothilde, who had come from New Orleans. After several years in the city, though, the salt water in his veins started pulling him home. It does that. Just ask any Sea Island native. So Gene and Clothilde packed it in and came back to Hilton Head Island about 1959, and he built his magic park on the land where he grew up.

“Oh, it was beautiful there, just beautiful,” said Tom Barnwell, a local entrepreneur. “It was tucked just so into the landscape, with benches under the trees. And the barbecue was out of this world!”

A lot of folk raved about the barbecue… and the music. Hilton Head Island wasn’t the hot spot it is now, but musicians would come from Savannah and roundabout to play at The Golden Rose Park. Good stuff, too. Cars would be parked in the fields until almost sunrise while folk laughed and ate and drank and danced, and listened to Gene hold court.

Gene was a storyteller. He loved to hold forth from behind the bar or out under the trees. He would talk about his life, about his experiences in the war and in New York. He pontificated on politics and race relations and philosophy. And, like E. F. Hutton, when Gene talked, everybody listened. “Now let me tell you something,” he would rasp in his deep voice, tinted by Gullah heritage, years in the city, and packs of Pall Malls. And off he’d go.

“Wiley was the real reason we went,” said Emory Campbell, retired Director of Penn Center, author and tour company owner. “He was so experienced—so worldly! We young guys hadn’t been anywhere or done anything, and he knew so much! After his years in the North he was bolder than we were. He wasn’t scared of anybody—not even the developers when they came around. He’d stand right up to them.”

In the early 1960s, before the Desegregation Act was passed, Gene’s place was already desegregated. “There’d be as many whites as blacks,” said De Gullah Creations owner, Johnny Mitchell. “I went off to college in 1963, and when I’d come home, I’d go there.” She laughed, “Of course, there wasn’t really anywhere else we could go!”

Everyone respected Gene and The Golden Rose Park. The same developers he’d go nose to nose with could be found under the trees with a beer and a plate of ribs or fish, next to would-be hippies and future politicians. Plus, Mr. Wiley didn’t take any mess, and folk thought too much of him to go in there acting up.

“I met Tom Cohen, the retired heavy weight boxer there,” said Jim Orr, from his office at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was the mid-1970s, when Jim, a 24-year-old, self-described, “skinny white kid” who had grown up on the island and moved away, was back teaching in the Beaufort County schools. He had heard about the “cool scene” at The Golden Rose Park. On Sundays, he’d go hang out, feed the juke box, and listen to Gene talk. “Tom Cohen was the one who plastered the ceiling in the club,” he said. “He told me it was the Atlantic Ocean upside down. I’d look up at it and think it was so cool.”

As time passed, word of The Golden Rose Park spread, and soon, instead of a couple of dozen cars in the field around the park, there were hundreds parked there. As more roads were paved and more buildings went up, there was less time to talk under the trees. Inevitably, Gene had to change with the times. The land in Grassland was sold or traded, depending on whom you ask, and Gene re-opened The Golden Rose Park in a large, new stucco building on Beach City Road.

Folk still came. The lunch buffet was always busy, and Sunday brunch was packed to overflowing. Jazz and R & B musicians played to full-capacity on Friday nights; and Clothilde stocked the regulars’ favorite beers. Young women off from work from neighboring hotels would stop in for a drink and a dance to the juke box or Sam Gill’s band. Doug Carne could be seen performing on stage and Freddy Cole, Nat King Cole’s brother, gave music advice to an antsy six-year-old at a nearby table. According to the little boy’s father, he said, “Everything starts with the piano.”

“We’d go for a quiet dinner in the evenings. Or if we had out-of-town guests,” said local businessman, Perry White. “And African Americans who were new to the island and lived behind the gates would come on Friday nights to get acquainted. It was always so nice there.”

I discovered the Golden Rose Park in 1985 when I was a newlywed, working as a secretary for the Town of Hilton Head Island’s Planning Department. At that time, Gene Wiley was one of the planning commissioners. I can still see him sitting at the monthly meeting, his thick brows drawn over his deep set eyes, an intent expression of listening on his face. The crowd at The Golden Rose Park had changed some by then, but it still reflected the diversity of the community, and it still revolved around Gene. He’d sit at a table near the bar and tell stories and share opinions. He called them facts. His wife still worked behind the bar. Folk still listened and laughed and felt at home.

“I miss it!” said Burt Moore. She’d come to Hilton Head in 1994. “Did you know that Sam Gill, the band director, was in the Jazz Hall of Fame? she asked. “We met all kinds of people there,” she continued. “It was sad when Mr. Wiley passed away. His wife went back to New Orleans, and soon she died, too. Everything was over.”

Maybe not everything… Every night when it was time to close, folk remember, Gene Wiley would say the same thing: “People, you gonna have to do somethin’ the Devil won’t do. You gotta leave. Now, you don’t have to go home. I’m not sayin’ you have to go home. But you gotta get up outta here!”

Folk laugh when they tell that part, even now. It was time to lock the doors. It was time to go. So we did. But The Golden Rose Park lives on in the memories of those who were there. We’ve left, Mr. Wiley. But we haven’t forgotten.

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